NEW YORK -- The ballet world has long been friendly to new music--certainly more so than the concert hall. To honor Lincoln Center's 50th anniversary, New York City Ballet commissioned a whopping seven dances and four scores, each of the four complemented by a piece of structural art. The two-month spring festival, "ARCHITECTURE OF DANCE," required accomplished orchestral players and conductors, as well as talented dancers and choreographers, plus affordable production values. Ballet master in chief Peter Martins reports having thought about it for years.
He was inspired by the 1981 collaboration between company founder and chief choreographer George Balanchine and architect Philip Johnson, who created a single set for a number of Tchaikovsky ballets. (Johnson also designed the David H. Koch Theater, the company's home.) The new dances used structures designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Each premiere was presented between two Balanchine-era classics, and preceded by a video of Calatrava and Martins discussing connections between architecture and dance. The festival was a noble idea, but the fledgling ballets, juxtaposed with Balanchine's, were mostly overwhelmed.
As the Broad Street Review says, "It takes a good conductor to convince his musicians to play like world-class principal dancers." City Ballet's orchestra has come a long way, now boasting some recognizable names and a forward-looking music director from France, Fayçal Karoui, who conducted the premieres. (Dance programs often have more than one conductor, and the beloved Maurice Kaplow, who just retired, led most of the Balanchine pieces.) Some of the new works were difficult and draining: time and repetition will tell which of these worthy efforts enter the shared mainstream.
The last new score, a compelling violin concerto called "Mirage," turned out best. Led by its composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen, it was performed with passion, from the pit, by Leila Josefowicz, for whom it was written. Co-commissioned by the Chicago Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of which Salonen is conductor laureate, it was already under way in 2008 when City Ballet joined the commission.
The orchestra keeps clear of the soloist, whose fleet, mellifluous runs, some with double-stop tritones, are supported by stolid brass until the ensemble, with racing piccolo, joins the flurry. Onstage, the languid slow movement was a sensuous love duet, and a cadenza near the end was anchored by a somber drumbeat.
Martins' choreography was not riveting, but at least it didn't obstruct the score's transparency. Single and plural couples--men in gray leotards, women in teeny tennis dresses--cavorted under Calatrava's appealing sculpture--a double half-moon interwoven with sparkling wires. It separated, revolved, rose, spread and, in a final image, turned rainbow colors.
Also of interest was "Call Me Ben," a "Ballet ‘Dramedy'" by former corps dancer Melissa Barak to music of Jay Greenberg, a prolific 19-year-old Juilliard composer interviewed on "60 Minutes" back in 2006. From Greenberg's score, "Neon Refracted," Barak concocted a plot-packed dance with spoken dialogue, based on the dream (of building Las Vegas) and the death of the gangster Bugsy Siegel.
Wait a minute -- that was a movie with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. What might this version contribute, besides Jenifer Ringer looking like Elizabeth Taylor? It is easy to see what Barak found evocative: an engrossing, rhythmically conservative tonal score with cinematic edge and big contours. Gangsters in grand sleaze by Gilles Mendel contrasted with silhouetted figures against Calatrava's Florida stylized palm trees. The talk didn't add anything, however, and had the dance’s concept been as clever as its footwork, the dialog could have been skipped.
The "Ben" program began with Jerome Robbins' sassy, lusty "Interplay" with music by Morton Gould, and the lithe adolescents (Sean Suozzi leapt up and appeared to stay there) were to be seen again in the angular, jazzy mode of Jets and Sharks in "West Side Story."
The concluding Balanchine ballet was "Scotch Symphony," from Mendelssohn's, with Karinska's fully observed costumes. (Awfully fast company for "Call Me Ben.") Choreographer Benjamin Millepied, also an able and facile dancer, was the male lead.
For his own work, "Why I am not where you are," he used Thierry Escaich’s "The Lost Dancer"-- a more revealing title. (For some reason titles of new dances differed from their scores.) Traditionally gauzy colorful costumes with sequins and tiaras (by Mark Happel) evoked Balanchine's setting of Ravel's "La Valse."
For this, Calatrava fashioned a hint of a light bandshell that fit with the sound of winds and harp. A lone man in white was allowed through the shell, enshrouded by swirling waltzers in their turquoise and purple, and pushed out again. Then they stripped his girl (Kathryn Morgan) down to her whites. So the pair missed out on each other, winsomely.
After "Why I…" came an edgy "Fancy Free," the 1944 Bernstein-Robbins prototype for "On the Town." (They miss out on the girls, like the last piece.) Against a New York skyline, the three sailors in the bar were nimble showoffs, but the groping and burps did not enhance. "Luce Nascosta" ("Unseen Light") by Bruno Moretti, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti for an ensemble of mixed couples, was the penultimate premiere. It was an amazing bore: what you saw in the first five minutes was what you were seeing a half-hour later. In a raucous, primitive tarantella, women in flouncy black skirts and bare midriffs frolicked, fingers spread, under Calatrava's orange moon that sprouted clouds on either side that gradually retracted, to hide behind the moon by the end.
Everything else in this performance was more exciting than the choreography. Slowly a niggling thought bubbled upward: there must be better new dance-makers out there than this bunch. And nothing dispelled it.
The opening--and hit of that program--was Christopher Wheeldon's 2005 "After the Rain," to two Arvo Part works from the 1970s. The second ("Spiegel im Spiegel") matched an ecstatic pas de deux by Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall. Arturo Delmoni, the concertmaster, sat in front of the curtain, and Cameron Grant played piano. The romantic three-note violin theme was like the Moonlight Sonata in major key. The dancing and music were so sweetly erotic that the audience didn't want it to stop, and roared its approval.