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Molly McQuade


''Contemporary Quartet''
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
February 21, 2007
Reviewed by Molly McQuade, March 13, 2007

During the New York City Ballet's recent presentation, in the company's winter season, of six new evenings of old dances organized by theme, one program, confidently dubbed ''Contemporary Quartet,'' caught my eye with its nod toward the historic. (The other program titles were more straightforward, such as ''Essential Balanchine.'') To me, the word ''contemporary'' seems the most arresting in the current NYCB lexicon. For what was almost future and will soon be past must tickle the eyelash and, with it, the brain.

True, christening this program may have been a go-getting publicist's idea, intended to sell tickets, nothing more. But never mind. For everything means something, doesn't it, in the end? Even just a single adjective. What does this one mean, for the dancers or for us?

The adjective ''contemporary'' was chosen, and the word ''future'' was not. So this program wasn't up to the folly of prophesying, at least not explicitly. Yet the four choreographers offered by the program were selected from a broad field nowadays of strivers and their striving. What does the choice tell us, and how do the four ballets and their makers speak to us, as well as to and for the company itself?

To define something, first look at what it isn't. The ''contemporary'' program isn't: Mark Morris, Twyla Tharp, or Paul Taylor, all of them ''contemporary'' avatars of the dance whose work has often been performed by classical companies to good effect. The ''contemporary'' program also isn't: New Yorkers exclusively, although there's a New York bent. The ''contemporary'' program isn't: bare feet (all the women dance en pointe). But it isn't beholden to the full-blown tutu, either; only one cast of the four wears that. The ''contemporary'' program isn't really about ''contemporary'' music, since a single dance relies on it. Brahms, Vivaldi, and Rodgers and Hammerstein go to work for the other three. The ''contemporary'' program isn't: deceased choreographers, however honorable. (Eliot Feld is the program's elder statesman, Peter Martins almost that, and Jorma Elo and Christopher Wheeldon are the younger generation.) Perhaps most self-evidently, the program isn't Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine, who are well represented on the other five thematic programs of the season. Although NYCB's repertory was of course formed by Balanchine first and Robbins sort of, these two are ''now'' considered classics who, I guess, speak less pointedly to the contemporary moment in particular than they do to a kind of eternal present. (There was no ''eternity'' program, incidentally, so called; maybe wait till later?)

Even within this ''contemporary'' program, the meaning of the word ''contemporary'' shifts about conspicuously. Perhaps that's part of the point: City Ballet will and does harbor the winds of change. Some winds are newer than others. Three of the four ballets were first performed within the last five years and two of those within the last twelve months. Only Eliot Feld's ''Intermezzo No. 1'' had its premiere in a non-''contemporary'' past--to be precise, on June 29th, 1969. To my eye, the dances by Wheeldon, Elo, and Martins have more in common than not, although compiling a descriptive summary of their likenesses would be bound to challenge anyone. Interestingly, Feld's ballet comes across to me as a true forebear of the others; as somewhat less ''contemporary'' than they are; and, coincidentally, as the most lasting, original, and accomplished of the four. Feld's is distinctly different in its style of imaginative musical dynamism. For the sake of his disagreements with the others, as well as for the sake of his always arguable influence, let's start defining what could be meant by ''contemporary'' with him and his.

At first glance, ''Intermezzo No. 1'' looks far more traditionally balletic than the dances of Martins or Elo, or even Wheeldon. Why does it? Well, because of its generally good manners and seemingly romantic silhouettes: the men are all dressed, more or less, like moody, neatnik heroes of the woods (read: Swan Prince) and the ladies do all look very much like ladies, and unlike most modern ones. By contrast, Elo's dance salutes the ballerina as a knobby, fascinating neon clothespin, all naked hurtling brawn. Feld's richly evanescent, long bouffant skirts puff out rather as they would have in the nineteenth century, if not literally akin to it. The hair is all budded up in a bun at the back. A pair of wee recessive gauzy wings for each of the three women would not be out of place with their sylphidish idyllic selfhood. And, at first hearing, the Brahms piano music does invite them to tiptoe and waltz.

But the dancing does respond with elegiac wit and loyalty to the romanticism of the Brahms, Feld also reconstrues what he hears, listening to it during another--''contemporary''--era. For example, when the music seems to swoon, the dancing really doesn't mimic it. When the piano aspires to an ideal of royally disembodying ether, Feld reminds us instead of the uses of gravity. In that sense, he's anti-romantic, even while observing every stitch of the inherited romantic cerement.

It's the partnering of his three assembled couples that reveals, most subtly, Feld's attention to the tensions at hand in romanticism when it's later re-seen. Embodied in the lifts, especially, is a modern sense of inherent ambivalence that belongs more truly to the recent present than to a nineteenth-century past. For each time a woman rises at, or in, the hands of her partner, the rhythm and the visual emphasis fall on her return from air--or else, in an unexpected, signature pause, come to rest upon a suspended, lowering moment. The moment looks suspended, even as she's being lowered, due partly to the helpless erotic reaction (a reflex) of her bouffant skirt to the plummet: ''heavily,'' it lifts, even as she sinks and sits. As she sinks and sits in her partner's grasp, it takes off, with an indefinite voluptuous velocity. At this moment, Feld's eye seems to calculate the sigh of redress: the dancers strive, breathe, they dance up, ethereally--but in a way, it's all for nothing, as the skirts tell us in their reflex. For in the end, like the skirts, even romantics--romantics especially--must entreat the earth, and roost mainly from their own fundaments.

