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The DanceView Times, New York edition

Wheeldon's Blood-drenched Reels

New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
8-9 May 2004

by Mindy Aloff
copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff
published 10 May 2004

Just in time for Mother’s Day, New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has brought what may be the most brutal—and is certainly the most theatrically transgressive—ballet to be produced in this house, by this company, since The Cage (1951), Jerome Robbins’s bloodthirsty revision of the Second Act of Giselle. Wheeldon’s new work, which concludes with the ballerina figure having her neck snapped by her partner and then being dragged upstage by him in a blood-soaked light the way a commercial cleaning service drags a vacuum down a hallway, seems to be, in several senses, a dour take, indeed, on the “Ballet is Woman” aesthetic that characterizes much of NYCB’s heritage yet also a take on contemporary world events beyond the theater. It was a risk to fold the one into the other at NYCB; however, the gamble paid off: Shambards is a hit. At both performances I attended, the full houses were shocked early into attentive silence, then, at the end, burst into fervent applause, greyheads and piercees thundering bravos in chorus without even stopping to wonder what “Shambards” means. There was no explanatory program note: only the press kit explains that the ballet’s title is a neologism, compounded from a phrase in the poem “Scotland 1941,” a severe critique of Scottish culture by Edwin Muir:

Now smoke and dearth and money everywhere,
Mean heirlooms of each fainter generation,
And mummied housegods in their musty niches,
Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation,
And spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches,
No pride but pride of pelf. . . .

The events of the ballet bear no direct connection to “Scotland 1941,” although the indirect connections could be numerous. The ballet’s action seem to tell a story that might go something along these lines:

In the mists of time, when both sexes wore lovely earth-colored leotards and tights, and thunder sounded like a piano growling in its lower register, a community of male and female dancers inhabit a golden forest primeval, slowly revealed from the void through a heavenly lighting design. The women are the object of intense focus by their partners, and the group, as a whole, coalesces into striking geometrical figures, sometimes as partnerships, sometimes as gender-divided walls; however, from the beginning, the men rule the roost. The women are overseen and protected by them, yet are also obliged to them to accomplish the smallest movements: the women can be elevated, they can melt to the floor and be raised, they can be carried from one place to another. Still, when the sexes share the same stage, Nature has decreed that the women can’t advance in space with their own weight on their own legs. As long as no one questions this, there is peace. The group is as closely bound by collective instinct as a herd of deer, and when one figure senses disturbance from without—signalled, usually, by the sound of squealing strings—each individual registers it, seriatum, in an identical, picturesque movement.

The weather grows misty, the piano dropping in a soft theme like falling rain. Two figures of another species (they wear blue) slowly walk toward one another from opposite wings of the forest, meeting in center stage. The man (whose name has been recorded in the ancient epics as Ask La Cour) is very tall and fair-haired; the woman (Carla Körbes, in the old script) is more beautiful than any other on stage, and she is capable of astonishing motions that register both strength and marvelous pliancy. They couple in exquisite ways possible only to ballet dancers at the New York City Ballet who find themselves in a forest primeval, and it quickly becomes clear that Körbes is a prodigy in the melting department. At several points, the earth dancers watching them in ceremonial formations become anxious by the sound of squealing strings, and a scholar of dance forests primevals begins to wonder if the Lord who oversees the forest has been looking at the choruses in the species called the Martha Graham Dance Company. Also a topic of wonder: is this relationship, in which the woman so rarely stands and moves about on her own, doomed to fail? A shadowy remembrance of another world, in which women dance as independent beings in partnerships with men, some of the partnerships also very loving, passes through the scholar’s brain, then evaporates.

Something is happening: the blue couple are walking off and a second couple, the man in black (Jock Soto, in the epics) and the woman (Miranda Weese, the troubadours call her) in a layered confection that the ancient glossaries name as a “romantic tutu: Balanchine era; see ‘Karinska,’ La Valse) are walking on. Both couples are tenderly arm-in-arm. Are they related?

It is the end of a section that has come to be known as “The Beginning.”

