One of the rewards of living close to a major ballet company is watching careers develop. Unlike actors in repertory companies, most dancers stay, as Wendy Whelan did at New York City Ballet. From Jerome Robbins’s final two ballets to the first set for the company by Christopher Wheeldon and Alexi Ratmansky, she was always the one to watch. She could dance anything. Whelan’s 2014 NYCB retirement was also the beginning of a new career and life phase.
In late May, Whelan presented Restless Creature, an hour-long program of four duets she performed with each of her choreographers. This was no vanity project of scaled-down steps for an ‘older’ 47-year-old dancer. While neither were totally ‘ballet’ (the positions were there, but the pointe shoes replaced by soft ballet slippers) nor ‘modern,’ each duet explored what makes Wendy Whelan a great performer and artist. She is a risk-taker.
Alejandro Cerrudo’s Ego Et Tu, was the most lyrical duet. After Cerrudo danced the first solo, Whelan stepped from behind the back curtain to dance hers. The two kept reaching longingly, searching and finding each other. Low lighting reinforced the slow but never delicate movements, danced to music by Gavin Bryars, Max Richter, and Philip Glass.
Kyle Abraham’s The Serpent and the Smoke began semi-darkness. Soon after the on-stage spotlights lit and Hauschka and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s #304 and #320 began, he and Whelan performed an intricate mirror duet before coming together. They danced with intentionally nervous, electric energy. Whelan’s technical skill was on full display here – the deep arch of her back, the musically attuned reach of her arms, and instantaneous stage communication with her partner.
Whelan let her hair down towards the end of Serpent and the Smoke and kept it that way for Brian Brooks’s First Fall. She also discarded her slippers. Following Philip Glass’s music, the two repeated an extraordinary sequence of Whelan leaning against Brooks as she slowly spiraled downwards across his back.
The mood and lighting brightened in Joshua Beamish’s Conditional Sentences. Set to J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, the choreography felt – rather than interpreted – the music. Simply put, the dancers had fun, particularly when applying traditional classical partnering techniques (holding her by the waist, slightly off kilter, while she holds her balance).
Beamish is a member of The Joyce Theatre’s Young Leader’s Circle Committee, and his ensemble MOVE: the company opened the Joyce’s August Ballet Festival. His program included the world premiere of Surface Properties. He could not have had a better cast, with American Ballet Theatre members Sterling Baca, Gray David, Zhong-Jing Fang, Isadora Loyal, Luciana Paris, Lauren Post, Jose Sebastian, Cassandra Trenary, Stephanie Williams, and Roman Zhurbin. The video background illustrating Michael Gordon, Filippo Del Corno, and Mark Melitis’s music proved unnecessary because the choreography was lively enough without it.
Beamish’s standout piece was Burrow, a duet danced by Sebastian and longtime Twyla Tharp associate Matthew Dibble. Three movements of Shostakovich’s deep Piano Quintet in G Minor provided the soundtrack for the exploration of the relationship of two men. Beamish eschewed politics or sensationalism in favor of genuine emotion. Burrow is a dance conversation of highs and lows ultimately asking if someone remains alone even with another. This extremely polished choreography ends without resolution.
The choreographer turned again to Shostakovich for Rouge Et Noir, danced by The Ashley Bouder Project during the Festival’s first weekend. The series of interchanging duets for Bouder and five other members of the New York City Ballet (Alexa Maxwell, Indiana Woodward, Amar Ramasar, Sebatian Villarini-Velez, and Peter Walker) was as energetic as the previously seen Surface Properties, and more challenging because it followed the lead of the music’s changing tempos. Beamish made full use of the alternating calm and mania that are as danceable as music written by Shostakovich’s contemporaries Prokofiev and Stravinsky.
A NYCB Principal for a decade, Bouder enjoys a reputation for moving fast and making jumps look as effortless as walking. Watching her in a smaller venue provided a valuable ballet lesson in how those classroom steps create a great dancer. The 60-minute program also allowed the prodigiously gifted technician an opportunity to reveal her softer side. Miami City Ballet dancer Adriana Prince’s Unsaid was a nocturnal meeting between Bouder and Preston Chamblee (also of NYCB). The Grieg score and Reid and Harriet costumes were straight out of Ibsen and Swedish silent cinema, creating a romantic winter wind on a humid August night. The two performers beautifully transcribed Prince’s rich dance language of regret and love.
In between the two ballets was the short film In Passing. Directed and choreographed by Andrea Schermoly, it follows Bouder, Ramsar, Woodward, and fellow NYCB member Antonio Carmena through bedrooms, dance studios, tunnels and empty spaces. There is also a running theme of both ballerinas wanting to hook up Ramsar. (As such an amazing, attentive partner, who wouldn’t?) Still, the scenarios of loneliness and lust are secondary to dance. If only the moments in the studio were longer, because the glimpses inside were enthralling.
Emery LeCrone’s credits include performing and choreographing with New Chamber Ballet and the Guggenhiem’s Works & Process. Her Guggenhiem commission, Partita No. 2 in C Minor (the same Bach used in the Beamish-Whelan duet) highlighted her evening during Week 2 of the Ballet Festival. An intelligent, passionate piece, the ballet is a series of duets that contrast, yet ultimately complement, each other. The two couples were ABT’s Stephanie Williams (who performed with MOVE: the company the previous week) and NYCB’s Russell Janzen and ABT’s Stella Abrera and Alexandre Hammoudi. Currently in the Corps de Ballet, Williams is a lyrical dancer whose naturalness and strong classical technique are hallmarks of her Australian Ballet School training. Abrera, whose recent historic promotion as ABT’s first Pilipino-American Principal was 19 years in the making, radiates on a smaller stage. For her, it isn’t all about making the right steps, it’s about loving those steps.
Wendy Whelan brings her new project Hagoromo to the Brooklyn Academy of Music November 5-8, 2015. From October 21-November 1, dancers from the American Ballet Theatre appear at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theatre. Ashley Bouder and her New York City Ballet colleagues begin their Fall Season at the Koch on September 22. MOVE: the company and Emery LeCrone list no current touring plans yet.
By Patricia Contino
Patricia Contino received her MFA from The New School Writing Program. She uses vacation time either at performances in other cities, The University of Iowa Writing Festival, or very long nights at the Metropolitan Opera. The lifelong NJ resident and fangirl is the administrator for Columbia University’s Masters of Bioethics Program.