writers on dancing


Neo-Classicism Renewed

“Prodigal Son”/”After the Rain”/Who Cares?”
New York City Ballet,
New York State Theater
New York, New York
February 1, 2005

by Gay Morris
copyright © 2005 by Gay Morris

Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” which had its premiere in late January, is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is its sheer audacity. Wheeldon isn’t afraid of anything, including the mythic reputation of George Balanchine. In the bosom of Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet he does his work, meditating on Balanchine themes and forms when it suits him, treating the master with respect but no great reverence. “After the Rain” is Balanchinian in that it is neo-classical and is divided into two very different segments, one of which centers on a love duet, but from there it parts company with the master. First, there is Wheeldon’s choice of music, unimaginable in a Balanchine work, but interesting, unusual, and danceable. It consists of two compositions by Arvo Pärt. Like Ligeti, whose music Wheeldon has used in the past, Pärt is from the former Soviet block, in this case Estonia. Pärt invented a technique which he calls tintinnabuli which derives from the Latin meaning little bells and which in dance terms makes for clear rhythms and fragments of haunting melody.

Wheeldon has set the first half of the ballet to the first movement of Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa” for two violins and prepared piano. It is for three couples dressed in silver grey practice clothes: Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, Sofiane Sylve and Edwaard Liang, and Maria Kowroski and Ask la Cour. As the curtain rises, they are seen in two lines on one side of the stage from which they begin a series of geometrically shaped moves that dissolve into intermittent sections of duet. In the duets the movement sometimes hugs the floor or goes from lifts to swooning falls that mirror the trajectory of the violin. The steps themselves are unremarkable, there is none of the acrobatic lifts or convoluted twistings of the body one so often sees in plotless ballets. And yet the patterns don’t look familiar, they are unpredictable but always absolutely clear and easy looking, as if the dancers’ bodies naturally go to those particular positions and movements. There is also a warmth to the movement that is very different in feeling from the disconnect of so much New York City Ballet choreography. Again, this may have something to do with the sense that the movement fits the dancers easily (however difficult it may actually be). But it also has to do with Wheeldon’s response to music. Part of his lack of fear has to do with not being afraid of the emotion implicit in the score. He is able to respond to it without becoming sentimental or mimetic. Nothing could be farther from Wheeldon’s aesthetic than Balanchine’s idea that the American spirit is “cold, crystalline, luminous, hard as light.” Wheeldon’s is a humane geometry and it is exemplified in “After the Rain” by an almost subliminal moment in the first part, which is nonetheless a harbinger of what will take place in the second. This is the moment when Soto, amid the other couples, lifts Whelan in a sweeping upward backbend in which she seems to fly away and off the stage. The image remains imprinted on the mind accompanied by a feeling of yearning and loss.

The second part of the ballet is a duet for Whelan and Soto set to Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” for violin and piano. It begins with the couple standing parallel but apart in an upper corner of the stage. Now they have a totally different appearance from earlier. She is wearing a wisp of a pink leotard without tights, her hair is loose and she is in soft ballet slippers. He is bare-chested in white tights, and he is barefoot. In itself, this footwear, or lack of it, is highly unusual for a ballerina and her partner who are about to dance a central, extended pas de deux in a NYCB ballet. But there is something else about the costumes: Whelan’s emphasizes every bone in her extremely thin body. Her ribs and pelvic bones press against the filmy material of the leotard and without tights her legs, which are at best sinewy, seem almost flayed. She looks in fact cadaverous. Soto on the other hand is large and substantial. His bare chest is beefy, his neck thick, his color a healthy tan. John Rockwell of the New York Times, commented that the title of the work “refers somehow to Mr. Wheeldon’s sadness at working for the last time with Jock Soto, who is retiring [at the end of the spring season].” I have no doubt Wheeldon is sad to see Soto go, we all are. He has been an important part of NYCB for many years. However, I’m not at all sure the ballet is meant to be a farewell to Soto, at least not in the usual way. Rockwell seemed closer to the point when he spoke of the dance being like a pas de deux of earth and air, as well as a love duet. Of course, abstract ballets can be interpreted in many ways, but to me, at least, Whelan was the one who appeared to be leaving.

There were times in the duet in which she suddenly assumed poses that were a rictus of awkwardness, feet flexed, knees bent and legs askew. Sometimes these poses occurred in lifts—Soto lifted her high overhead, her body creating a stiff, angular silhouette—at other times it appeared amid long fluid phrases. These interruptions came without warning in dancing that otherwise was meltingly pliant and often accompanied by small moments of tenderness, as she rested an arm on his or he bent his head to her shoulder. There was also in the dance a feeling of her going away from him, a lift in which she rested her feet on his knees and pushed away, reaching for the air beyond, and one powerful moment when he, kneeling, reached for her with his arms outstretched. The final pose found her again in a stiffened position, lying on the stage in an angular frozen contraction, her eyes looking upward. Soto crawled beneath her until he was perpendicular to her seemingly unfeeling, unseeing body, as if to bind her to him one last time.

Ballet is full of dances about parting lovers, but I have never seen one like this. With another cast it might look quite different, but here it looked to me like the loss of a lover to death. And in its lucidity, its honesty, and its dedication to the restraint of neoclassicism, it succeeded.

This performance, offered on Tuesday, 1 February at the State Theatre, also included “Prodigal Son” and “Who Cares,” a Balanchine classic and a Balanchine puff piece. One would not think of Peter Boal as a natural Prodigal Son. With his boy-next-door good looks, he just seems like too nice a guy to ever cause his father any trouble. But he is also one of the most intelligent dancers to reside at NYCB and he managed to make the role his own. He did it by creating a character that seemed more callow and foolish than angry. When the son leaves home, it’s to have a lark with his friends. When he sees the bizarre guardians of the strange new world, he is puzzled then delighted at having these good men to play with. He finds the Siren unbelievable and a little scary, and then when he realizes what he may have, he is overjoyed. The fall is terrible and predictable, and he crawls home in what must be one of the most painful homecomings this Balanchine work has ever received. It may have been a relief for his family to have him back, but for the audience it was a relief just to see him stop his horrific journey across the stage on his broken arms and legs. Darci Kistler as the Siren appeared, as she often does these days, to be wondering what her kids were doing at home while she was in the theatre. James Fayette was the father, perhaps the most thankless role in ballet. Rarely is a dancer’s main purpose to provide a human ladder for the central character.

One doesn’t usually think of Balanchine ballets looking dated but “Who Cares?,” which ended the evening, does. It has always been too cute for its own good, but the thing that really finishes it off is Hershy Kay’s adaptation of Gershwin tunes. It has not weathered the years well. Alexandra Ansanelli, Jenifer Ringer and the phenomenal (and newly promoted) Ashley Bouder were the ballerinas to Philip Neal’s hardworking partner.

Volume 3, No. 5
February 7, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Gay Morris


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last updated on February 7, 2005