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Jay Rogoff: New York City Ballet Shakes Things Up With New Works

The New York City Ballet has the richest dance repertory in the world, with its treasure trove of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins works. Surprisingly, NYCB also commissions more new ballets than any other company. Wednesday night at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, three upstate premieres included one major surprise, the first work for a ballet company by Kyle Abraham, the MacArthur grant-winning modern choreographer.

The Runaway, which debuted last fall, fuses ballet with hip-hop in exciting ways. Taylor Stanley begins the work with an amazing solo, both jittery and smooth. He appears half-human, half-animal, and, in keeping with Abraham’s title, half-slave, half-free. He starts bent over to the ground from the waist and, through a series of spasmodic moves, fights to an erect posture. At one remarkable point he sustains a long balance on one bent leg, his working leg thrust toward the sky. His hands and even his muscles seem to flutter as he labors toward smoothness and freedom. Nico Muhly’s music for violinist Nicolas Danielson and pianist Nancy McDill has unexpected accents and misplaced rhythms. It feels exactly right.

A giddy unison duet for Sara Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin employs slow sweeps of arms, sashays close to the ground with knees bent, and wide-legged walking. It’s fun to see great ballerinas work in idioms borrowed from African dance, but the costumes by Giles Deacon create some confusion. They exoticize aspects of African dress, including the women’s outrageous black wigs. Two men, Spartak Hoxha and Roman Mejia, even wear black fur collars and cuffs, like stereotypical savages in racist animated cartoons from the 1930s. The effect is shocking, and it’s hard to tell what Abraham, who is African American, intends.

After the opening sections, The Runaway abandons live music for recorded hip-hop excerpts, and at one point Mearns unleashes a brilliantly classical circle of turning leaps to Kanye West’s song “Power.” But in contrast with Muhly’s score, the recordings sound rhythmically simplistic, although Abraham’s choreography remains terrific to the end. The rest of the marvelous cast includes Ashley Bouder, Christopher Grant, and Peter Walker.

Justin Peck’s 2019 Principia, for 24 dancers, has a commissioned Sufjan Stevens score that in places lightly recalls Satie, Copland, and Stravinsky. Its lack of firm structure and development, however, hampers the ballet. Peck, NYCB’s resident choreographer, gives Stanley and Indiana Woodward strong material, especially in a fast legato piano passage, and he generates Broadway-style excitement early in the work, when the entire cast dances first in unison, then in counterpoint. But ingratiating as Peck’s friendly partnering and corps work can be, the music’s quick takes often keep him from fully developing his ideas. Thus, in the drawn-out finale, soloists and corps keep exiting and entering until things grind to a halt.

The evening opened with Varied Trio (in four), a handsome 2013 pas de deux by NYCB ballet master Jean-Pierre Frohlich. Amar Ramasar partners Sterling Hyltin in the company’s only work to the wonderful music of Lou Harrison. Frohlich’s choreography captures the misterioso North African feeling of one movement and the gamelan-like atmosphere of the finale, developing friendship and tenderness between the dancers. It made a fine appetizer for the other works’ explorations of feeling in our time.

Jay Rogoff has published six collections of poetry and writes about dance for The Hopkins Review and Ballet Review. His next book, Loving in Truth: New and Selected Poems, will appear from LSU Press next year.

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