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New York City Ballet

'Rubies', 'The Cage', 'Adantino', 'Symphony in C'

'Two Hearts', 'Year of the Rabbit', 'Les Carillons'

by Jerry Hochman

October 2 and 6 (M), 2012 -- Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center, New York, NY

In a prior review, I wrote that by the quality of its repertoire and its dancers, New York City Ballet has a firm hold on its future. But there was one essential element missing: masterful performances of masterpieces are nice, and may keep the company going for a very long time, but without quality new choreography, the company’s future is uncertain.

To date, the weakest link in NYCB’s future outlook has been its new ballets. With a few exceptions, new pieces are, at best, not bad. But this is the year of “Year of the Rabbit,” and things are looking up.

Justin Peck is a member of NYCB’s corps, having joined the company in June, 2007, after less than a year as an apprentice. He is also a promising choreographer, who has impressed both with his confidence and his sense of style. Although I did not have an opportunity to review the performance, I was pleasantly surprised with his piece, “Furiant,” which was given its world premiere at the Youth America Grant Prix Gala (“Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”) on April 27, 2012. The short piece was not only lyrical and balletic, I recall it demonstrating intelligence and novelty in its integration of a live string quartet and piano (music by Dvorak). But as impressed as I was, I was not prepared for his “Year of the Rabbit.”

I saw “Year of the Rabbit” the day following its world premiere. I’ve been advised that the normally sedate NYCB audience appreciated the piece – to the point of 6 curtain calls and a rare standing ovation. I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t doubt it – and I also don’t doubt that it wasn’t just prompted by the entourages that usually attend premieres. It’s very good.

"Year of the Rabbit" is choreographed to music by Sufjan Stevens (“Enjoy Your Rabbit”), which the program notes indicate is an electronic album and song cycle based on the Chinese zodiac. The piece was orchestrated specifically for the ballet by Michael P. Atkinson, who also conducted.

I’m not familiar with Mr. Stevens’s work. According to the information provided by NYCB, his music mixes autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs ‘of grand proportions.’ Based on the score for this piece, the description isn’t far off the mark. In broad terms, it’s melodic and lyrical, with the ‘grand proportions’ described. Their music is not at all similar, but, except for the occasional ‘scratchy’ sounds that seem de rigueur, it brought to mind Aaron Copland, albeit with a different ‘folk’ reference point.

“Year of the Rabbit” is subtitled ‘Selections from the Chinese Zodiac.’ While the actual Chinese zodiac contains twelve ‘years’, Mr. Peck's piece is divided into seven selected parts: Year of the Dog, Year of the Rabbit, Year of the Tiger, Year of the Dragon, Year of the Rooster, Year of our Lord, and Year of the Boar. If the titles of these sections have a particular significance in choreographic terms, I didn’t see it. But that doesn't matter. To this viewer, each section is an individual scene related to the others, with no particular meaning other than to reflect a common unifying folk spirit.

Mr. Peck had the audience won over from the moment the curtain opened: the piece looked good on first sight. The blue (with white contrasts) costumes on the women were both strikingly simple and strikingly pretty, filling the stage with bright but uncluttered color. The audience broke into pleased (and perhaps relieved) applause as soon as they saw the way the piece ‘looked’. The costumes were designed by Mr. Peck.

First (and only) viewings of a piece permit general impressions, but in many cases do not enable a viewer to provide detailed descriptions of the choreography. “Year of the Rabbit” is such a piece. In a very loose sense, the piece features leads in each section, occupying one portion of the stage, and a corps occupying another section of the stage, almost like a chorus. The separations aren’t fixed – at times there’s one ‘lead’, at times two or three, at times the corps appears in varying density, and at times not at all. It’s a very fluid piece. More importantly, the movement pattern is never dull. And although I saw some Ratmansky and some Wheeldon in his choreography, the piece does not appear indebted to any particular stylistic source. Mr. Peck has woven a kaleidoscope (of movement, if not of color), with a broad and interestingly utilized movement vocabulary (including slides) that is constantly changing, inventive, unpredictable, apparently random (though of course not at all random), and thoroughly enjoyable to watch.

The first section opens with Ashley Bouder downstage right, with the corps left center. Ms. Bouder and the corps move independently (and the dancers in the corps move somewhat independently of each other). Section two features Joaquin De Luz and the company. To this viewer, Mr. De Luz connects better in a solo capacity than as a partner, and in this piece he was superb. The third section features Robert Fairchild, first in a solo, then together with Teresa Reichlen. Ms. Bouder, Janie Taylor, and Craig Hall anchor the fourth section. The fifth and sixth sections feature respective pas de deux with Ms. Reichlen and Mr. Fairchild, and Ms. Taylor and Mr. Hall, and the piece concludes with Ms. Bouder, Ms. Reichlen, Mr. De Luz, and Mr. Fairchild, and the company.

But this bare description doesn’t convey the delightful complexity of this piece. Mr. Peck has crafted wonderful – and different – featured dances for the leads (pas de deux, solos, odd-man-out trios), and the pas de deux are particularly appealing But he has given equal attention to the corps.

