Review: At City Ballet, give the floor to the body, with sneakers

At the beginning of Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices”, fragments of phrases bounce through the air like musical notes. “On the sid...


At the beginning of Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices”, fragments of phrases bounce through the air like musical notes. “On the side.” “And around.” And later: “The detail of the pattern is the movement.”

In “Partita” by Justin Peck which had its premiere Thursday night at New York City Ballet, the dancers — eight, to reflect the voice count — follow suit. Concentrated in a group at the center of the stage, some bend to the side like puffs of smoke, while another puts an obedient spin on “and around”. Shaw’s compositionPulitzer Prize-winning, is a mysterious and dense work in four movements, in which speech mixes with vocalization and the more frightening intermediate sounds that come from the back of the throat: moans, gasps, exhalations of breath.

This is the world inhabited by “Partita,” Peck’s latest sneaker ballet. To listen to Shaw’s score alone is to fall under the spell of a soundscape where the voice becomes a visceral embodiment of form and texture. When paired with a dance, the piece – the ensemble Roomful of Teeth performed it live – takes on a different dimension as these sounds translate into bodies weaving and undulating, stopping a moment before to succumb and sway, once more, towards the wave of voices.

But “Partita”, whatever its pace, has a way of flattening out with each subsequent move. Part of this happens through Peck’s use of repetition, which does not build or create new energy; it only exhausts any semblance of choreographic surprise. Increasingly, the opulence of “Partita” becomes ordinary – an expensive item that gradually loses its luster. And that is opulent, thanks to its striking decor designed by Eva LeWitt, the daughter of Sol LeWitt, the artist whose “Wall Drawing 305” inspired Shaw in the first place.

The premiere led City Ballet’s first program of the winter season, which was delayed due to the coronavirus. Before the start of the dance, Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of the company, presented India Bradley and Davide Riccardo with the Janice Levin prize, awarded to young talents in the corps de ballet. Their speeches were eloquent, charming. “I can’t see you,” Bradley told the audience, “but I’m sure you all look fan-tastic.”

With her nimble limbs and serene gaze — she always holds her head, like a queen — Bradley often looked that way in “Partita.” When the curtain opened, she and the other seven dancers, dressed in simple separates by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, posed as a group under LeWitt’s colorful tubular structures of hanging fabric. The dynamism of LeWitt’s light sculptural forms – sparkling thanks to the beautiful lighting of Brandon Stirling Baker – contrasted well with the dusty, earthy tones of the costumes, which looked a bit like jumpsuits.

In this dance, Peck focuses on grounding – the power of what the plie brings as the dancers, in their seemingly ready-to-go white sneakers, navigate the sounds of the score, flickering in and out of the shapes. which somehow alludes to a broken body. There is the extension of one leg with a bent foot, a torso leaning forward on a raised knee, a gait frozen in space.

The arms are busy to the point of being manic. Sometimes they reach, ecstatic and holy; at other times they propel like high-speed windmills or construct shapes with geometric precision. In these moments, “Partita” can begin to feel like a college dance – earnest and derivative in its quest for experimentation. When Claire Kretzschmar and Bradley bend their arms to frame each other’s faces, brace yourself: it’s so embarrassed.

But there is also an unbuttoned sweep of the dance. In a later duet, Harrison Coll and Taylor Stanley speed it all up, crossing the stage in nervous unison as Tiler Peck drifts in the background. When front and center, Peck, with her innate musicality, is jaw-dropping in her coordination as she locates an alluring fluidity in her footwork even when her arms go wild.

When the group, also including Ashley Hod, Roman Mejia and Chun Wai Chan – a dashing recently hired soloist – reunites, Peck’s obsession with armography continues with a repeated sequence: the dancers hold their arms rounded on the side ; lift them straight up and join their hands above your head; and, finally, extend them on each side. There’s a way such repetition gives the choreography the aura of playtime, which doesn’t always merge with its grown-up score.

“Partita” is in something of a limbo with one foot in the present and another in the past as she struggles to find a connection to the dances of the 1970s and 1980s. But white sneakers alone cannot not bring Peck closer to uncovering the secrets of that time. His influences are superficial, especially in this case the dances of Twyla Tharp, whose momentum and dynamism he cannot match. His reverence for Jerome Robbins is also clear. What is less clear is what Peck means to himself.

The program also included Merce Cunningham’s glorious “Summerspace” which, though premiered in 1958, was a shoo for the program’s most invigorating and fresh work. It also takes place in one of the most distinct dance landscapes ever made: Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist backdrop and costumes. The dancers are painted into the background, creating an incredible camouflage effect.

Morton Feldman’s score, “Ixion,” an environmental collage of chirping birds and distant thunder, evokes the slowness of a hot summer day. But it is not a lethargic ballet. Even though the dancers’ costumes match the set, their bodies are on full display, showing every wobble and misstep in timing.

Do they need more stage time? Yes! Dancing this on the opening night of a season after weeks off was a heroic act organized by Commanders Adrian Danchig-Waring, Sara Adams and Emilie Gerrity. But watching the effort is also part of the joy. Ashley Laracey, in her early days, showed glimpses of true mastery, offering sprite-like buoyancy in her balances and arabesques. It’s a dance for every season, one that should be on repeat. Even better would be to add more Cunningham dances to the mix.

The closest, that of Christopher Wheeldon “DGV: High Speed ​​Dance”, is not such a guardian – and yet he persists. Set to music by Michael Nyman, it was originally created for the Royal Ballet in 2006 to commemorate the birth of high-speed rail in France, known as the TGV. Trains run on momentum just like ballets. But this rushed, overloaded job for 26 dancers is strange — not in an interesting way — and full of tension for all the wrong reasons. Partnership keeps you on the edge of constant worry.

There were many debuts – Mira Nadon’s bold power, opposite Chan, won the most success, as did Sara Mearns’ understated, luminous dancing – but “DGV” for the most part picks up speed on a choreographic track at both mind-numbing and treacherous. Why, nowadays, do men transport inert women on the stage as if they were moving sculptures in a museum? It’s archaic.

New York City Ballet

Through Feb. 27 at the David H. Koch Theatre, Lincoln Center; nycballet.com.

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