New York City Ballet’s 21st Century American Neo-Classical: the Boring, the Beautiful and the Shameless

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck's Pulcinella Variations.© Paul Kolnik

The New York City Ballet (NYCB), the company founded and honed by the great ballet reformer of the second half of the 20th century, George Balanchine has been under the limelight for all the wrong reasons: since last December when the 35 year in poste, ‘ballet master in chief’, Peter Martins, who took over after Balanchine’s death in 1983,  left under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, and this September, when three of the leading male dancers of the company were let off with dishonourable discharge for unclear sexual misconduct accusations.

On the surface of things, however, this is all background noise: the frontispiece of the company is as shiny, smiley-faced and confident as ever, and an unawares spectator who swans into the David Koch Theatre in New York’s Lincoln Centre would be hard pressed to notice the slightest grey cloud in the scintillating Bauhaus style hall. And yet.

THE RUNAWAY Principal Dancers Georgina Pazcoguin and Sara Mearns. Photo © Paul Kolnik

It is the beginning of the Fall Season and the company has programmed in parallel with an all Balanchine celebratory programme, a 21st Century Choreographers’ showcase.  There are eight pieces in total of ‘new pieces’, which are spread over two different shows: 21st Century Choreographers I, and 21st Century Choreographers II.

I had the (mis)fortune to attend mostly the second programme, though it itself, on the matinée (6 October 2018) underwent a reshuffling of the original programme, and one piece, Kyle Abraham’s, from programme I was inserted into programme II.

At the matinée, the company performed Justin Peck’s 2017 Pulcinella Variations on music by Stravinsky, Christopher Wheeldon’s 2012 This Bitter Earth on a music by Max Richter mixed into an old Dinah Washington eponymous song, and Kyle Abraham’s premiere The Runaway set to a variety of music, ranging from contemporary classical Nico Muhly, with an exquisite piano and violin duet, to infamous Americana including Jay-Z, Kanye West and James Blake. Closing the show was Peter Martins’s 1990 Fearful Symmetries on music by another great American figurehead, John Adams, one of the foremost classical lyricising, post-minimalist composers in America.  

NYCB - This Bitter Earth. Photo © Paul Kolnik
Christopher Wheeldon’s – This Bitter Earth. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The first thing to note is that none of the pieces, apart from Abraham’s – a last minute reshuffle – are new. It would seem that programme I was the programme originally containing world premieres and programme II presumably meant as a contextual backdrop.

But this contextual backdrop is clearly taken in a very broad sense since the pièce de resistance of 21st Century Choreographers II, the final piece of programme II by the now retired Peter Martins, is not from the 21st century but rather representative of the apogee of the 1980’s. Its inclusion is a brazen deviancy from the self-proclaimed 21st century limit of the title of the show. Even allowing for a generous understanding of the 21st century as choreographers living and working in the 21st century, Martin’s 1990 piece rings odd and smacks of a somewhat shameless clinging to a beloved however abusive daddy-figure.

Whatever the details of the allegations, there are enough accumulated stories from dancers past and present from the company to confirm that a tyrannical lore had prevailed in the ranks for decades. Is the presence of Martins’ Fearful Symmetries – not even his most recent work – an expression of an avatar of Stockholm syndrome, from which the long-suffering company as a whole cannot extricate itself?

NYCB - Fearful Symmetries. Photo © Paul Kolnik
Peter Martin’s – Fearful Symmetries. Photo © Paul Kolnik

After all, the reaction in other artistic spheres to the #MeToo accusations, has been radically different, in banning the accused to a pariah of society, going, in a famous case, to the great length of re-filming an entire TV-series all the better to erase the presence of a once great now fallen actor-predator. NYCB is surprisingly exceptional in its cautious, appeasement approach. But there is no doubt something deeper to this unexpected mildness; something to do with ballet, the history of ballet and more precisely, the history of American ballet.

When Balanchine presented his great modernising pieces (Symphony in C from 1947, or his much later 1967 Jewels), the provocation in the minimalist scenography and costumes, the abandoning of narrative, or the cheeky and bold jazz-like movements on points was magnified because of a reassuringly classical backbone to the dances – as if Mister B had managed to rediscover the Golden Ratio of ancient Greek architectonics all over again.