The second couple are the subject, now, of a section some later cleric, perhaps, has called “The Middle.” The concerto begins to heave up fragments of waltzing, as, in “The Beginning,” it had heaved up fragments of Scottish folk music. The woman melts in her own exquisite fashion; however, she is stronger than the first woman—are they related?—and the piano is growling more during the pas de deux, and the man, who seems to be unhinged by the growling as Woyzeck was unhinged by the experiments performed upon him, converts moments of partnering into elements of domination. The partnering maneuvers that involve the woman’s neck are especially worrisome. They part and run back together; the longer the parting, the more passionate the meeting. But the woman falls, rather than melts, to the floor, once, twice as the scholar remembers. This is just heartbreaking! Everything happens in a superduper silence. She’s really down. The forest has coalesced into an intense ball of fire in the night.

It is “The End.” One knows because the group returns with the sexes moving at different rates of speed. The men march in a dreamlike, military way, halving the rhythm of the concerto and occasionally slapping their thighs, while the women, who now, paradise having been lost, wear fashionable skirts that are DECIDEDLY NOT TUTUS!!

Oh, dear. What are we in for? Two couples emerge from the pack: allegro prodigies. So perky! So happy! So capable! (From the epic, they are named Ashley Bouder, Daniel Ulbricht, Megan Fairchild, and Joaquin De Luz.) They dance to reels. The women are independent. They can move around on their own without help. Yet the world seems awful, awful. The first couple has been lost forever. And here comes the second couple, from upstage left. The woman has somehow been revived for more misery. The scholar wishes that the entrance of this blood-drenched pair had been shielded by choreography for the group, the way the old Lord would have done. Well, it’s “The End,” so that’s not an option. That was the “Ur-Beginning.” And, after a cataclysm of partnering that probably deserves some kind of medal for bravura, the woman has had it. She’s completely limp on the stage. The lighting goes platelet brilliant, as if rubies were melting from the flies; the piano salivates in its lower register like a wild beast that senses dinner on the table; and, perhaps in the spirit of the word “cleansing,” which is somewhere applied to Muir’s poem in the press materials, the man, edging backward, cleans the floor with the ballerina.

This is Shambards. Regardless of whether you find it a work of pure genius or an affront to everything the Balanchine repertory stands for, probably the best way to see it the first time is to leave immediately afterwards. On the first night, I stayed for the concluding ballet, Vienna Waltzes, and although some of it was beautifully danced, the whole thing seemed as exhausted as an E.R. nurse trying to mop up and triage after a spectacular disaster. It didn’t help that Maurice Kaplow’s conducting emphasized the oom-pah pulse of the ravishing waltzes.

A literary note: Muir’s poem, although well-regarded among academics and intellectuals, is hardly as famous as W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” and its language, diction, and locale are very different. Still, for New Yorkers with a taste for poetry, the Muir poem inevitably evokes the one by Auden, which inevitably evokes the events of September 11th, 2001, after which the Auden poem was widely circulated—resonances that Wheeldon and James MacMillan, composer of the ballet’s commissioned score, must have surely considered in devising the dramatic trajectories of the music and the choreography. Auden’s critique of his moment was, ultimately, as severe as Muir’s, although its tone is far more accessible and its music is sweeter:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good. . . .

MacMillan, a Scot in his mid-thirties who last collaborated with Wheeldon in 2002 on a ballet called Tryst, for The Royal Ballet, and who conducted his score for Shambards—Piano Concerto #2—is one of the leading composers for the concert hall in Britain. He holds a doctorate in music from Durham University, was appointed Composer/Conductor with the BBC Philharmonic in 2000, and was awarded a CBE earlier this year. At NYCB this past weekend, MacMillan conducted both performances of his concerto. It was also MacMillan who coined the term “Shambards,” which serves as the title for the second of the concerto’s three movements. The first movement, “Cumnock Fair” (originally written before the NYCB commission and expanded to the ballet score), is dedicated to Muir. The third movement of the concerto is entitled, again encapsulating a Muir phrase, “Shamnation.”

The forest set for the ballet is simply one of the greatest scenic designs ever to be seen at the New York City Ballet. The old epic tells us that the designer’s name is Michael Nagle and that the scenery was supervised by NYCB’s marvelous lighting designer, Mark Stanley. Yet, in pentimento, one can almost make out the name “Edvard Munch.” The costume designs, so appropriate to a forest, are by Holly Hynes.

Top:  Miranda Weese and Jock Soto in Shambards. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
Bottom: The company in Christopher Wheeldon's Shambards. Photo: Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 17
May 10, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Mindy Aloff



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