Saturday, June 5, 2010

Dance: Christopher Wheeldon's Estancia at the New York City Ballet (with Danses Concertantes and Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet)

Tuesday, June 1st was the second showing of Estancia, one of seven new ballets commissioned this season by the New York City Ballet under the "Architecture of Dance" rubric, for which Santiago Calatrava has created the sets. I expected something modern, kinetic, and minimal. I've seen Wheeldon's work before, and while he is too much of a traditionalist for my tastes, for the antiquarian NYCB, he's a young Turk, more interested in static shapes than traveling jumps. Estancia is the first time I've seen him revert to one of ballet's most cloying traditions: plot. Though it can't be much longer than 20 minutes, this ballet proposes a love story in the Argentine Pampas, between a city boy and a country girl, the latter rejecting the advances of the former until he proves his manhood by conquering one of the region's wild horses.

Strictly choreographically, Estancia offers a few stunning passages. The five dancers in the roles of wild horses embody that particular equine breath, the trembling chest, pawing feet, and tossed head of the wild creature that first refuses to be conquered, until its spirit is broken, and its feet fall into a measured trot once the bridle is fitted. In partnering horse-dancers with people-dancers, Wheeldon creates exceptionally fresh and captivating pas-de-deux, impressionistic sequences of shapes describing not only the physical interaction of the human and equine body, but the exchange of power between the two. This break from the standard pas-de-deux, in which the male dancer supports the female as she turns innumerable circles around herself, is very welcome.

That said, the piece is not so modern as we might have hoped. I would have happily watched 20 minutes, 40 minutes, an hour of plotless human-equine interactions, but this wouldn't satisfy the typical NYCB audience. But, because this is a piece set in the country, the jeweled and feathered pomp native to the theater would not suffice either. Wheeldon takes recourse, oddly, to the free-wheeling sun-and-dust palette of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Estancia has the feeling of a ballet sequence in a Broadway show staged in the 1950s, Carousel or Oklahoma!; Estancia! would in fact be a title more fitting in tone.

As for Calatrava, what is his contribution? Not the kinetic, architectural sculpture I had expected, but a watercolor-esque painted backdrop of swaying grasses and a few stark palms. The show is beautifully lit, and as the action occurs over a 24 hour period, the backdrop does glow beautifully with the first pink light of dawn, when the city boy and country girl wake up to find themselves lovers, and discovered.

I can forgive Estancia for not meeting my expectations, for it interested me nevertheless, but cannot forgive NYCB for sandwiching the piece between two antiquated Balanchine pieces, the first a parade of harlequin-like trios who present us with their "charming" escapades as if we were royals and they our court entertainers, and the last an example of that airless jeweled and feathered nonsense, an interminable series of emotionless drawing room postures better suited to a fancy-dress photo shoot than the stage of art or entertainment. What is the point of commissioning new works, bringing together contemporary artists, if you are going to then subject your audience to offensively outmoded selections both before and after, poisoning both any anticipation and any lingering sweetness from the piece that is new? Fie.

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