The message was: this is entirely new, and yet we have never been old anyway. Dance has always been new. A tabula rasa of chromatic clarity and moral conformity. The good stays good, the bad stays bad; girls are in white, boys in black, couples conform to the balletic paradigm of the man-in-shining-armour lifting and twirling his mesmerizingly light and graceful lady.

In many ways, this vision can be transposed to the whole of the American dream and the birth of a leading, pure and purist nation in the 20th century. Peter Martins, because he had it all from the lips of the master, and because his choreographies continued the vision and formalism of the master, embodies the continuity of an artistic reform that made history. Tradition is born through continuity. To cut Martins loose would be to deny the possibility of a tradition which American ballet and American history are so hungry for, precisely because they simply do not have enough density of time to be secure of it in the first place.

And so, out of fear of relinquishing what is still but a nascent tradition, the NYCB cling to the art, despite the man. There, where a history and a tradition is more established, diversified and dense, such as the cinematic tradition of Hollywood, or the classical music scene, such a desperate attachment to towering and now stained figures is less urgent. Without being interchangeable, there are enough great trees to maintain the coolness of the forest.  

It is the fragility of dance, both as a socially recognised, popular art form, and as a language with the power to communicate influential messages, which puts it in this intermediate position. A compromise which leads the NYCB to enshrine a neo-classicism which is anything but 21st century in a show of displaced fetishism for a history of history. The four pieces of programme II are danced impeccably, with a precision and fluidity that draws balletic technique to perfection in poise, control, and defiance of gravity or weight. In short, truly beautiful dancing. However, this sublime technicality has a surprising effect: sheer boredom. It is not so uncommon that technique for the sake of technique produces just this: boring, beautiful dancing.

Sara Mearns and Jared Angle in Justin Peck’s Pulcinella Variations. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The first piece by Peck – choreographer in residence and now, together with three other company pillars, filling in as interim director of the company – is a theme and variation which looks promising on paper and in costume: creative harlequin costumes with Miro-like forms and colours by Tsumori Chisato, one androgynous ballerina wearing only half a tutu. It was premiered at last season’s 2017 Fall Gala, and is redolent of everything such an event conjures in the imagination: a pandering to the Edith Wharton-fashioned snobs and hankerers for a feeling of tradition, no-matter what it tastes like.

The orchestra failed to rise to the challenge of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, whose zing rests on a subtle marriage of unusual timbres, which ups the tension in otherwise demure rhythmic alternations between a run and a canter. Instead, all the super-fast bits were blurry, glissandos instead of clean shifts, and a monotone-monochrome heavy-footed and tired sound was a dead-weight to the light-hearted intention of the dance. A sequence of solos and pas de deux danced with agility but without meaning, by dancers trying in form – but alas not in content – to capture the atmosphere of the Commedia dell’Arte.

As for the spectator, one is kidnapped by the tension between the morally upright technicity and the attempts at stealthy cheekiness, only to end up lapsing into a bland enjoyment of a carrousel motion. There is a moment at the end of the second solo where the corner of one’s lips almost curl into a smile, when, from the left of the stage, three dancers poke their heads round the curtain one on top of the other before launching onto the stage – a moment which confirms the intention of the choreography to go a little beyond correct, and turn the dance into glee. It is but a moment however, and a true balletic fetes galantes is yet to come to life.   

Wheeldon’s shorter piece next, is a heart-wrenching tryst between two lovers on the brink of separation, with swift movements creating rippling wind effects on Teresa Reichlin’s silky dress as she is lifted and tumbled over repeatedly by a stunning Ask la Cour, who embodies the tragic lover. This is the highlight of the show, not so much for its somewhat mawkish sentimentality, but because it is the only piece of the programme in which the dancers connect, and as E M Foster famously explained, “only connect .. and both will be exalted”.  What this means is, that each dancer cannot just perfectly perform his and her part, a dancer must let go of all control in order to communicate what his or her body has to say, what it has learnt, first to the other dancer on stage, then to the spectator. For a short moment, we did all connect on this bitter earth.  

