Who remembers Crystal Pepsi? Not many. More importantly, who remembers what it tasted like? Fewer. It never was the “clear alternative” to what everyone was drinking. It was a bad idea that a great company couldn’t let go of; even today, its sales limp along on Amazon.
Last evening, New York City Ballet tried again to introduce a “clear alternative” to its unmatchable core product. The Shimmering Asphalt by Swedish modern dance choreographer Pontus Lidberg showed the company's willingness to make the same mistake over and over again while hoping for a different result. Indiscriminate reliance on choreographers from the non-ballet dance scene to save ballet from itself (we jest) has failed again. While there are exceptions, that is, contemporary choreographers who actually have new, imaginative ideas that dovetail effectively with ballet (e.g., Preljocaj and Bigonzetti), most do not. The best that most can come up with is an amateurish garage ballet or basement ballet that should stay in the garage or basement.
The Shimmering Asphalt was loaded with cliché-ridden movement accented by pretentious lighting and danced to a mind-numbing, dance-averse commission by David Lang. It began with Sara Mearns standing alone center stage under an ominous combination of light and shadow. The audience was being told that something was so very seriously important and that we were, at the outset, right in the middle of one of Sara's great dramas. Not. What followed was a group of highly individual principals working as a corps and then stepping out for pas de deux or solos which conveyed nothing. Why was everyone “acting”? Answer: They were “acting” because the movement was so empty that they had to fill it up with something. They were “acting” in an effort to mask shallow choreography. We can understand how Lidberg’s creations are appreciated by retired ballerinas who still want to perform on stage but whose techniques are no longer rigorous enough for ballet. Fine. But presenting The Shimmering Asphalt on NYCB’s stage does nothing, repeat nothing, but make the audience wish all the more that they were seeing a Balanchine work that night.
The costumes by Rachel Quarmby-Spadaccini were very attractive blue-gray short, strip-cloth skirted tunics for the women and short strip-cloth skirts for the men who were shirtless. Save the costumes. Ditch the ballet.
Justin Peck’s new work, The Times are Racing, was his latest retro-dance in an effort to appeal to our fondness for Robbins. Set to Dan Deacon's pounding pop score that you probably would hear at an Equinox aerobics class, this particular dance took us all the way back to the Joffrey era when that company was fielding Deuce Coup, Trinity, Light Rain, Sacred Grove on Mount Tamalpais and other California-type ballets. That is not meant to be a disparaging description; the point is that Peck’s piece was retro with an infusion of street dance and pop-tap in sneakers along with grunge-video costuming – cutoff jeans, tee shirts with pronouncements (DEFY, etc), hybrid trench coat/boxer’s robes, hoodies, a costume theme that conveyed “whatever". The dancers worked their tails off and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. There was some entertainment value in the minute or so finale; but is New York City Ballet’s current mission to bring to the stage whatever entertainment it can sell or is it to expand its ballet repertory? Officially, it is the latter. But it seems that if they don’t have a good steak to serve to diners, they'll give us a good hamburger, and then try to convince us that it’s the most incredible thing. We. want. steak.
We wish the boss would be as demanding about the quality of new choreography as he is about the quality of new dancers whom he hires. If a new “ballet" is not worthy or ready to go on stage, don’t let it. Be brave and say no, or no, not yet or no, it’s not ready or no, it’s not close enough to our mission. Entertainment is not NYCB's formal mission. Expanding the ballet repertory is part of the formal mission, not expanding the repertory beyond ballet. Big difference in those two things; big, big difference.
Peter Martins’ own Fearful Symmetries to music by John Adams was the best crafted, most musical, most thoughtfully costumed piece on the program. We’ve always appreciated this ballet for its embrace of clear geometry of the limbs and the dancers formations. How thrilling it was last night to see them in all their eagerness come barreling down lighted diagonals at full speed as they created clear angles with their arms and legs. They personified the symmetries promised in the title with no fear at all. It showed off the dancers wonderfully and illustrated the characteristics that differentiate New York City Ballet artists from everyone else: speed, linear quality, energy, and a fearless approach to dance.
About five years ago, Martins featured Claire Kretzschmar and Ashly Isaacs in a little ballet, Mes Oiseaux, whose purpose was much like the purpose of his Eight Easy Pieces last Sunday afternoon: to highlight some of the many talented dancers in the corps. Claire and Ashly, principals in Fearful Symmetries, are very different dancers but equally appealing, Ashly has since had a few more opportunities to develop (along with a promotion) while Claire just began to receive plum roles a few seasons ago when she made an extraordinary debut in Balanchine’s Episodes. That wiry little Wendy body and Wendy profile with an inordinate amount of spunk and tomboyish charm has us smitten. Claire was electric - the C in ConEd. Ashly was energetic also, but in a more forceful, earthen way. Their partners, Russell Janzen and Zachary Catazaro, who are among the biggest guys in the company, also moved with impressive speed and brilliance. The third couple Alston Macgill and Harrison Ball were fearless in the way one has to be fearless when white water rafting down monster rapids; they just went for it and didn’t look back.
Ashley Hod, Megan Johnson, Cameron Dieck and Peter Walker were among the other dozen and a half dancers who made up the power surge in Fearful Symmetries. And wasn’t it nice to see the ladies’ legs in tights that matched their tunics as opposed to the obnoxious trend of choreographers wanting to illuminate women’s bare leg musculature instead of balletic lines.
The H.H. Pump Bump, a fierce red, wiry stiletto, goes to Claire Kretzschmar (not her first one, either) for her outstanding performance in Fearful Symmetries. We’re sorry to have to miss her debut this Sunday in La Sonnambula, but we’ll catch up with that later.