Review: A ballerina with jazz in her bones takes over

An exceptionally musical dancer, Tiler Peck has an ear for rhythm. But as a director and curator, she also has an eye – for talent, for...


An exceptionally musical dancer, Tiler Peck has an ear for rhythm. But as a director and curator, she also has an eye – for talent, for selecting equally enthusiastic and unscrupulous collaborators and for exploring, in disparate ways, the visualization of sound.

This weekend, she took over the New York City Center for her first Artists at the Center Series, creating a program with four premieres showcasing not only her body but also her mind. What makes her dance? Music matters, personalities matter. What does she mean about the field at this time of a pandemic? Don’t give up, you only live once, might as well have fun.

Its music and dance buffet, which opened on Friday, is full of verve – joyous if not exactly transformative. It brings the kind of fulfillment that an Instagram post might bring: enjoyable but forgettable. Peck, acclaimed director of New York City Ballet, enjoys showing how ballet can co-exist with other dance forms, including tap. That this program has unofficial roots in the Vail Dance Festival, which is run by Damian Woetzel – and, similarly, features a mix of dancers from a variety of backgrounds – is clear.

She has also started choreographing in recent years. At the New York premiere of “Thousandth Orange”, set to music by Caroline Shaw and commissioned by the Vail Festival in 2019, Peck reunites an exceptional cast – Isabella Boylston, India Bradley, Herman Cornejo, Jovani Furlan, Christopher Grant and Lauren Lovette – which end where they began: arranged in a tableau in the center of the stage.

Throughout, they engage in wistful solos and duets or sit on the floor, watching each other play – a shift in perspective that sadly shifts the tone from angelic to sentimental. But there’s a reserved, delicate quality to “Thousandth Orange,” which was created when an injured Peck couldn’t move much on her own. It’s a fleeting showcase of dancers – and more before you know it.

For “Fast Arrow”, choreographer Alonzo King features Peck and Roman Mejia in a pas de deux set to music by Jason Moran. It’s short too, but it has texture, tone — it’s electric with tension. Peck, lovely in a royal blue leotard by Robert Rosenwasser, begins the dance with a lively solo that, while full of attack and speed, is also fluid and enhanced by an underlying groove.

Mejia has his own solo. In both, the dancers, lost in their own world, take up space with outstretched arms as they illuminate striking angles of the hips, spine. Then, suddenly, the music quiets down and Peck and Mejia come face to face, cemented in a relationship.

In this duet of raw lyricism, the dancers test the limits — of imbalance, softness, aggressiveness, strength. As she develops, Peck shows a more vulnerable side to her dancing than she has in recent performances at City Ballet where she came across as more authoritative than authentic; it’s so much more engrossing when the mystery of her musicality takes hold, and here King leads her into a more spontaneous space.

In “Time Spell” – with its subtitle “subdivisions of time and space, intersections of isolation and community, desire and joy” – the choreography is credited to tap artist Michelle Dorrance, Los Angeles choreographer and dancer Jillian Meyers and Peck, along with Byron Tittle as associate choreographer. During several episodes, the tap shares the stage with the ballet; sometimes the dancers improvise. Exuberant and luminous, “Time Spell” is a theatrical jumble – both touching and cheesy.

The freshest contribution is the music of Aaron Marcellus and Penelope Wendtlandt, who vocalize and occasionally join in the dancing. Their voices ground this ever-evolving tapestry as Dorrance, and her mesmerizing, lanky grace guides the rhythmic pulse with her articulated feet. Tap dancers line up on platforms creating worlds of sound under pools of light; ballet dancers twirl across the stage in rapid-fire chains.

Parts of “Time Spell” were uplifting, but it also had the feeling of a mixture that just kept rolling – if not exactly morphing into a bigger whole. At times, it looked like an ad for Peck’s body wrap line, Body Wrappers. I wish a duo between Dorrance and Peck had developed into something more; the way they absorb rhythm into each other’s bodies is dramatic, vivid. It could have been the start of something new, but “Time Spell” stayed true to convention until its unison, jaw-dropping finale. And it wasn’t even the closest.

The pace of the evening was confusing and the program ended with a ballet that might have been better to start with: William Forsythe’s scintillating ‘The Barre Project, Blake Works II’, based on a digitally created ballet remotely in 2021 and presented here at Theatrical Life. During the pandemic, a ballet barre was hard to come by for dancers training at home. In his work, Forsythe treats it like a precious object. Placed on stage, the barre becomes a springboard that dancers use to push off, flicking side to side as they spin alongside it or jerkily extending one leg forward and back in acts of virtuosity. accurate and unaffected.

Scored by James Blake, “The Barre Project” features Lex Ishimoto, Brooklyn Mack, Mejia and Peck, who take turns playing with the barre before spilling onto the stage. Initially, the lighting frames the dancers like a smartphone in portrait mode: tight and contained. But as the ballet progresses, the stage becomes a landscape, giving the impression that Forsythe has turned the stage into a screen, and then back again.

All the while, the dance is elegant and robust, concise and powerful without giving up elegance. Forsythe celebrates ballet vocabulary in leaps, big and small – and always in its use of the shoulder, or angles and port des bras. We see the whole body, freed from the isolation of the pandemic, in real action. And Peck seems to be reborn in solos that show her as she is: a ballerina with jazz in her bones.

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