Saturday January 28, 2012 evening - I've waited a long time for this: the first programme at New York City Ballet devoted entirely to works of Christopher Wheeldon. Christopher, who danced with the Company and attained the rank of soloist before resigning the position to devote all his energies to choreography, eventually served a stint as NYCB's first resident choreographer. He then spent three seasons running his own company, MORPHOSES. Now he is one of the most sought-after creators of new ballets in the world. Meanwhile his established works increasingly crop up in the repertoire of top international companies.
Tonight we saw the world premiere of LES CARILLONS, set to music from Bizet's L'Arlesienne suites; POLYPHONIA which I tend to think is Wheeldon's greatest masterpiece to date; and the New York City Ballet premiere of DANSE A GRANDE VITESSE, originally created for the Royal Ballet in 2006. The evening was a huge personal triumph for Christopher and for the individual dancers.
An unfortunate injury to Jennie Somogyi during her valse in POLYPHONIA was unsettling and surely affected her colleagues in the ballet, though they danced on with poise. After a few minutes, Tiler Peck - who was dancing in the other two ballets tonight - stepped onto the stage and finished the ballet in Somogyi's place.
LES CARILLONS is the most purely appealing new ballet I've seen at New York City Ballet since Melissa Barak's SIMPLE SYMPHONY. CARILLONS shares with with the Barak gem its use of familiar and ear-pleasing music, excellent structuring, and striking passages of dance where the classical movement vocabulary gets stretched but never breaks, giving an overall impression of freshness. Andrews Sill, on the podium, mined the Bizet score to perfection, displaying the melodic and rhythmic variety of the music while providing solid support for the dancers.
CARILLONS begins with ten men onstage; they wear dark fitted costumes with one arm bare; semi-see-thru tops are accented with panels of deep reds or blues. They dance to one of Bizet's most familiar tunes, soon joined by the women whose wine-toned skirts give the piece an aspect of visual richness. (There is a backdrop but it's not visible from the 5th Ring).
The ten magnificent principals (yes, I include Ana Sophia Scheller since she should be) then embark on a series of vivid solos, duets and ensembles in which Christopher gives them complex and varied things to do, most especially in the partnering aspects and in the use of hands and arms. Meanwhile the corps of ten, equally handsome dancers all, swirl on and off, enriching the visual textures.
There is a lush saxophone melody to which Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar dance a spacious pas de deux; there is a vivacious pas de quatre for Ms. Scheller, Tiler Peck, Gonzalo Garcia and Daniel Ulbricht. Wendy Whelan and Robert Fairchild dance a lovely nocturnal duet; then Wendy remains onstage, wandering among the corps dancers as they weave intricate patterns. Wendy's solo shows her at her radiant best. Wendy and Maria Kowroski (who looked particularly sumptuous in her scarlet gown) dance in beautiful snyc to yet another familiar Bizet melody, and Maria has a gorgeous saxophone adagio with Tyler Angle. In a passage of pure seduction, Sara Mearns displays incredible star power, later joined by the men. The harp lends lyric mystery to a solo impressively danced by Tiler Peck which later extends into a pas de trois for her, Gonzalo and Daniel. Amar Ramasar races around the stage in a series of brilliant leaps. The eye is constantly drawn to one and then another of these charismatic dancers.
Joshua Thew from the corps de ballet joins the principal men in certain passages; Joshua looked totally at home in this stellar ensemble and with his tall, handsome presence he seems like a dancer deserving of greater opportunities to shine.
As the ballet's original musical theme returns, the cast unite for a richly-wrought finale. The crowd let loose with uninhibited shouts of approval as the dancers came forward to bow; flowers for the ladies and lots of screaming when Christopher appeared onstage. After two high-profile strikeouts with new ballets (SEVEN DEADLY SINS and OCEAN'S KINGDOM - failures to be blamed on bad narratives and uninteresting music) I think the public felt they were entitled to express their unbridled enthusiasm. In CARILLONS, Christopher Wheeldon takes music we want to hear and dancers we love to watch and produces structure and movement that does ballet proud.
POLYPHONIA is always a mesmerizing ballet but it seemed even more so tonight; premiered on January 4th, 2001, this Ligeti-inspired work has always been for me the first dance masterpiece of the 21st century. It continues to fascinate and - like all great danceworks - has passages that we wait for with keen anticipation. Cameron Grant and Alan Moverman at the keyboard made Ligeti's quirky, nuanced music tingle the ear.
Jennie Somogyi's injury, coming during one of my favorite parts of the ballet, placed the performance in a darkish aspect. The other dancers were surely affected by the incident but managed to forge onward with some intriguing dancing.
The duet for Gonzalo Garcia and Adrian Danchig-Waring, Sara Mearns' quiet radiance in her mysterious solo, Craig Hall's godlike presence, the lively pairing of Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring (can't wait to see them together in IN G MAJOR coming up), and Tiler Peck's cool and collected artistry as she unexpectedly added to her already-busy evening by taking over here - all these made strong impressions.
Central to POLYPHONIA are the two superb duets for Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle. Wendy's suppleness and the way she turns the angular shapings of her body into poetic statements keep the viewer riveted, while Jared brings an unexpected quality of nobility to the partnering. As Wendy backbends over Jared's knee and snakes herself into her final kneeling pose, her enigmatic beauty is distilled into a single unforgettable image.
I really wish I could come to appreciate DANSE A GRAND VITESSE but, seeing it tonight for the second time (the first was danced by Angel Corella's company at City Center) I found it overly-long, with the athletic partnering tending to lose impact as we see more and more of it. The City Ballet dancers - led by Teresa Reichlen/Craig Hall, Ashley Bouder/Joaquin de Luz, Maria Kowroski/Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck/Andrew Veyette - were nothing short of spectacular, and the corps excelled. But I found my attention wandering as the piece progressed, despite Clothilde Otranto's dynamic reading of the Michael Nyman score. The best passages seem to me to be for the corps where, in spacious patterns, they and their shadows filled the space. The audience loved it, so clearly I'm in the minority here. I found myself wishing that instead of DGV we could have had a revival of either EVENFALL or KLAVIER, or even of Christopher's misunderstood and magnificent SHAMBARDS.
What mattered though was that Christopher Wheeldon has brought us a new Bizet ballet to admire and - hopefully - to see again, although ticket pricing now at NYCB makes seeing things twice something to ponder deeply before heading to the box office.
The big ovation Christopher received as he came out for a solo bow at the end of the evening was so thoroughly well-deserved.