New York City is a tour date for many of the world’s leading ballet companies, if only once every decade (ahem, Kirov). But stick around long enough and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll catch lots of them. But the city’s native ballet scene has brightened in recent years. Twyla Tharp has created new work (such as Rabbit and Rogue for ABT) to be seen along with older repertory by a variety of companies; Karole Armitage has returned from Europe to create some serious work with her dynamic company; and rising choreographers have received support and exposure from both New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, ABT, and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
But the biggest news in the last two years has been the founding of Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses, and the recent appointment of Alexei Ratmansky as resident choreographer at ABT. Morphoses recently had its second annual season at City Center. Last year’s debut season could only fall short of the enormous expectations of Wheeldon, who for several years had been the new artistic light at New York City Ballet until stepping down recently as choreographer in residence.
This year’s Morphoses season was better curated than its first. Two of Wheeldon’s handsome, longer works were in the repertory, including last year’s Fool’s Paradise, and one of his earlier successes from 2001, Polyphonia. His lovely new ballet buffa, Commedia, was based on Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, one of the composer’s most harmonic and lilting scores. It included a powerhouse duet for veteran dancer Leanne Benjamin and 15-year-old Beatriz Stix-Brunell, whose differences and similarities made for a fascinating study.
Wheeldon’s ambition is to hire a permanent company, but at the moment, it is still composed of ringers from New York and abroad, primarily London and Norway. In Commedia, he made the most of this situation, choreographing pull-out duets and trios for compatible or complimentary dancers, and a few effective ensemble scenes that displayed his flair for tableaus. Costumes/sets by, respectively, Isabel and Ruben Toledo, greatly augmented the lighthearted tone.
The other repertory helped set apart Wheeldon’s choreography. Frederick Ashton’s Monotones II is a crystalline structure of a trio. Intended to evoke a lunar setting, the three, clad head to toe in white, move symbiotically at a slow meter and hover in positions as if in zero gravity. Two very different casts (Maria Kowroski, Rubinald Pronk, Edward Watson/Wendy Whelan, Tyler Angle, Adrian Danchig-Waring) performed it in the two programs, making a repeat viewing that much more worth it. Lightfoot Leon’s Shutters Shut plays off of Gertrude Stein’s poem’s meters, with precise, quicksilver mime performed crisply by Christine Thomassen and Andreas Heise of the Norwegian National Ballet.
The company’s first independent commission was Six Fold Illuminate by Emily Molnar to Steve Reich. It showed off the incredible company’s physical gifts, such as straight vertical extensions and powerful lifts. But the stop/start, frenetic quality of the choreography amplified, by contrast, Wheeldon’s skill at interconnecting various shapes with fluid, sensible movement.
The choreographer-in-residence position (or some variation) at New York City Ballet that Wheeldon declined to renew was reportedly offered to Russian phenom Alexei Ratmansky, who recently ran the Bolshoi. There, he had revived a moribund institution and repertory by adding ballets such as his version of the Socialist tale The Bright Stream. Within a few months, ABT announced they had signed Ratmansky to a deal. ABT routinely gets slammed by critics for its conservative repertory and disappointing track record with commissions (although Tharp’s Rabbit and Rogue received many positive reviews).
This was a major coup, particularly as NYCB had failed in a similar deal. It’s difficult to pity a company like ABT with such an astonishing roster of dancers and a long list of stalwart classic ballets, but it’s never had Balanchine’s repertory. At least now it holds a hot hand, and New York will see more of Ratmansky’s charming, subtly innovative work. Pair that with the promise of an annual Morphoses season, and you’ve got happy New York ballet fans.
Both photos of Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia. Photos by Erin Baiano.