For Christopher Wheeldon’s return to New York City Ballet, he asked the artist Kylie Manning not just for backdrops and costumes but to, as he says, “form a dance within her world.”
In Kylie Manning’s paintings, figures swirl and emerge from broad landscapes. The wall-filling pieces can provoke a physical reaction, akin to looking over the rail of a bridge across a river. On a recent visit to the artist’s studio in Ridgewood, Queens, steadiness arrived in the form of tea and snacks: Manning, 39, wearing a paint-splattered green jumpsuit with black Crocs, had laid out dulce de leche fudge from the bodega down the street, along with chocolate she brought home from Geneva, where she’d just installed her latest solo show at Pace Gallery’s Swiss outpost.
In “Archipelago” (2023), one of the works on display in Switzerland, two faces are immediately obvious amid shades of white and rust, as if rising from snow-covered dirt. But the rest feels less clear: Is there a third figure, head in hands, between the initial two? Is there a fourth, embracing another’s belly? Manning’s figures aren’t gendered, and she wants viewers to interpret the subjects and settings on their own terms. “It’s about spending time with them, letting them unravel for you like a song,” she says. Typically, a viewer might only spend a few minutes with a painting. So Manning’s excited that, starting on May 4, the audience at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater will get to gaze at her works for a half-hour or so — as part of the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s new piece for the New York City Ballet’s Spring Gala.
Last fall, Wheeldon, 50, went to see Manning’s paintings at Pace’s Los Angeles gallery and left impressed “by their sense of scale and movement and turbulent use of color and form,” he says. “As you stand in front of the paintings, the figures start to take shape in a very choreographic way.” The pair share a friend who grew up with Manning in Juneau, Alaska, although she spent parts of her childhood in San Blas and Sayulita, Mexico. While she was getting her M.F.A. at the New York Academy of Art, she had a captain’s license to operate 500-ton commercial fishing boats on international waters and spent summers catching salmon on the Pacific Coast; her abiding appreciation for distant horizons and crashing waves comes through in her compositions.
Back in New York, Wheeldon visited Manning’s studio and they talked about Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (1966), a shared obsession. Wheeldon, who spent seven years as City Ballet’s resident choreographer and now also choreographs and directs Broadway shows, used the song for his 2020 piece “The Two of Us”; Manning’s Los Angeles show took its title from the track. “For a classical ballet choreographer and a painter to be focused on this same song felt odd and strange,” Manning says. Wheeldon soon suggested they work together, emphasizing that he wasn’t looking for mere backdrops but instead wanted to “form a dance within her world.” He sent Manning a piece of music he had been considering, the Austrian American composer Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 “Verklärte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”), which became her soundtrack as she painted the two works that would ultimately inspire Wheeldon’s latest dance.
“Verklärte Nacht” is based on Richard Dehmel’s 1896 poem of the same name in which, during a walk under the moon, a woman confesses to a man that she’s pregnant, but not with his baby. The man, seemingly influenced by the beauty of the nature around them, ultimately says he’ll accept the baby as his own. Some of the writing now sounds dated, but its themes nonetheless resonated with Manning, who is currently expecting. “Being very afraid of the art world’s stigma [around pregnancy] and reading a poem that had to do with the complications and the fear of telling people that you’re pregnant [felt] insane,” she says — another sign she was pursuing the right project.
Unusually for Manning, the works she created for the ballet are figureless landscapes — the dancers will take the place of brushstrokes adding up to bodies. One new painting, “You Into Me, Me Into You,” glows with airy strokes of turquoise, pink and orange, while the other, “Pareidolia,” is awash with dark forest green and purplish blue, “hopefully giving the viewer a specific memory of when they were in a dawn or a dusk like that,” Manning says.
Choreographers have long partnered with visual artists: Pablo Picasso designed the Andalusian sets and costumes for the Russian choreographer Léonide Massine’s “Le Tricorne,” which premiered in London in 1919 (the curtain he designed can be seen at the New-York Historical Society), while Robert Mapplethorpe created a set that included a burning fire for the choreographer Lucinda Childs’s 1986 “Portraits in Reflection.” Isamu Noguchi collaborated on more than 20 dances with the choreographer Martha Graham; in “Cave of the Heart,” first performed in New York in 1947, Graham, in the role of the Sorceress, at one point slips into a “spider dress” made by Noguchi, in which brass wires curve over her shoulders and emanate from her body.
Though Manning didn’t directly reference Noguchi, her intention is for the dancers to be within her work in a similar way — she also designed their costumes, androgynous crimson stretch-net unitards for both men and women. “Red is strong to the point of being maybe violent,” Manning says. “It’s not necessarily about blood or anything like that, just that it has a great power to it that I wanted to give to the dancers.”
To fill the Lincoln Center stage, Manning’s two paintings needed to be about seven times larger than is customary for her work. Normally, to create texture and luminosity, she applies rabbit skin glue to Belgian linen canvases before layering on color. For these supersize versions, which stretch 40 feet tall by 60 feet wide, the artist collaborated with the ballet’s scenic background painters, led by Susan Jackson, to evoke her aesthetic using acrylic paint and dye — “some stuff was laid down and poured, some stuff was thrown, some stuff was rolled over the top of it” — on fabrics of varying opacity (white shark’s tooth scrim, natural muslin) that could then be hung together and lit from the front and back to change the intensity of the colors throughout the performance. Manning says the aim wasn’t to imitate her painting but to “get the speed and the motion and the musicality of it.” When the dancers take their places, they’ll join a stream that ripples and whorls, revealing itself anew as it goes.