Here’s a question: how many Swarovski crystals does it take to hide the fact that a ballet is lifeless? The NYCB’s bet is eight hundred thousand.
That’s how many gems are boasted by the candy-colored costumes of the company’s fall centerpiece, Play Time, choreographed by Gianna Reisen with music by Solange. The work, which was the focus of much of the season’s promotional material, was certainly intended to attract a younger crowd, and succeed in that aim it did.
It is not typically a good sign when a performance’s crowning moment coincides with the raising of the first curtain. Having been primed by Balanchine’s undeniable Symphony in C, the audience returned to their seats buzzing after intermission. The tableau of dancers revealed by the dimming of the lights and curtain’s rise earned a resounding collective gasp of astonishment. It was also the last gasp of the night.
Glazed with crystals and set ablaze by tightly focused spotlights on an otherwise darkened stage, the cast’s costumes illuminated the entire hall with every color of the rainbow. They appeared to be sources of light themselves. The slightest movement of either dancer or spectator activated the refractive potential of hundreds of crystals on each of the ten costumes, meaning that every breath, every unconscious twitch of the eye, triggered a minor firework show. The audience was floored before a note had been played or a pointe popped. The spectacle felt something like being dropped into the center of Times Square at night.
Indeed, the costumes, designed by Alejandro Gómez Palomo and the focal point of the company’s Fall Fashion Gala, provided a dazzling entry point into the crippling flaws of this production.
The initial awe provoked by the ensemble gave way within a few moments to something less welcome: confusion. As the performance began, it became nearly impossible to discern just what was before the audience. Always the action appeared obstructed, oblique.
The reason for this disorientation was twofold and intentional: First, the crystals create an impenetrable curtain over the dancers of shooting and shifting light that rebuffs visual grasp—they impair one’s vision like sun glare across a windshield. Second, the shape and structure of the costumes deny any apprehension or appreciation of the human form.
Palomo’s fashion-industry notoriety stems from his “genderless” label and his “androgynous” silhouettes. How, then, does this mission translate to the ballet stage, on which basic distinctions between the male and female form are generally accentuated and exploited? Undeterred, Palomo appends nonsensical boxes, cones, and rods onto any part of the body that would otherwise betray the gender or distinct form of the dancer underneath. Even if one could break past the first line of defenses, the impenetrable barricade of lights, one would still find nothing familiar underneath. The result is not just the disappearance of any recognizable male or female form, but also of any recognizable human form.
And this design decision should not be confused with poor planning or ignorance. Palomo’s website claims the designer created a “collection of outfits that blinded the audience,” which seems more than a bit shameless; how can this be anything other than antagonism?
The dancers, too, seemed held hostage by the absurd decisions. Their movement was encumbered and flightless. What few leaps and lifts there were appeared limited by the awkwardness of the garb, and only a few dancers—the ever-springy Chun Wai Chan, for example—achieved any significant gesture of verticality or flight. The majority of the performance felt tediously horizontal and subject to the effects of gravity.
Despite this, there remained the hope that the music could salvage something of note. Solange’s involvement, after all, had fostered much of the frenzy surrounding the night. I admire Solange’s versatile extra-balletic efforts, and her score reflects a broad range of musical knowledge, melding oriental, R&B, and classical influences. But it too feels constrained by the conceptual cage imposed upon the whole affair. The heart of jazz giving the composition life is never permitted to beat too passionately—doing so might shake loose some of the crystals.
An aimless tension meanders in and out, shy at most points and completely reticent in others. No internal nor relational tension can project itself outward; there is no “fitting together” of the dancers (how can something with no form fit with something else?), no erotic embrace. A disconnect remains even in moments of meeting.
What we are left with is a ballet defined by its own invisibility. All organic substance and light vanishes behind the artificial protrusions and projections. A dancer cannot dance when his body is made invisible, nor can a choreographer choreograph an invisible body, nor can a musician compose a score for invisible choreography. This disappearance of substance, here both literal and figurative, is the endpoint of this thirst for total deconstruction.
Glamorized hostility and glitzy nihilism—that’s what Play Time offers. The choice to sever the audience from the art is nothing if not offensive. This enmity between artist and audience hints at a quiet misanthropy present in much of the arts—think Koons’s sneering balloon animals or Serra’s $175,000 Tilted Arc, designed so as to increase the misery of the daily commuter. Some glittery (and expensive) mess of pottage we’ve traded for.
Of course, things need not be this way. First, it’s not as if goofy or grand costumes necessarily cripple a performance—Balanchine’s Vienna Waltzes, with its almost comically elegant ball gowns and tuxedos, or even Ratmansky’s mad Whipped Cream (which succeeded Play Time at the Koch), disprove that notion. Nor must androgyny necessarily muddle art to its detriment. Munch’s The Scream proves this.
But more importantly, there is sufficient contemporary talent to reconstruct what has been so brazenly deconstructed. Consider another piece included on the season’s schedule: Alexei Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008), scored with Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102. The second movement alone contains more honesty and fire than the entirety of Play Time.
There is still much to be enjoyed. Eight hundred thousand crystals not required.