October 27-28, 2012 at the Detroit Opera House
by Julie Gervais
Whether you’ve seen this company before or this was your first time, there is no mistaking the singular style and energy of the dancers in the New York City Ballet.
As much as any company in the world, this company embodies the city where it lives – edgy yet not self-conscious, supercharged but not frenetic, self-assured in its central position in the artistic universe. NYCB is pure New York.
They brought enough newer work to give Detroiters a taste of what bigger cities get to see on a regular basis, and enough NYCB ‘tradition’ to give a sense of the company’s lineage – an important consideration in light of the fact that their last visit here was in 1961. The full company numbers over 90 dancers; this touring group collects 16 of them from all of the ranks, plus their own musicians. It’s a welcome innovation.
They opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s breakthrough work from 2001, Polyphonia. His initial image is arresting: the dancers’ arms and legs make a surgically sharp sideways diagonal slice through the air. The women wear leotards of rich concord grape and the men sport the same color – this costuming being both in line with NYCB leotard-ballet tradition, and a half-step away from it. The bold and unexpected start turns out to be a harbinger, as the work turns up surprise after delightful surprise. Unusual shapes and movements flow freely and never feel forced or gimmicky, and they serve as a bridge to the musical world of Gyorgy Ligeti, perhaps foreign territory for some. Wheeldon paces the work so that even on first view, there is time to see what’s happening – and this reads as an easy confidence by an artist who doesn’t feel pressed to throw every last thing at the wall and see what sticks (a tendency with some contemporary choreographers). Maria Kowroski (of Grand Rapids) gets some of the juiciest bits, and brings a quiet but assured star power to everything she does. She has one of the most beautiful classical bodies of any woman working today, and seems to be at a point in her career where she wields her powers lightly, dazzling without ever seeming to be impressed with the effects she creates.
Duo Concertant was created by George Balanchine in 1972 – before our current age of
irony. The piece starts with the dancers standing near the onstage musicians – a pianist and a violinist – looking appreciative, admiring. Many have noted that this seems kind of hokey now, and it’s a relief when the dancers finally get to step away from their reverie and…dance. But there is a point – one that was very dear to Balanchine – which was that you must really listen to the music, really hear it and understand it, before you can dance to it. Megan Fairchild and Chase Finlay illustrated this concept with total commitment. The allegro movement is breathtakingly speedy, and it’s easy to imagine the dancers in the first cast feeling unsure whether this could be done. Subsequent generations of NYCB dancers now have this kind of speed in their DNA, but it’s still astonishing.
Herman Schmerman was created for NYCB in 1992 by William Forsythe, an American who has built an illustrious career in Germany. Schmerman has an exploratory feel to it, in its deconstruction of classical pas de deux and traditional partnering work. It’s fun and light, and seems to say that sometimes people just can’t figure out what’s going on in their relationships. Maria Kowroski and Robert Fairchild try one thing and then another, give up, walk away, come back to each other. In the end, they settle on a finger turn – kind of an inside joke for dancers, but the audience seemed to get it.
The last two pieces came from Peter Martins, the Company’s Artistic Director. It was exciting to see that Tiler Peck would dance the first, Zakouski. Ms. Peck made a name for herself even before she graduated, as a crack turner with a killer jump – not a typical combination of assets. Then she became NYCB’s youngest principal dancer. In Zakouski and everything she danced in Detroit, it’s clear she is almost superhuman in her technical assurance. But none of her roles here offered us the chance to see her really dig in, and Zakouski itself is kind of a perplexing mashup of classical ballet, folk dance, and experimental noodling.
Mr. Martins’ Hallelujah Junction, commissioned from its native son by the Royal Danish Ballet in 2001, really moves. It is jubilant and very, very busy with comings and goings, in the manner of Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room. Indeed the structure of delayed repetition between the two pianos (composed by John Adams) also feels similar to a Philip Glass work. It’s the biggest piece of the night in terms of personnel – eight corps dancers and three soloists, including Daniel Ulbricht, who brought this work the electricity it needed to come together. The fullness of his expression of each single step, and the clarity of shapes at lightning speed was thrilling. As much as anything we saw here, Junction was a good way to re-introduce New York City Ballet to a city that needed a re-introduction.
Thanks is due to Marlene Boll, Joanne Danto, and Nora Moroun for making these performances possible.