Since the success of Polyphonia, which he created for New York City Ballet in 2001, Christopher Wheeldon has become one of the most sought after choreographers in the world. This season the company has both commissioned a new ballet (Les Carillons) by the choreographer and gained the rights to a ballet that premiered at the Royal Ballet in 2006 (DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse). While neither is Wheeldon’s best work, both are welcome additions to the NYCB repertoire.
The ability to enjoy DGV seems to me largely dependent on how irritating one finds Michael Nyman’s driving minimalist score. The piece (MGV: Musique à Grande Vitesse) was composed at the request of a European railroad company; and if Nyman’s music may at first express the ratcheting excitement of being propelled forward at high-speeds, it soon comes to convey instead the tedium of a long train ride.
I found myself intrigued by Wheeldon’s choreography in spite of this. Often in other works, his choreographic style seems steeped in the lessons of George Balanchine: pieces like Polyphonia have demonstrated both Wheeldon’s attention to form (corporeal and musical) and a poignant, human sensitivity. DGV feels to me more in the vein of William Forsythe’s earlier works, or of those of contemporary choreographers like Wayne McGregor or Benjamin Millipied: it is a bit more extreme in the extensions and contortions of the body than usual for Wheeldon, a bit less tasteful, a bit more detached from humanity.
And yet, it almost works, in part because Wheeldon often goes against the grain of Nyman’s music. As the piece opens, the bodies of dancers of the corps de ballet seem to pulse, churning rhythmically from side to side like the wheels of a train; later, they make repetitive, snake-like patterns as they move across the stage en masse. Once, amidst constant motion, a crowd of dancers runs to nowhere as they stretch their arms in front of them. In the final pas de deux (danced energetically on the night I saw the ballet by Ana Sophia Scheller and Amar Ramasar), the two dancers seem to revel in the intensity of their steps—thrumming bodies, uncontrolled grins, arms that wind dangerously and swiftly around each other’s necks. Yet the first soloist couple (Sara Mearns and Robert Fairchild) dance sinuously and slowly, all carefully supported backbends and gently revolving promenades. And when another dancer (Wendy Whelan) is carried on stage with her body flat above Craig Hall’s arms, all the frenzied movement seems to still. (The remainder of this adagio, however, despite sensual performances by Whelan and Hall, is less engaging.)
With moments like these, and with the large sheets of metal at the back of the stage that look, a bit, like the sides a wrecked train, the ballet takes on a certain wistfulness. It is hardly perfect—there are some stretches of the ballet that fall into disorganized repetitiveness—but I do think Wheeldon has worked with this often slick and mechanical aesthetic in a far more human way than is usual.
Les Carillons is somewhat more traditional—a plotless ballet with a large cast of twenty dancers and music from Georges Bizet’s L’Arlésienne. It is, perhaps, best understood as a set of vignettes, brief suggestions of stories. In one section, for example, Whelan wanders through cheerfully moving dancers as if lost in thought; in another, Tiler Peck glances down at her own feet as they swivel in and out en pointe—seemingly astonished by the movements of her own limbs—before she dances playfully with two men. Wheeldon combines allusions to Spanish dance and ballet with some success; while there are several distinctly original (and fascinating) variations on classical ballet steps, however, these sometimes feel not organic but awkwardly imposed upon the piece.
There is, unfortunately, very little relation between the scenery, a painterly backdrop by Jean-Marc Puissant, and the black and jewel-toned costumes designed by Mark Zappone. The backdrop begins as an abstract watercolor in many hues of gray: the left side looks like long, vertical columns; on the right side of the stage the paint curls like a giant snail shell while at the top corner a stroke of whitewash seems to have been carelessly applied. As the piece progresses, this painting is lit in various colors: rose, russet, a vaguely sickly green; and yet, it is very rare that the colors actually look well beside the costumes. It is a shame, as a more unified design might have helped the slightly sprawling choreography to cohere.