The spring gala featured premieres by the veteran Christopher Wheeldon and a newcomer, Alysa Pires. The surprise was the lack of contrast and risk.
In recent years, New York City Ballet has been paying a lot of attention to new voices, commissioning little-known choreographers or those known for work in forms other than ballet. True to that trend, the spring gala on Thursday featured a premiere by the little-known Canadian choreographer Alysa Pires, her first work for the company.
But also on the program was a premiere by Christopher Wheeldon, his 22nd work for the company. Wheeldon has been associated with City Ballet for 30 years — first as a dancer and then as its first resident choreographer, from 2001 to 2008. Back then, he was the new thing. Now he is the establishment, a ubiquitous presence in the world’s top ballet troupes who has extended his realm to include Broadway.
So Thursday’s program, which finished with Justin Peck’s 2017 sneaker ballet “The Times Are Racing,” might have had a changing-of-the-guard feel, a new-versus-old drama. Instead, it was a pleasant evening, the premieres both skillful compositions that are lovely to look at and go down easy. The surprise was the lack of contrast and risk, the evenness.
Wheeldon’s “From You Within Me” went first. It is set to Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht,” an 1899 work whose stormy, late-Romantic surges fueled the Freudian turmoil of Antony Tudor’s “Pillar of Fire,” among other highly dramatic dances. To this, Wheeldon adds the mood-setting of artwork by Kylie Manning.
There are two paintings, enormous and full of life. One, transformed into a translucent scrim at the front of the stage, is a swirl of oceanic blues and forest greens suggestive of a coastline and turbulent waters. The other, a backdrop, is more of a cloudscape of peach and turquoise. We see the start of the dance through the front scrim, which later rises to reveal a clear stage and the backdrop, its colors shifting in Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting.
Wheeldon responds mainly to the swirl. What a lot of turning there is in this dance. The cast begins and ends in a circular clump, surging like surf with one dancer after another spouting upward or stretching outward. But in between, the work flows and flows, one section washing into the next.
There are short solos and duets — several of them same-sex, which isn’t uncommon at City Ballet lately but has been absent or less emphasized in Wheeldon’s other works for the company. Megan Fairchild and Indiana Woodward are gently featured, and there is a central figure, a loner played by Sara Mearns, who starts dressed like everyone else in a red stretch-net unitard, dark in the legs (the costumes are by Manning and Marc Happel), but changes near the end into a blue-to-purple version.
Wheeldon presents Mearns, just back from a six-month break because of depression, with sensitivity. But rather than her wildness, he shows us her calm. For all of its motion, the whole work is restrained, reserved, well-behaved while the music emotes, soft-focused even after the scrim lifts. Wheeldon gives the score’s moment of transfiguration to the backdrop, letting both the dancers and us gaze at it in wonder, as we might behold a glorious dawn. The moment resonates, though it’s a bit of a choreographic cop-out.
The hint of story in Mearns’s role — an L-shape she makes in one solo is briefly complemented by the shape of a partner, Roman Mejia; that costume change — remains in subdued melancholy. The Schoenberg churns, and Manning’s brushstrokes can be rough, but Wheeldon stays smooth.
Pires’s “Standard Deviation” is brighter and more lively. It benefits from an exciting original score by Jack Frerer that combines boom-crash orchestration with woozy portamenti and jazz elegance, especially in the saxophone playing of Chris Hemingway. Frerer’s music gives Pires a more defined structure than the Schoenberg gives Wheeldon, and she shows off an impressive grasp of dance architecture: quasi-martial group formations, arms behind backs, that change shape as the dancers pivot or peel off or sweep across the stage in squeegee-like lines.
As in “From You Within Me,” a few principals get a little special attention: Adrian Danchig-Waring and Mira Nadon, as a couple, and Tiler Peck on her own. (The costumes, by Dana Osborne, are also two-tone unitards, light above dark, and the principals are differentiated by color and cut.) But this differentiation is more formal than character defining or dancer revealing. It’s one of many tools that Pires deploys to keep things varied and interesting and moving along.
Pires is young, 32, but this is not her first ballet. She has made work for the National Ballet of Canada, and that experience shows. “Standard Deviation,” while not heralding a radically new voice, is a piece of fine craftsmanship, a show of skill that seems not yet to have decided what to say. Sandwiched between the Wheeldon and the Peck, it doesn’t deviate from them very much.
“The Times Are Racing” is a high-drawer piece by Peck, who as the company’s current resident choreographer and artistic adviser had a hand in choosing Pires. Impelled by a grungy, anthemic recorded score by Dan Deacon, it has the youthful drive and communal invention (kaleidoscopic group patterns, bits of silent tap dancing) that announced Peck as the new thing, 10 years ago, with less of the sophomoric wistfulness that plagues and arrests much of his work. Despite the political catchwords on Humberto Leon’s streetwear costumes, it doesn’t have a lot to say, but it has the most verve of the three works on the program.
Curiously, all three share a choreographic idea. The fountain-like circle-clump that opens the Wheeldon also opens the Peck and appears in the Pires. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that repetition — clichés always circulate — but it underscores an impression of commonality or an echo-chamber effect. What was fresh when Peck was new has become the norm.