“See the music, hear the dance.” Balanchine’s famous motto was undoubtedly an impetus behind Partita, a work premiered by the New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck for the winter season’s “New Combinations” program, which will return in April for “Visionary Voices.”

Peck, whose name recently appeared on credits of Spielberg’s West Side Story as the choreographer, has created a sneaker ballet for eight dancers set to Partita for 8 Voices, an a cappella piece from 2012 by the American composer Caroline Shaw. The music was inspired by, and contains spoken-word passages drawn from, Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305 (1977), an art installation consisting of straight black lines converging at various points. LeWitt instructed the draftsman to write a sentence beneath each point in capital letters, describing how he arrived there.

New York City Ballet in Justin Peck’s Partita. Credit: Erin Baiano.

“To the left, and around”—thus reads a voice at the opening of Partita, and the dancers obey, for a second appearing to embark upon a version of the “Cha-Cha Slide.” Shaw’s piece, fortunately, is more intricate than DJ Casper’s pop song and spans four heady movements, reminiscent, at times, of both sacred music and beatboxing, with layered wordless harmonies, gentle humming, and even a section inspired by Inuit throat singing. Eva LeWitt, Sol’s daughter, designed the set, consisting of hanging ribbons colored to resemble cylinders, perhaps a reference to musical pipes. 

Shaw’s piece is not easy listening, yet Peck has attempted to make each of the notes visible through movement. Although there are as many dancers as singers, the former do not “play” particular vocal parts, exactly. But they do embody even the zaniest vocal effects, by rising and falling as if tracing the pitch of swooping notes, for instance, or by opening their arms softly when the singers inhale. Sometimes they even held group poses like visual chords. Partita is clever, if somewhat aloof. After a while the conceit began to feel heavy-handed.

Peck’s choreography reached its zenith in the dancing of Tiler Peck (no relation), whose solos were the high point of the nearly thirty-minute work. She was sprightly and agitated in turn, performing quick jumps and little staccato footsteps between glossy spins. The way she changed speed and direction sometimes looked physics-defying: she has a remarkable ability to fall into and emerge from an intricate sequence slowly and casually, like someone turning a dial up and down.

Sebastian Villarini-Velez with Meaghan Dutton-O’Hara and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace.

While in Partita the music is indivisible from the steps, in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace (1958), also on the “New Combinations” program, it is merely incidental. For Summerspace, the American avant-garde choreographer instructed the composer (Morton Feldman) and designer (Robert Rauschenberg) to work independently from each other, and from him. Because of Cunningham’s unusual working method, the dancers did not know what they would be wearing, or what music they would be dancing to, until the dress rehearsal. 

First danced by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Summerspace premiered at NYCB in 1966 and was revived for the choreographer’s centennial in 2019. The twenty-minute work features six dancers—four women and two men—dressed identically in soft shoes and chameleon-like bodysuits that blend in with the backdrop. Both the set and costumes are covered in bright painted spots forming cheerful clusters of yellow, red, green, and blue.

Just as viewers of Abstract Expressionist paintings can fall into a zen-like trance, puzzling over a streak of blue here, a smudge of yellow there, so can viewers of Cunningham’s choreography. The seemingly arbitrary sequences of movements—whether childlike skips, lunge poses, or swift chené turns—are oddly transfixing. (If the steps appear random, it’s probably because they often were: Cunningham was known to flip a coin to make decisions about certain steps and even casting.) Feldman’s music is equally unpredictable, consisting of birdlike flutters on the highest registers of the flute and piano, with occasional rumblings on the drum.

Cunningham, who often sketched en plein air and created several dances called “nature studies,” was obsessed with the idea that nature is cyclical rather than linear, an idea apparent in Summerspace, which does not have a discernible beginning, middle, or end. The timing is loose—if the music ends before the dancers are finished, the orchestra simply flips the page and starts over. Like Partita, it seems to come to a close several times, and then doesn’t. The experience is rather like sitting in a field of wildflowers and watching small animals prance, skitter, and leap. But despite the fresh and airy quality of the work, the disconnection among the dancers and the lack of direction overall remains unsettling even seven decades after its premiere.

Chun Wai Chan and Mira Nadon in Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse.

The final work was a paean to heavy machinery. dgV: Danse à Grande Vitesse was made in 2004 for the Royal Ballet by Christopher Wheeldon, the creator of the full-length story ballets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale (plus the director and choreographer of MJ: The Musical, the new Michael Jackson extravaganza on Broadway). MGV (Musique à Grand Vitesse), a thirty-minute musical composition by Michael Nyman, was the inspiration. The piece opens with a loud pulsing beat—an obvious reference to a chugging locomotive—and grows into something grand and cinematic. Nyman composed it in 1993 to mark the opening of the northern line of France’s high-speed rail service, the “Train à grande vitesse,” or TGV, that zips between Paris and Lille near Belgium.

Wheeldon’s work surges with drama even when it is plotless. The twenty-six dancers in dgV convey a vague sense of excitement and anticipation, the four lead pairs in metallic-looking costumes performing daring, sculptural lifts, while the female dancers form geometric shapes with their arms and legs. In the most beautiful section, the entire cast stood in a vertical line and performed wave-like movements that eventually shifted the line to the right. Just before the curtain closed, the female leads were lifted and turned in the air slowly, like wheels coming to a halt.

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