Review: City Ballet gets a modern dance fix

Clearly the choreographer Jamar Roberts had an idea of ​​what the world needed now: a nudge, a nudge, a breath of hope. Who would disa...


Clearly the choreographer Jamar Roberts had an idea of ​​what the world needed now: a nudge, a nudge, a breath of hope. Who would disagree? It’s February and the pandemic is still here, faded but still imminent. At New York City Ballet, Roberts translates the need for pleasure into a dance in which the jazz composer Wayne Shorter the music drives a cast of eight – first in solos and duets, then in trios and, finally, as a collective – to reach a state of abandonment.

George Balanchine once said of dance and music, “If you see music as just accompaniment, then you don’t hear it. I take care of how not to interfere with the music.

In “Emanon – in Two Movements,” on Shorter’s “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound,” Roberts doesn’t exactly interfere with the music, though he doesn’t reveal a different, dancing side to it either. Much of his new ballet skims the notes on their surface. Part of that has to do with the lively tone of the ballet – the fun – in which the dancers, often confined to confined areas of the stage, engage in rapid, articulate footwork.

Roberts, the resident choreographer of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – where he recently retired as a dancer – spoke of Balanchine’s influence. But in “Emanon,” he seems to be paying homage to Ailey, for whom ballet was a strength despite his reputation as a modern dance choreographer. We see it in Ailey’s dances, especially in his joyful little allegro, those little steps that give the impression that the feet, all by themselves, are knitting an invisible sweater. It’s the best part of ballet.

In “Emanon,” part of a program where all the choreographers have roots in modern or contemporary dance rather than ballet, the stage can feel strangely empty. Even as the dancers spin and soar, they sometimes strive to appear carefree. But while the music has plenty of moods, the dancing – apart from a standout solo for Jonathan Fahoury – takes place in an atmosphere of euphoria.

It begins with a solo for Unity Phelan that has her spreading her long legs and swinging one foot forcefully as her curved arms – more fluid than ever – frame her pretty face. It’s a pretty, but predictable intro: Emily Kikta and Peter Walker rush in and meet in the middle. Then Indiana Woodward takes over, her floating feet crossing in the air. (The lighting and sets, by Brandon Stirling Baker, give the back of the stage a letterbox look, with the lower part illuminated.)

Gradually, with underlying insistence, Roberts’ ballet begins to grow within you. The elegant and compact Jovani Furlan is a courteous partner of Emma Von Enck. He’s a superlative partner in general, as his recent debut in Balanchine’s “La Valse” clearly showed: he looks to the person he’s dancing with, and that connection, in “Emanon,” gives the footsteps an otherworldly sweep as if the couple were gliding on ice.

The tune changes as Fahoury, with understated intensity, decisively crosses the stage, making a sharp right turn to land center stage, where he twists in and out of edgy shapes that melt his supple shoulders. as his torso tilts and bends. With abrupt changes of direction, his arms form strict geometric shapes out of step with the rest of his body, which seems, in a way, to want to evaporate.

In this ballet, Fahoury is something of the real world: a plaintive, mournful hero, and the counterpart of another dancer, Anthony Huxley, whose lively, immaculate dance bends over the pleasure of taking in the air and transforming it , once again, to a place of ballet delights. Her world is ballet.

“Emanon” is unequal; the dance of the men is more difficult, more expansive than that of the women. It makes sense — dancing or choreographing for the tip isn’t part of Roberts’ bloodline. But the work also lacks structural variety: imagine a diagonal line with two women dotting the ends, performing basic pointe work, and a man dancing his heart out in the middle. The ballet would have felt less skeletal with more body, especially at the end – a group unison move that begins like a choreographic sprint but soon begins to feel, in a good way, like a marathon.

Here, the cast are wearing Jermaine Terry’s costumes in lavender tones – dresses with pleated skirts rising just above the knee and unitards for the men that reminded me of tuxedo T-shirts – making them look like a wedding party. Driving their bodies past the point of exhaustion, they suddenly turn toward us with a penetrating stillness. Roberts may have more experience in modern dance than ballet, but what he understands is dance, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about words, it’s about feelings.

What was unusual about City Ballet’s program was that Roberts’ work and Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway” (2018) were performed to recorded music. Only the work in between, Pam Tanowitz’s “Bartók Ballet” (2019) featured live music, performed by the FLUX Quartet. For his return to the stage, “Bartók” was different in big and subtle ways.

One movement of the music, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5, has been cut, causing the dance to move forward faster. Part of me felt it was still too long. But the cast of 10, shimmering in the bronze and gold leotards of Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, are more at home in Tanowitz’ sometimes awkward movement. It’s now a community where dancers – arching their backs, stomping the ground with their pointe shoes, even slapping their thighs – roam the stage like floating shards of pixie dust. But wander, they do. Tanowitz’s steps were the most unusual of the night, full of invention and wit, yet in “Bartók” it’s hard to know where they lead.

Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway,” set to music by Nico Muhly, Kanye West, Jay-Z and James Blake, always felt more like an event than a cohesive dance – with, certainly, a standout couple of solos for Taylor Stanley and an overlooked gem for Roman Mejia. It’s still what it was: a parade of sounds and costumes, courtesy of designer Giles Deacon.

Abraham, Roberts and Tanowitz are serious dance artists, but here, for different reasons, they are overwhelmed. Yet being able to watch their experiments overnight, even with their misses and failures, was a kind of progress – for the choreographers, for the dancers, for the company. In the past, City Ballet relied on the dreck of contemporary ballet for new choreography. We can’t go back on that; here, at least none of the dances were like the others. But how to make ballet modern with choreographers, however talented they may be, unaccustomed to the scale and history of Balanchine’s stage?

And yet, bringing them into the fold, something at the City Ballet at changed: When has there ever been a program with the choreography of a woman and two black men? And when did it feel, well, just kind of normal? It was good.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Review: City Ballet gets a modern dance fix
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