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An Ephemeral Portrait of an Artist in a Hall of Mirrors

by Alastair Macauley, The New York Times, October 29, 2007.

Over the weekend American Ballet Theater staged two world premieres by different choreographers at City Center: on Friday night Benjamin Millepied’s “From Here on Out,” on Saturday night Jorma Elo’s “C. to C.” Both have emerged as choreographers only during this millennium, though Mr. Elo is the resident choreographer for Boston Ballet and has created works for both of New York’s leading ballet companies and Mr. Millepied is well known as a New York City Ballet dancer. This, however, is my first encounter with the work of either.

“C. to C.” and “From Here on Out” are different enough that they can run consecutively on the same program (as they did on Saturday and will again on Thursday) without looking samey. And neither looks much like anything else in the company’s repertory. But both use modern scores that have emerged from the Minimalist or post-Minimalist wing of classical music: Mr. Elo employs Philip Glass’s “Musical Portrait of Chuck Close” and three études, all played onstage by the pianist Bruce Levingston, and Mr. Millepied uses a commissioned orchestral score by Nico Muhly in which Baroque ideas are treated along lines that sound related to some scores by John Adams.

Although the title “C. to C.” may evoke the Irving Berlin song “Cheek to Cheek,” Mr. Elo’s subtitle, “Close to Chuck,” makes his intention plain. (The Glass-Close friendship goes back to the late 1960s.) Not only does the ballet’s music start with Mr. Glass’s aural portrait of the artist, but its backdrops have also been designed by Mr. Close. Mr. Close, who in 1988 suffered a spinal aneurysm, came onstage in a wheelchair to join the curtain calls and to applaud its cast. Since it was Mr. Levingston who commissioned and performed the 2005 premiere of Mr. Glass’s musical portrait of Mr. Close, the ballet proves, as Robert Sandla notes in a Playbill essay, quite a hall of mirrors.

So far so interesting, but Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the dance? Now that I have seen Mr. Close in his wheelchair, I imagine that aspects of Mr. Elo’s movement will acquire new significance for me: “C. to C.” puts emphasis on arm gesture, upper-body movement, occasional doll-like automaton motions and extensive lifting. I imagine too that I will reinterpret the opening scene, in which five dancers, male and female, are shown in full-length crinolines. Marcelo Gomes, in particular, with his powerful thorax, moves like a centaur. Later in the ballet, with his back to the audience, he has a solo that depicts some drastic limitation of spinal motion.

I now assume these moments are intended to reflect Mr. Close’s physical limitations. By contrast Mr. Elo also gives his dancers passages of lyrical fluency and, in some cases, bravura, as when Herman Cornejo effortlessly tosses off a quick pair of double air turns. Are we to guess that these tell us about Mr. Glass’s relative physical ease?

Bah. Though to delve further into its postviewing meanings may be food for cleverness, “C. to C.” is at no point remarkably interesting as movement. The centaur possibility for Mr. Gomes in his skirt doesn’t go anywhere impressive. The spinal-limitation sequence for him is highlighted, stage center, as something dramatically important, but has little substance as movement. Like the doll-type motions, these ideas seem thrown in as mere theatrical effects. And if there is a serious connection between the fragmented Close close-up portraits that are among the backdrops and the sometimes Chopin-like, thinly pretty ripplings of Mr. Glass’s music, Mr. Elo’s choreography does not point them out on a first viewing.

It is Mr. Millepied who, though less experienced and eminent as a choreographer, has made the more substantial dance composition. “From Here on Out” is also, admittedly, more conventional; it seems to have learned lessons from numerous ballets, from Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces” on (maybe even moments from “The Sleeping Beauty”), including the undeniably influential William Forsythe. (I am inclined to blame Mr. Forsythe for the current international trend of lighting dancers from angles that will make them partly or largely shadowed to the audience, but Mr. Millepied adopts this practice in only one section.) Several of these lessons are good. Mr. Muhly’s score has, as the overture alone shows, a striking range of sonority and structure, and Mr. Millepied’s ballet has craft, discipline and a welcome energy.

It starts with all 12 dancers clustered like a nucleus but stretching out: hence, surely, its title. The nucleus expands. Suddenly, for most of the rest of the ballet, you’re watching male-female couples, like pairs of chromosomes. Toward the end of the ballet the two sexes separate. Briefly you see various new combinations: two men and one woman, or four men and two women. Then you find all six couples together in ensemble; next the opening nucleus image again, which explodes a second time as the ballet ends.

The best sign of Mr. Millepied’s serious potential as a choreographer is the pointedly individual character he gives to each pas de deux. One star couple “” Paloma Herrera and Mr. Gomes at the Friday premiere, Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg on Saturday, with Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns due to inherit the roles at two performances this week “” is given the most sustained duet. Although I am not persuaded that Mr. Millepied has tailor-made a style for Ms. Herrera (or Ms. Murphy), as the best choreographers surely do for their first casts, she certainly responds keenly and with full commitment to the challenge.

But duets for other couples use quite different inflections. Each has its own temperature. In general Mr. Millepied’s pas de deux have an air of push-pull inseparability (can’t live with you, can’t live without you) that will prove irksome if found in his other ballets. But there is a sense of phrasing and driving impetus here to be greeted with applause and hope.

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