writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Different Faith

Chichester Psalms
Eros Piano
Choreography by Peter Martins
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
June 2, 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published June 4, 2004

In the old Soviet Union, one could find kiosks in Moscow that offered two items—for example, cucumbers and shoelaces—that were apparently unrelated, except that they were being sold by the same person. These two premières, paired between intermissions, were rather like that. Chichester Psalms, set to Leonard Bernstein’s hopeful, occasionally explosive yet, ultimately, serene choral work of 1964, with the words of the Bible sung in Hebrew, put 38 dancers and 63 singers on stage in a semi-circle of risers that left an arena-like space for the dancers to fill. Mirroring the music, which is scored for a boy soprano (James Danner, a last-minute replacement for Jason Goldberg) and 62 adult choristers (the Juilliard Choral Union, conducted by Andrea Quinn), the ballet features one pair of leads (Carla Körbes and Amar Ramasar, a last-minute replacement for Henry Seth), with everyone else part of a mass of followers. It concludes with the kneeling corps arranged around the central couple, on whom a golden light pours down. On the other hand, Eros Piano, to what is effectively a one-movement concerto for piano soloist (Richard Moredock) and orchestra, composed by John Adams in 1989, is choreographed for just three dancers, here Alexandra Ansanelli, Ashley Laracey (a last-minute replacement for Janie Taylor), and Nikolaj Hübbe, who runs back and forth in Mark Stanley’s glimmering, Florida-blue light to partner now one lady, now the other, until he manages to lose both of them; when the curtain descends, the ladies have bourréed into opposite wings, leaving Hübbe planted on both feet, center stage, his arms held slightly out from his sides in a gesture that could be resignation or mild longing, or simply inscrutable.

And yet, although it looked as if we were meant to see the sacred and the profane in stark contrast, the final effect was of repetition. Why? To a small extent, it may have been a matter of the music, which, in both cases, is tonal yet whose themes do not coalesce into melodies that one can remember. These are fine scores by Americans one generation apart; however, despite their considerable merits (beginning, in each case, with a strong pulse), neither offers the element of aural descriptiveness that makes concert music intrinsically right for theatrical dancing. This, in itself, isn’t necessarily a problem for a concert score that has been adopted for dance; but it does mean that, if the choreography has problems, the music can’t, on its own, carry the work.

Ultimately, though, I think the sense of sameness originated in the choreography and elements of visual production, as different as they may appear.

In both ballets, there were ingenious passages of partnering, and the effort to produce clear, simple dance images was affecting in its way. Both ballets were also performed with complete devotion by their respective casts. However, in both cases the partnering established the same power relationships between the dancers. The ballerinas are frequently partnered at the waist, with the danseurs wrapping their arms around the women’s torsos, or at the elbow or under the arms. Physically, the women relinquish control. Similarly, both ballets avoid the intermediate shapes of hierarchy that would provide a bridge between Heroic Soloists and Anonymous Group. When, in Chichester Psalms, the choreography arrays the corps, it limits their levels to kneeling and standing. There is faith in this work, but no transcendence through dance. Both ballets have also been given essentially unisex costumes. In the case of Chichester Psalms (costumed by Catherine Barinas, a designer affiliated with NYCB’s Choreographic Institute), both men and women wear long skirts—the women’s white, the men’s black—that obscure their legs; the rationale for this may be the unisex robes for the choir (the women’s white, the men’s black), or perhaps it’s meant to be a statement about common humanity. However, when followed by the costumes for Eros Piano—with the women in unitards and the man in a blouson top and tights—the theatrical oddness of the preceding set of costumes becomes business as usual. (The skirts of the Bernstein were not only disfiguring; the dancers were getting tangled up in them, too.)

All this said, I do think that Martins is attempting to do something that for his choreography is unusual. The orientation of Chichester Psalms around one couple—one man, one woman—rather than around two or three is an uncustomarily decisive choice in his work, and, I think, a good one. And the passages for both women in Eros Piano that permit them to stand on their points independently, rather than to crumple in the man’s arms, are also of interest. I’d have to see these ballets again in tandem to see if the most crucial structural link between them—the use of man-and-two-women trios—opens up into metaphors that give them further levels. At the première, my overall impression was that it lent them the allure of poetic imagery without the depth. However, the major configuration of the trios who represent the peaceful resolution of violence in Chichester Psalms (man, next to one woman, and a second woman next to the first) is familial rather than erotic, and, on one viewing, it was a fascinating idea, both formally and socially. (At least as far back as his hour-long, period suite, A Schubertiad, from the mid-80’s, Martins has been as absorbed by trios in his choreography as Merce Cunningham.) The trio of Eros Piano is quite different in its formal tensions and in its feeling: its existence is ultimately destructive, not harmonious. Curious that, with the entire Balanchine repertory before him daily, Martins choses to ignore Balanchine’s solution to the problems of equally competing loves: introduce a third girl. It may be that such trinities have a spiritual resonance that may not be right for someone raised in a different faith.

First:  Peter Martins' Chichester Psalms: Carla Körbes and Amar Ramasar, the company, and the Juilliard Choral Union. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Second:  Peter Martins' Eros Piano: Nikolaj Hübbe and Ashley Laracey. Photo:  Paul Kolnik

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 20
June 3, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on June 3, 2004