NYCB – This Bitter Earth. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The third piece, the only piece commissioned especially for this season from first time NYCB collaborator, Abraham, was clearly meant as the mover and the shaker of the show, starting mellow with an entrancing solo by Taylor Stanley undulating and holding a leg up for what seemed an eternity (at a perfect 120 degrees) he entered into a rational dialogue with a piano and a violin mewing like stretching cats in and out of tune. Soon enough the strings died out to hand the floor to the inundating sound of hip-hop and slam-style logorrheic outbursts from the messianic voices of Jay-Z and Kanye West. On stage, as if nothing so violent happened, couples streamed in and out, in pure classical style, creating a comic contrast with the soundtrack. Again, however, a cold separation between the music and the dancers made the pairing of pop with pointes, pointless.

THE RUNAWAY Principal Dancer Taylor Stanley. Photo © Paul Kolnik

There are two kinds of dance, one great, one less so. Either the dance is the music and the music is the dance, as John Cage once said, who was the life-long collaborator of dance-visionary Merce Cunningham; or they merely evolve side by side in what is ultimately indifference one to another. The marriage of pointes and pop in Abraham’s hands is sadly of the latter kind, leaving the spectator with the unsavoury afterthought that the music was abused in order to make the ballet seem contemporary – not so much hip, as hype; whilst the dance was also taken advantage of, as if to show that it is more cool than it seems, or that it needs a touch of pop to be modern.

The use of hip-hop however need not at all be so hypocritical in the context of contemporary dance. William Forsythe recently created for the English National Ballet’s Voices of America (April 2018), Playlist (Track 1,2) – a 15 minute bonanza of exhilarating flamboyant powerful dance set to the neo-soul groove of Peven Everett and the hip-hop remix of Lion Babe. Each pirouette, every fouetté was made urgent by the beat and brought out something un-sensed before in the music, just as the music held up legs and arms as if it were a flesh-and-bones dance partner. The music was as necessary to the dance as the dance was to the music – as always with Forsythe. Abraham’s attempt to create a comic or, worse, shocking effect in placing men in tights in a disco ambiance fails in a similar way to Peck’s Un-Commedia dell’arte: a failure in communication which leaves the heart racing from the energy but the mind and heart, stone cold.

THE RUNAWAY Principal Dancer Ashley Bouder. Photo © Paul Kolnik

The last piece by Martins is the choreographic pendant to the architecture of the United States Capitol Dome: sublime in its geometrical sphericity, shining in its pure whiteness, dominant in its imposing grandeur. In the ballet, the architectonics are translated into the frenetic and perpetual circular motion of the dancers, breaking and reforming circular configurations which can only really be appreciated from the ring seats above, which afford a plunging yet all-encompassing view of the stage and the group patterns.

FEARFUL SYMMETRIES Tiler Peck and Taylor Stanley. Photo © Paul Kolnik

Though the costumes pan out in shades of red and pink, the overall impression is of white since by their perpetual motion – the polite lifts, and the controlled jumps – the dancers refract all the light, leaving their bodies colourless, characterless and passionless, available to project anything we want onto them. The music of John Adams is the perfect expression of this availability in judgement and in emotion: a minimalism which can never find stillness. The American neo-classical in music and in dance is, at heart, a desire for colour which ends irrevocably in white, not so much out of complaisance but rather because of being forever on the move, like an enhanced and reliable pump which never ceases to pump – only there is no heart there to pump life into. All there is, is the pump.  

With such a performance, one can legitimately wonder whether there is something amiss with the NYCB.  One does not lose one’s legendary director and keep abreast of things as though nothing happened. One does not fire from one day to another, three principal dancers, days before the start of the season, and open shop for business as usual. Not really. Keeping up appearances cannot mean keeping away the new.

As English National Ballet’s Voices of America demonstrated, in which works by Azur Barton and William Forsythe were set in a constructive ever modernising dialectic in contrast with a now classic Jerome Robbins piece, there are indeed other voices.

If NYCB continues to not hear those voices, it might have to start by lowering its ticket prices, before possibly moving away from the modernist centre it still occupies. The golden opportunity to choose a new director is a crucial turning-point in its destiny, and with it, in the destiny of American ballet. Let us hope the NYCB will choose to dance to the music of our time.