This week, the New York City Ballet presents “Visionary Voices,” a program of four contemporary works by three New York–based choreographers: Pam Tanowitz, Jamar Roberts, and Justin Peck. Though the company usually surrounds new works with time-tested classics, it can be informative, once in a while, to see a few fresh pieces together in a single performance.
First on the program, which I attended last Saturday, is Tanowitz’s Law of Mosaics, a new work named for the accompanying orchestral piece composed (and guest conducted) by Ted Hearne. It is the second mainstage creation for NYCB by Tanowitz, a choreographer known for arranging classical steps in unusual patterns. In her latest work, Tanowitz has choreographed sections in groups, duets, and solos for ten dancers in pastel bodysuits, the women (mostly) on pointe. With nimble flex-footed jumps, smooth développés, and audible pointe-shoe clacks, Law of Mosaics feels like a classical ballet that has been shattered into a jumble of fragments.
Cool and cerebral, the work will speak to those well versed in the traditional art form, at the risk of alienating audience members unfamiliar with its peculiar language. Tanowitz uses many formal steps, such as Italian fouettés, in which a dancer kicks her leg up to the side before sweeping it downwards through to the back while completing a full rotation. At other times Tanowitz subverts formal expectations. Often the dancers seemingly prepare for a classical step, such as a piqué turn, and then veer off into a low-key contemporary move. Tanowitz also distorts familiar arm positions. Fifth position, for instance, in which the arms are held rounded softly above the head, is shown at one point with two ugly curves, with one hand higher than the other.
Near the end, the principal dancer Sara Mearns performs a cryptic solo, in which she floats from side to side performing a sequence of familiar dance gestures, including hand to the heart (love), index fingers to cheeks (sadness), arms in a cradle (a child), and arms crossed in front (death). While in story ballets mime is used to propel the narrative, here it only compounds the mystery. The most intriguing moments, like this one, are achieved largely with the help of Hearne, who, working in a similar fashion to Tanowitz, has created a piece with references to classical composers that, at times, also evokes distant sirens or mid-century thriller film scores. Whenever the music begins to sound familiar, it ebbs away, never coming to a satisfying resolution, much like the dance itself.
The next piece is lighter fare. Emanon–In Two Movements is a breezy and elegant piece by Jamar Roberts, the resident choreographer of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which premiered last winter. Unlike Holding Space, his jarring contemporary work for Ailey from December, Emanon is full of grace. Choreographed for four pairs of dancers in lilac costumes, the piece is set to gentle jazz music from a 2018 album of the same name—“no name” spelled backwards—by the saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. Jonathan Fahoury stars in a marvelous modern section accompanied by a saxophone solo, in which he manages to appear jointless, as if propelled by the stream of breath flowing through the instrument.
Tanowitz returns with Gustave le Gray no. 1, named after a piano composition by Caroline Shaw performed onstage by Stephen Gosling. The four dancers, including two guests from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, wear striking lipstick-red bodysuits with two sheets of loose fabric connecting each shoulder to either foot. The costumes, designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, are perhaps the most notable element of this ten-minute piece, and they transform the most basic poses, like arabesques, into regal, complex positions. At times the performers react like young children, stopping to listen to the piano, for instance, or making noises with their feet while shuffling on demi-pointe. At one point, the dancers grab onto the instrument and slowly wheel it across the stage, Gosling continuing to play, unfazed, while walking along.
When I first watched Justin Peck’s Partita, the final piece also set to music by Shaw that premiered in February, I was overwhelmed by the sheer strangeness of the a cappella composition and complex configurations of dancers. But on the third time around, the music and the choreography no longer so alien, I find it utterly mesmerizing. This season, Indiana Woodward replaces Tiler Peck as the central female dancer. Woodward’s feathery hands and pillow-soft movements bring a gentler quality to the choreography than Peck, who instead emphasized speed and precision.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” The same thing might be said of new ballets. Presented in close succession, the four pieces might leave the audience feeling depleted rather than energized. In October, the “Innovators and Icons” program concluded, brilliantly, with Balanchine’s jolly Western Symphony (1954), following two earnest pieces from the fall gala. The oldest creation in “Visionary Voices,” however, premiered less than three years ago. If slotted next to a classic Balanchine or Robbins, any of the four pieces might seem rather safe. Rather than plumb the depths of human emotion, these new voices skitter prettily along the surface.