By the time the New York City Ballet opened its fall season a few weeks ago at the Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, it had been over eighteen months since the company had performed there. I imagined the dancers repressed and ready to dance with all their hearts. They had worked hard to prepare for the start of the school year, and the house was jam-packed with a fully masked audience eager to welcome them into their homes.
The program opened with “Serenade,” George Balanchine’s gloriously fluid dance to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” a perfect choice for the post-pandemic start. Created in 1934, “Serenade” was Balanchine’s first American dance, and it was designed to teach her young dancers to move, bigger, bigger, freer. It has since become an iconic ballet for the company, and it seems to contain the entire arc of life, from its simple opening pose to its dances of fate, love and death. Human fragility and improvisation are part of its very construction. (There is a moment in the middle where a woman falls to the floor – something that comes from an accidental fall during rehearsals, in 1934, which Balanchine woven into the dance.) But, instead of indulging in the imbalance of the ballet rushing movement, the current company delivered a straightforward and strictly classical performance, as if living in the corseted world of the Russian Imperial ballet.
Maybe they were nervous, I thought, or they were adjusting to a live audience after too many months of loneliness. But things were pretty much the same with the other major work on the program, “Symphonie en C”, in Bizet. With fierce standards, this ballet is built into a spectacular finale with around fifty dancers on stage. It’s so technically difficult that it paradoxically requires giving up – think too much and you’ll falter. But, once again, a provisional precision prevailed. Even the breathtaking passage of the Adagio where the ballerina risks plunging into a deep arabesque was performed with academic caution.
Watching the dancers trade vulnerability for perfection, I wondered if there wasn’t one more crucial fact that the long absence revealed itself. Balanchine, it seems, has become orthodox: classic, handsome, with radical zipped and slicked edges. It’s not the dancers’ fault, nor is it something that everyone can undo. Balanchine made his dances around the personality of the dancers he had – “these dancers, this music, here, now”, as he liked to say – and the dancers of today have different personalities and values. . When performing his work, they seem to be primarily interested in the mechanics of symmetry and physical virtuosity – in a sort of crystalline purity, with no fragility or spontaneity in sight. They live in an imaginary and conservative past. But what about their now?
Just like at the right time, a week after this opening, the company created two new works by women, “Suspended Animation” by Sidra Bell and “Sky to Hold” by Andrea Miller. Both were commissioned about two years ago by Wendy Whelan, the first woman to hold an artistic direction at City Ballet, as part of an effort to promote female choreographers. Bell and Miller, who both direct contemporary dance troupes, brought influences far from the world of traditional ballet. Although neither of the two works was a total triumph, both produced flashes of engaged dance. We saw, if not a complete solution to NYCB’s lack of strong contemporary choreography, at least a hint of wit and scope that these dancers no longer find at home in Balanchine. Miller came up with a truly striking move for formidable dancer Taylor Stanley, who did it balancing on his hips, with no hands, then twirling like a fish, twisting on the ground, producing the bravery of an overhead jump without never leave the ground.
Bell’s play was NYCB’s very first commission of a black woman. Bell has a degree in history from Yale and has trained extensively in ballet (Dance Theater of Harlem), modern dance (Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey) and improvisation techniques. At the City Ballet, she commissioned costumes from Christopher John Rogers, a Louisiana-born black prodigy of the fashion world, still only twenty-seven years old, and set her dances to compositions by Nicholas Britell, Oliver Davis and Dosia McKay.
Together, Bell and his colleagues succeeded in disarming these tense, technical dancers. The lyrical score, elaborate costumes, and slow, winding movement – without bravery – transformed the cast into almost otherworldly creatures, defined by ruffles and tulle, and electric blues, fluorescent greens, mauves. , the roses and the sparks that dressed them. There was even a touch of Baptist congregations in the cut and flow of a robe or a hat with a shade. The movement experienced striking moments of vulnerability – a dancer sank gently into her hip as she walked, for example, body falling askew, gait not quite holding. There was a policy involved, but it was subtle: three black dancers briefly appeared together and seemed to take a break, as if to remind us that this is still a rare spectacle in a company of which ninety-six dancers do. only eleven who identify as black. . But Bell’s main interest is aesthetic, and towards the end a woman in bright green, sitting on the floor in the center of the stage, with her back to the audience, gradually deployed her spine, until she was straightens, a faceless beauty priestess.
Across town at the Park Avenue Armory, Bill T. Jones, one of America’s most incisive political artists, brought a very different experience. “Deep Blue Sea” is an extraordinary and infuriating social justice extravaganza, with a cast of a hundred, led by Jones himself, in his first appearance on stage in fifteen years. Extraordinary because Jones is still so charismatic and ambitious, and because the conception of the production was very original. Infuriating because Jones used the stage as a pulpit, with chorus, and his sermon was long and didactic. It ranged from scrambling postmodern words (“ring Freedom Let”) to childhood memories of Jones from school and reading “Moby-Dick” to his thoughts on WEB Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr ., Kendrick Lamar and the History of Breed in America. The show was punctuated with mundane dancing, by Jones and his colleague Janet Wong and the dancers, but what seemed most important was to walk, just to walk.
In the cavernous space of the Armory, transformed into an amphitheater with bleachers all around, walking in the scrambled life and art even before the start of the performance. Members of the audience walked across the stage to their seats, passing Jones and other cast members, who were walking and posing among them. We have seen the post-containment slumps of ordinary people against the flexible ease of the trained bodies of the dancers. But it was Jones who stood out. As he spoke, he walked – and walked and walked. He is almost seventy years old. His body is aging and his gait is deliberate, but his shoulders have not bent, as most people do, and he is standing straight, with his rib cage a little forward in space, as if he were always ahead of itself. Her shoulders tilt forward, seeming to carry the burden of her life, and her arms swing with studied rhythmic precision. It is the car of a man who has lived with determination and direction. Nothing is left to chance, not even his own approach. It is a body without fissures, neat and artfully designed, admirable, noble, but like a fortress. It doesn’t easily let us see inside.
Sometimes Jones would walk in a dark circle, as if his shadow had engulfed him, then came out, leaving darkness behind – one of the many amazing light effects in the “visual environment” designed by the architect. Elizabeth Diller, her firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Peter Nigrini. At another point, the dancers made ship-like motifs at one end of the stage, which, through a sort of weird shadow play, appeared at the other end like a ghostly kaleidoscope of abstract shapes. Later, out of nowhere, the scene suddenly cleared and a glorious sea – an invention made entirely of light – spread out before us, deep and blue, with soft white waves. Black monoliths rose from the depths and transformed into ships floating in front of us, before collapsing and sinking into the perimeter walls. It was a fantastic sight, more striking than anything that night.
The show ended, after nearly two hours, with the testimony of eighty-nine “community participants,” who joined Jones and his dancers on stage. Each stood under one spotlight, another memorable image. In turn, they walked up to microphones placed in the center of the stage and proclaimed “I know,” followed by something they know to be true, often on social justice. Compliance ; this chorus even began to march like Jones. Finally, they gathered in the depths of space and charged forward, a revolutionary force that also split into a police line, and a struggle ensued. No peace without justice, no justice without peace, we were reminded.
Everything that has been said undoubtedly needs to be repeated in politics, but, as I left the theater, Jones’s words vanished from my mind, and all I could think of was him walking, just walking, and the beauty of this unfathomable deep blue sea. ??