In “Year of the Rabbit,” the corps is not just another pretty frame. They form an integral part of the flow of the piece, and their varied patterning and movement quality is exciting to watch unfold in each of the sections. At one point – I don’t recall if it was section six or seven – the company is positioned around the left and right borders of the stage, with only parts of their bodies visible. Mr. Peck plays with this, moving the dancers in and out from behind the curtain, with a variety of patterns and timing, all while the leads are engaged in the ‘main’ action of the section. The end result is not at all busy or intrusive or distracting – on the contrary, the various patterning elements in each section of the piece are complementary, interesting, and visually effective.

Mention should also be made of the lighting by Brandon Stirling Baker. The piece seems to progress, visually, from sunrise to sunset based on the play of light. This is another example of the care and craft that are a hallmark of this ballet. I understand that Mr. Peck spent two years putting this piece together. The effort paid off.

I enjoyed the other two pieces on the same program – Benjamin Millepied’s “Two Hearts” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “Les Carillons” somewhat more than I did on initial viewing, but my general impression of each is the same. Mr. Millepied’s piece is interesting, and more audience-friendly than many of his other pieces, but despite superlative performances from Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle, it doesn’t look right. And while ending with a pas de deux following what would appear to be the natural conclusion to the piece is an interesting concept, the idea is undone by the almost incomprehensible and repetitive sounding folk song to which the choreography seems bound.

The problem with Mr. Wheeldon’s piece is that the component parts (‘folk’ elements – the piece is choreographed to Bizet’s “L’Arlesienne” Suites Nos. 1 and 2) do not leave distinct impressions (or necessarily ‘folk’ impressions), and the piece is (or seems) far too long. That having been said, and even though the whole still appears to this viewer to be less than the sum of its parts, individual performances were so uniformly good, and the costumes so striking (by Mark Zappone), that it doesn’t matter. Although there are a few overlaps, the lead cast yesterday (Ana Sophia Scheller and Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild, Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, Lauren Lovette and Daniel Ulbricht, and Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia seemed more cohesive and balanced than the original. [And yes, for anyone who read my review of NYCB’s 2012 Fall Gala, that’s nine principals and Ms. Lovette - a member of the corps.]

The October 2nd performance featured “Rubies,” “The Cage,” “Andantino,” and the return of “Symphony in C.”

To this viewer, “Rubies” was disappointing – particularly after the wonderfully invigorating multiply-cast performances at the Fall Gala. Although there was nothing wrong with the performances by Megan Fairchild and Mr. De Luz, they danced as if they were independent entities, and the performance, to this viewer, suffered as a result.

“Thc Cage,” which Jerome Robbins choreographed to Stravinsky’s “Concerto in D,” is a piece that can be seen once every few years and then forgotten. On the music, Robbins imposed the idea of female insects (sort of spiders, sort of mosquitos, sort of Amazons) who devour males who cross their paths. Although the piece is brilliantly choreographed (the idea does fit the music), it is not a piece to make a viewer feel warm and fuzzy. That being said, the October 2nd lead performances were almost alone worth the price of admission. Rebecca Krohn as the Queen Bee (or Queen Spider, Queen Amazon – or Queen of a particularly virulent strain of Willis) looked like an escapee from a Tim Burton film. Cast against type, she was deliciously creepy and in control. But it was Janie Taylor’s show. Ms. Taylor, who danced the insect-in-training, was brilliant. With a hood of artificial black hair and her natural pale skin, she looked like a cross between Louise Brooks, Winona Ryder and the Bride of Frankenstein. She was fantastic. Hopefully the performance has been memorialized (perhaps captured and uploaded to YouTube). It’s classic (and high class) camp.

But the evening’s highlight was “Symphony in C.” Although the ballet – choreographed by Balanchine to the Bizet score by the same name – has been a staple of NYCB since it was first performed by the company in 1948, and is a mainstay of other companies as well, the cast at this performance was full of interesting lead ballerina debuts: Ms. Scheller in the opening movement, Ms. Reichlen in the second, Erica Pereira in the third, and Lauren King in the final movement. One expects Ms. Scheller and Ms. Reichlen to be terrific, and they were. But Ms. Pereira and Ms. King were equally good.

Since being cast as an age-appropriate Juliet in Mr. Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet” before she even joined the company, Ms. Pereira has been notable for injecting youthful effervescence and enthusiasm into anything she dances. But she’s firmly in command of her technique. The result, in “Symphony in C,” was a delightful performance – enough to make me forgive the lipstick that looked like it was applied with a trowel. And Lauren King, a member of the corps, is yet another of the next generation of NYCB dancers who grows in confidence and audience familiarity with each performance. Hers was a super debut as well.

These two performances further demonstrate where NYCB is as a company, and where it can go. A new ballet that gives hope of stellar choreographic efforts to come. A classic ballet, danced superbly with new legs and faces And dancers being given opportunities to grow, and audiences given opportunities to watch them live up to, and exceed, expectations. For this viewer, it’s what ballet in New York is all about.

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