Feld's musicality is never literal or prescriptive in the ballet. Again subtly, he plays with the music. He won't let it play him. In that respect, too, he resists the pro-forma, upper-echelon yearning of romanticism, its snobbish struggle to surge and transcend. Evidently, he views dancers differently from the romantics: as people, and as people who are subject to change. Although a goal to ''characterize'' may sound crudely literary, and far more so than Feld's apparent motives, still his dancers do not forget themselves in the steps, or even in the music. Instead, they locate themselves in those, and they remain themselves--not any other people. Not archetypes, either.

The realism of the approach does not speak in a purely romantic tone of voice. It speaks of what is actual, not only of what is immanent. (Immanency: that true sylph of romantics.) By giving us what's actual together with what's immanent and striving, you could say Feld betrays romanticism, except that in their incessant embraces and their affirmations, the dancers do keep swooning into clarity of emergent form. They want what they don't have, more than they want to hold on to what they've gotten, and more than they want to just keep on swooning. So, to get what they most want, they might be willing to leave their bodies behind. While striving to leave, they find form. ''Art is the place where selfishness and selflessness meet,'' once wrote someone.

To give that essential modern conflict, however summarily I have paraphrased it, a place on the stage is not the main goal of every ''contemporary'' choreographer. Yet, other conflicts can follow from it, as ''contemporary'' postscripts. The nervous, primary pummel of Jorma Elo's ''Slice to Sharp,'' for instance, on the program with Feld, does not allow us the option of Feld's nuanced total conflict. Instead, our eyes blink at a continuously sprightly throb, in Elo, of hearty violence, as his four rushing couples, alone even when in tandem, commit, commit, commit--cardiac, rhythmic. The body is all they have, not as a symbol, nor as a metaphor. Those are things they don't want; there's no time for anything like that. These kids, unlike romantics, wouldn't ever choose to effervesce. The dance is nonstop, like Cunningham's, but mightily accelerated. The bravura here of NYCB dancers Maria Kowroski, Joaquin de Luz, and Edwaard Liang can make ruthlessness, on the brink of anarchy, nervy and fun, even if the body alone--an abstraction, no less--is not enough, in the end, to keep us completely happy as ''contemporaries'' of them.

Martins' ''Friandises'' fits nicely into the cardiac Elo aesthetic, or vice versa: both choreographers seem to be abstract expressionists of sinew who aren't hoping that their dancers will merge with one another ambivalently (as Feld's do), or marry an Intention, or marry Love, or marry Music, even. Instead, as if sent by catapult to New York, the twenty dancers in ''Friandises'' throb with a heated, bitten, virtual vitality, in a place apart. I never found them cold, although Martins has been faulted sometimes for seeming to discard the human like a chaff. What is chilly in Martins suggests to me its exact opposite, even while sometimes seeming to excise that.

Christopher Wheeldon's ''Carousel (A Dance)'' is far less furious in any discarding of the chaff. In fact, it reminds me of Martha Graham without the crisis and the rictus--on a nice summer day in some safely mythical American village (one that probably doesn't exist anymore). The idyll of his ballet is set and drawn by Wheeldon's precise and yet relaxed use of line, whether in a single body alone or in an embodied ensemble of two baker's dozen.
The idyllic aspect of Wheeldon's ''Carousel'' also claims conspicuous ancestors: not just the apple-cheeked, maritime New England of Rodgers and Hammerstein, or the Western carnival of Agnes de Mille, but also the backstory of the dancing American male, circa 1956, when the movie version of the musical was released. After all, Jacques d'Amboise led the merry-go-round pas de deux in the film. As if rewriting that particular masculine prerogative, Wheeldon in his own ballet chooses the life of the village instead, in a communal vision. The summer serenity of his ''Carousel,'' calm especially in comparison with the varied agons of the film, emerges from a stable circle, and from circular motion. The merry-go-round is chiefly metaphorical, and a visual abstraction. Like any circle, it can contain, and it will continue.

Maybe that's why plot matters little in Wheeldon, though a great deal in the movie, where large and small events cue bouts of physical action, reaction, reverie and, of course, dancing. The minor action becomes major quickly in the film, as when the harridan who owns the carney threatens to knock the lithe young heroine ''on your little pink bustle,'' and thus throws her into the arms, more or less, of Billy Bigelow, the raffish barker. Circles of plot revolve and eddy in the film, like unmanned carousels. The lovers' duet is all about ''going in circles,'' until heads spin; dizzy Billy dies after falling headlong on his knife. The circle of village kinship then receives his widow. It's no coincidence that when Billy descends to earth from the afterlife for a visit, he finds his daughter caught in the tightening clasp of provincial taboos. Weeping, she is seen spinning atop a beached wheel, possibly from a shipwreck.

In 1956, such qualms and shocks were resolved easily enough in a loud song about hope. (Yours, mine, everyone's--aren't they all the same?) Wheeldon may have taken that balmy closing moment from the film as the occasion for revisiting ''Carousel,'' although his rendition rules out righteous moral fantasy and prefers to build a merry-go-round, a la Balanchine, with just bodies, not props or horse-and-rider impersonations. Perhaps Wheeldon wasn't trying to encapsulate the entire musical in one little waltz, granted. But the gracefulness of his conception gives back to American summer a new and slender renown--that of nostalgia, well edited. Yet I also missed a sense of ''modern'' struggle in Wheeldon's ''contemporary'' idyll. Where might it be found?

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