Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Dance: Morphoses, Choreography & Design at the Guggenheim's Works & Process

So far as New York is concerned, Christopher Wheeldon is ballet’s golden child, the choreographer anointed by Diaghilev’s ghost to save his ancient religion of pointe and pomp from shoeless oblivion. Wheeldon still sets dances to Stravinsky, still commissions extravagant costumes, and still believes that no show is complete without a romantic pas-de-deux. Compared to the general NYCB standard, Wheeldon’s choreography is rather fresh, though I could do without his preservation of the trappings.

Those trappings were actually the focus of Sunday’s Works and Process program, featuring Wheeldon along with designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo, who collaborated on his ballet Commedia (a suite of riffs off Diaghilev’s Pulcinella, a ballet inspired by the characters of the even older Commedia dell’arte tradition), creating harlequin-like costumes (white unitards painted with black diamonds, colorful capes and masks, long black gloves and short tulle skirts) and an enormous painted backdrop of stylized faces that peer down at the dancers, scaled by the painting to the size of puppets.

This vision, too, is rather refreshing for ballet—traditionally as scene-stilted as opera, where the performers are dwarfed by parapets and fake trees and all other varieties of distracting nonsense. With Commedia, Wheeldon managed to include just enough trappings to satisfy the old guard, while keeping the stage clear enough for more modern minimalists. It was a small disappointment to find that this was motivated more by his limited budget and need to travel, rather than by a brave refusal to buy into a tired tradition.

Also on the topic of disappointment, I admit that I’m not a fan of Toledo’s costumes—I don’t like the hard geometry of the diamonds in black and white against the soft fantasy of the frothy tulle skirts in cantaloupe and mint green. I don’t like the red cape against the lime cape, or the red mask set against the lavender one. The designer’s intention was to create a kind of mayhem, an unintentioned chaos of color, but in the quiet, elegant theatre at the Guggenheim, that kind of visual noise is unwelcome.

Stravinsky, too, is always unwelcome to my ears, but when the music was off, and Wheeldon was demonstrating a kind of mock mini-rehearsal, working with a pair of dancers from NYCB on a short pas-de-deux, I bought at last into the choreographer’s magic—as a dancer, at least. In denim pants and button-down shirt (and striped socks once he did away with his boots in frustration), Wheeldon’s half-movements were more saturated with elegance than the dancers, performing fully and in flexible attire. The mere toss of Wheeldon’s hand, the implied line of his extended torso divulges a radiating grace that made the other dancers suddenly appear amateurish, unstudied, like teenagers at a high school talent show. If he’s going to single-handedly save the genre, he had better teach his dancers to move the way he does.

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