The New York City Ballet was in town this week – one hesitates to call wandering down from New York to DC a tour, exactly – with a pair of mixed repertory programs featuring 20th and 21st century choreography. I went to see the second program, the 21st century set.
Symphonic Dances (Rachmaninoff/Martins)
The lead piece was a ballet by Peter Martins set to Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, and the main reason I chose to see this program – I am familiar with the piece but had not seen anyone dance it before although several choreographers have arranged it. Including it on this program meant cheating a little on dates – Martins’ work was created in 1994. It is a traditional ballet in what might be called the “abstract classical” style of pieces like Balanchine’s Jewels.
Overall it is a well-done piece and the company performed it admirably. The only false note in the choreography is the use of the grand largo statement of the theme at the end of the first movement – a dramatically contrasting moment in the music, wasted by the choreographer on an incongruously active and unremarkably blocked set of jumps for the male principal. Otherwise the dancing fits the music remarkably well.
Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ratmansky)
Set to Mussorgsky’s famous piano piece, this ballet by Alexei Ratmansky is a less restrained, more modern work. Premiered a mere six months ago, it is likely still a work in progress if I have learned anything at all about choreographers in the last four years. However, in its current incarnation, it seems to be flawed.
The choreography is an odd mix of movements of purely traditional ballet, elements which seem to parody the formality of classic ballet, and movements almost entirely modern. The piece has little unity – which might admittedly be said of the music, but even the unifying “Promenade” variations from Mussorgsky’s score are treated too differently.
It is, in short, something of a mess. It is possible I would have enjoyed it more if I knew more about ballet or were less familiar with the music: certain movements seemed to be in homage or parody to other well-known ballets. For instance there was, I thought the “Baba Yaga” reminiscent of some parts of Firebird, though I have only seen that once and do not have the best memory of it. This defense-by-reference is about the only possibly redeeming factor, though it was of course danced superbly.
Also the costumes and set were designed by Vogons.
“This Bitter Earth” (Washington arr. Richter/Wheeldon)
A movement excerpted from a longer work in five movements, this was a quiet pas de deux, well done and well-danced but relating oddly to the music. Richter took Dinah Washington’s song and recorded it – broken up and spaced out – over a quiet minimalist string lament; Washington’s strong voice sits jarringly against the accompaniment. Wheeldon seems to have elected the go with the quiet strings and ignore the overlaid song in his choreography: the dancing is beautiful but the overall effect rather weird. I am curious how it sits in the context of the larger work, Five Moments, Three Repeats.
Everywhere We Go (Stevens, with Atkinson/Peck)
This piece was commissioned by the company and premiered last Spring. It features an original score by Sufjan Stevens, orchestrated in collaboration with Michael Atkinson. I last remember hearing of Stevens when I was in college, where I found his songs mediocre, not to say annoying, and his fandom somewhat baffling. I was therefore prepared to be annoyed or at least long-suffering, and was hugely surprised to find this purely orchestral score absolutely delightful, a series of movements clearly modern and yet leaning heavily on the classical tradition of orchestral music, with none of the obnoxious sophomoric attempts at profundity by calling annoying noises music and deliberately avoiding melody one runs across far too often among modern “classical” composers – but I digress. The score was, as I said, wonderful.
The choreography matches it well, largely centered in traditional ballet but incorporating a number of modern elements. The set – or more properly backdrop and lighting – seem to suggest works of Escher or other geometrical artists; the costumes seem to invoke a vaguely ’50s aura. The ballet is energetic and the dancing captivating, highlighted by the lead ballerina – here Sterling Hyltin, a (relatively) tall blonde (incidentally from Texas: this seems important somehow but I would not begin to have an answer why).
Of all the pieces performed on the program, this was the most exciting and I think the best; certainly the one I would most like to see again. The program as a whole was solid, with a strong opening and fantastic conclusion, but weak in the middle.