NYCB Winter Diaries: Justin Peck's Principia Drops to the Bottom of his Oeuvre

The ladies of Principia, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Winter Season at NYCB usually follows a pattern: one week of pure classics, and then week 2 brings new works. Week 2 brought the premiere of Justin Peck's by-now obligatory new work. The title: Principia, after Isaac Newton's book (why???). The music: Sufjan Stevens (again). The strengths of the ballet: Peck's consistent ability to create arresting corps formations. In one of the ballet's few interesting moments, there are three separate huddles of dancers onstage. One dancer breaks free and breaks up another group. That broken up group quickly unites again. This action is repeated several times. Why are these dancers so determined to remain in this tight huddle formation? It's mysterious, intriguing.

Principia, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Unfortunately there is almost nothing else good to say about this ballet. It combines two of Peck's worst traits: his mysterious love for Sufjan Stevens' music (which might be very effective as a film score but in dance comes across as mind-numbingly dull muzak), and his inability to choreograph effectively for soloists. Taylor Stanley, Tiler Peck, Brittany Pollack, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar and Daniel Applebaum are all excellent dancers but you'd never know it from the pretty, pleasing, but boring choreography Peck set on them. There are pas de deux, pas de trois, and solos, but they all run together without any distinguishing features. Taylor Stanley and Tiler Peck have a series of pas de deux where Tiler Peck repeats her trademark skill -- the slow, controlled passé with her carefully raising her free foot up her calf to her knee -- to the point where it comes across as an irritating affectation. This sort of thing is amazing to watch as she flies as, say, the Dewdrop, but when it's to Stevens' tinkly piano muzak it's considerably less impressive. Not to mention the ballet goes on for too damned long -- almost 40 minutes.

Justin Peck's best work justifies his role as resident choreographer of NYCB. The Times Are Racing, In Creases, Rodeo are all modern classics and Belles Lettres underrated. But if you've noticed, all of them used danceable, pulsating music. Principia is his fourth collaboration with Stevens and every ballet set to Stevens music gets weaker.

This brief clip of Principia basically sums up the whole ballet. It drops to the bottom of Justin Peck's ouevre, physics pun intended.

Taylor Stanley in The Runaway, photo @ Andrea Mohin
How limiting Peck's choreography is was painfully evident after the intermission. The curtain rose of Kyle Abraham's The Runaway. Taylor Stanley is alone onstage, with only a spotlight following him. And he begins a long solo that mixes the torso shaking moves of hip hop with adagio moves (long exposed developpés, arabesque penchées, and applause-winning balances) that look like they're out of an Enrico Cecchetti class exercise. It might be a mishmash of a ballet, but it's stunning work. Stanley returns over and over again to anchor The Runaway, each time captivating the audience with his androgynous, charismatic blend of hip hop, modern dance and classical ballet technique. The music mixes Nico Muhly with Kanye West and Jay-Z and the costumes by Giles Deacon render some of the dancers almost unrecognizable. But far from limiting the dancers' movement, the anonymity by which the costumes render these dancers seems to free them. Ashley Bouder and Sara Mearns in particular, whose dancing in classical ballets has become increasingly hard and constricted, both moved with a new-found freedom and expansiveness.

Mearns and Pazcoguin, photo@ Paul Kolnik
Despite the eclectic blend of music and the occasionally uncomfortable lyrics (one lyric is" And I think about killing myself/And I love myself way more than I love you, so .../Today I thought about killing you, premeditated murder"), The Runaway is maybe the most compelling display of NYCB's talent that I've seen in a new work in years. It acknowledges that NYCB are not just great at ballet, they are great dancers, and can absorb the rhythms of hip-hop as easily as Stravinsky. The whole ballet is wonderful, but I'll point out a few moments: Roman Mejia stunning in a solo that involves delicate little gargouillades; Sara Mearns in a manège of space-devouring pique turns which takes advantage of her amplitude of movement; a pas de deux between Mearns and Georgina Pazcoguin; and the finale which has all the dancers back onstage in a beautiful,  quiet ballad "Don't Miss It" by James Blake. And that's pretty much what I have to say about The Runaway. Don't miss it!

I could go on but the dancing speaks for itself.

One of Taylor Stanley's incredible solos, set to music by Kanye West:

Mearns and Pazcoguin in a female-female pas de deux:

The beautiful, haunting finale to James Blake's "Don't Miss It" which also includes the dancing of Peter Walker, Christopher Grant, Spartak Hoxha and Ashley Bouder:

Tyler Angle and Tiler Peck, photo @ Erin Baiano
The evening opened with William Forsythe's Herman Schmerman, which was made in 1992 and has compelling moments but seems dated. First of all, even if you knew nothing about the ballet you could tell that this is a ballet from the "Wendy" era of NYCB. The dark stage, the black leotards, the electronica score, the spiky, pretzel-ish choreography. That was the stuff Wendy Whelan excelled in and those types of work dominated NYCB when she was the prima ballerina. But today's NYCB dancers are not particularly suited for this sort of thing. The opening quintet of dancers were fine dancers but all uncomfortable with Forsythe's style -- Sara Mearns too lush, Unity Phelan too gangly without enough control of her limbs, apprentice Naomi Corti stunning with beautiful long lines but also looking like a fish out of water. The men were even worse -- two of the company's most stylish dancers (Joseph Gordon and Harrison Ball) trying hard to look mod and edgy despite their beautiful fifth position and flying bouffant hair.

Herman Schmerman is split into two almost completely separate ballets: the opening quintet and the ensuing pas de deux. In the case of the pas de deux, Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle tried their best, but they are not Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, or Sylvie Guillem, or any of the freakishly flexible, dominatrix-type dancers that can make this ballet work. Tyler Angle did look nice in the yellow skirt.

Here are Wendy and Jock. They could make this ballet work because they're, well, Wendy and Jock:

Harrison Ball in Mozartiana
In the repertory evenings in the second week Sara Mearns gave the most sloppy, graceless performance of Mozartiana I've ever witnessed, and Russell Janzen was hopelessly out of depth with the fast footwork of this ballet. Mearns seemed to think bobbing her head and flailing her arms would power her through the difficult Theme and Variations solos. Only Harrison Ball in the gigue looked like he belonged in the ballet. Piano Concerto #2 also received a rather ragged performance from the corps de ballet, although Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle were very fine as the lead couple. And Lauren Lovette needs to project a lot more urgency as Waltz Girl in Serenade. Right now she's lovely to look at but so blank and dull.

But there were bright spots: Emilie Gerrity was excellent as both the Dark Angel in Serenade and in the Pas de Trois of Agon. Gonzalo Garcia's second Apollo was better characterized and more smoothly danced, with even sweeter rapport with his trio of muses (Sterling Hyltin, Abi Stafford, Lauren Lovette). Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen in Agon got the geometrical severity of the work, if not the crackling sexual tension. And Ask La Cour, Teresa Reichlen, Andrew Scordato and Claire Kretzschmar made a strong case for Orpheus continuing in the repertory.

But really, it was the performance of The Runaway that reminded audiences that at their best, NYCB is still the greatest ballet company in the world.


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