When watching dance, we tend to let our eyes dart around the stage freely, fastening on whatever catches our interest: perhaps the facial expressions of the lead pair, the design of a prop, or the feet of a particularly skillful corps member. The plotless but suspenseful contemporary dance show It Starts Now by Alejandro Cerrudo, which premiered at The Joyce Theater on September 28, rarely gives us such an option, because there is often only one place to look. Taking care to not overwhelm the audience, Cerrudo mutes the production’s color palette, dressing his dancers in earthy tones and forgoing a backdrop. He choreographs repetitive sections so we have time to examine how a sequence of complicated steps has been strung together. At times he even pares down the stage lighting to a single handheld light wielded by a soloist. Created for a post-pandemic audience, It Starts Now retrains our eyes to notice the tiniest details—but then, once Cerrudo has us looking exactly where he wants, we begin to doubt whether it is safe to trust our eyes at all. The result is thrilling.

The sixty-five-minute show is packed with subtle illusions and surreal props from its opening scene. A large sheet of white material on the stage floor has been folded over into a triangle, with a big lump along the diagonal. When the auditorium lights fall low, a man enters and tugs on a corner of the fabric, revealing the lump to be another dancer who has been wound up inside (it’s a wonder he was able to breathe). Nothing is quite what it appears.

Daniel Rae Srivastava in It Starts Now at The Joyce Theater. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor.

At other moments our sense of time is distorted. A bowler hat, which has been resting inert on the rim of the stage, suddenly appears white hot—for a moment it’s the only light in the room. A male dancer picks it up and begins to move at a snail’s pace, verging on mime or tableau vivant. Over the course of several long minutes, all he manages to do is bend his knees very slightly and raise up his hand to block a beam of light from his eyes. At last a female dancer runs in to join him; they embrace, and within seconds, his hat explodes with confetti and the lights fall dark.

Allusions to earlier decades suggest time travel, too. One male dancer performs an agitated solo to an audio recording of Charlie Chaplin’s final speech in the 1940 film The Great Dictator. A trio in vintage oversized jackets and bowler hats does a routine with their backs to the audience, for much of it using their upper bodies alone, feet planted. Perhaps Cerrudo also nods to the face-obscuring Magritte, whose bowler-topped men are often turned away from the viewer or have an object in front of their face. While the meaning of all this is abstruse, the work, like a funhouse mirror, remains pleasantly disconcerting.

In It Starts Now, concealment and mystery draw the viewer close. But in Andrea Miller’s sky to hold, created for the New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala and performed in the “Innovators & Icons” program, which opened October 1 at Lincoln Center, everything is laid out on a platter. The costumes by Esteban Cortázar (the Gala pairs fashion designers with choreographers) are sleek and prismatic—beiges and mauves in the first section give way to aquatic blues and greens in the middle sections, then saccharine oranges and reds for the finale. For much of the performance, the composer, Lido Pimienta, sings while standing on the corner of the stage. At the center is a love story between unnamed characters played by a queenly Sara Mearns and a suffering Taylor Stanley, who performs a solo made up of smooth, acrobatic floorwork. The pair tears their hearts out on stage, but in the end the production works against them—we are bombarded with too much spectacle in the space of a short thirty minutes. The happy ending, in which the entire ensemble rushes in to hug one another, did not feel earned.

Sara Mearns in Andrea Miller’s sky to hold with the New York City Ballet. Photo: Erin Baiano. 

If anything, the piece served to contrast Sidra Bell’s sharp Suspended Animation, the second new work made for the Gala. In the first section, dancers enter a black stage one by one like a procession of exotic flightless birds. Each is dressed in an enormous unique costume by Christopher John Rogers sewn from neon-bright fabrics—hot pink, lime, saffron, cornflower, and more—inspired by elements of aristocratic garb ranging from Tudor ruffs to ancien régime headgear. Spare, precise movements are separated by frequent pauses as the dancers move from one pose to the next. The outer costumes are shed eventually in favor of colored leotards that emphasize the contrasting proportions of the dancers. A music-free solo by the leggy Teresa Reichlen, who developpés so fluidly that at times she appears jointless, is followed by a section featuring the tiny Meghan Fairchild, whose clear, exquisite style is well suited to the choreography. The final section resembles a kinetic sculpture garden: each dancer takes up a small patch of the stage and performs a different cycle of movements. I hope to see it again.

The night concluded with Balanchine’s Western Symphony. The choreographer used to compare programs to menus; this was most definitely dessert. Mischievous, rowdy, silly, and joyful, the balletis set in a fictional Wild West where garishly attired dance-hall girls and cowboys leap, stomp, and twirl to orchestrated folk songs. (At last, choreography that permitted the dancers to move in time with the music.) The Denmark-born principal dancer Ask la Cour, who departs the company this season after more than twenty years, and the much shorter soloist Lauren King perform lifts, turns, and flirtatious hand waves with charming ease. The principals Lauren Lovette and Amar Ramasar seemed a little tight—the Adagio section is deceptively tricky—yet the crowd hollered and cheered. Like la Cour, both are retiring, Lovette this month and Ramasar next spring. The most convincing cowboy, by far, was the principal Andrew Veyette (who will remain with the company, thank goodness). He was the only dancer that came off as reckless as a bull rider. Wild combinations of pirouettes and tours were the technical highlight of the evening, but his acting—there were belt clutches, head shakes, feigned conversations—lifted his performance out of the city and into a Spaghetti Western.

Western Symphony is famous for its finale, in which the entire troupe performs fouetté turns as the curtain falls. As far as we can tell, the party continues ad infinitum. A ballet does not have to be serious to be seriously good.

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