Stopping Short

Is there a choreographer in the house? In the classical-dance field, the question has been asked in increasingly plaintive tones for more than a decade. Believing – or at least hoping – that a positive answer may be just around the corner, the New York City Ballet has created the position of artist in residence, part of the company’s ongoing effort to offer developing as well as established artists the time, space, dancers, and showcasing crucial to their work. Christopher Wheeldon’s appointment to the post was inevitable, given the enthusiasm that has greeted ballets he’s already made for the company, its affiliate the School of American Ballet, and other troupes hungry for new work that advances the cause of classicism.

I haven’t shared in this general approbation, and Wheeldon’s latest effort, Polyphonia, hasn’t converted me. Set to ten short pieces for two pianos by György Ligeti, it maneuvers four couples (Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto being the most distinctive) through a series of self-consciously striking vignettes, duets predominating. This material is framed fore and aft by terse ensemble passages that recall the opening and closing of Balanchine’s Agon, with its horizontal lineup of four athlete-contenders confronting the audience, their energy blazing, their attitude enigmatic. As Polyphonia runs its 27-minute course, its atmosphere ranges from barely contained high-voltage vigor to the weird, menacing melancholy and anomie presumably essential to the contemporary representation of love.

The piece abounds in quotations from Balanchine’s leotard ballets, as the master’s abstract works are called because of their stark costuming. Episodes in particular, with its disjunctive movement and eccentric, nonclassical positions of the body, has been closely scrutinized – and cannibalized. But, aping Balanchine’s product while failing to grasp his process, Wheeldon is stymied by his gleanings. Polyphonia is all start and stop, marked by posturing for visual shock effect. Wheeldon hasn’t perceived that Balanchine, no matter how far he ventured into the fracturing and iconoclastic strategies of modernism, always had a through-line, that the abrupt, peculiar halts were part of a larger flow, and the most angular or twisted postures, even as they deviated from the norms of harmony and grace, referred pertinently to the hallowed canon of classical movement. Wheeldon, to his peril, also lacks Balanchine’s innate and sophisticated musicality; he uses the rich, complex Ligeti music merely as a timekeeper and a purveyor of atmosphere.

It will be – indeed, has already been – contended that Wheeldon is to be admired for his mastery of craft. I don’t deny that he evinces a precocious, suave know-how when it comes to putting a ballet together. What’s more, he’s a whiz at creating freeze-frame images fit for posterhood. But these abilities address only mechanical and surface matters, respectively; there is little, perhaps nothing, underneath. I find that combination of sleek efficiency and lack of affect disturbing – alarming, actually.

Some small consolation for the deficiencies in the choreography can be found in Mark Stanley’s elegant lighting. The ballet seems to take place in twilights and evenings, with a brief excursion into a delicately luminous dawn. Stanley’s light is not the light of nature but theatrical light, which aims not so much for beauty as for the drama of beauty. Throughout Polyphonia, it’s the most compelling thing happening on the stage.

Tanaquil LeClercq, who died on the last day of 2000 at the age of 71, never danced on the New York State Theater stage. The New York City Ballet still called the City Center home when this legendary ballerina was stricken by paralytic polio at 27 and her career was tragically cut off. The majority of people dancing or ardently watching dance today never saw her perform; for those of us who did, her impression, after all those years gone by, remains indelible. LeClercq’s dancing, schooled by Balanchine and a major inspiration to him – in one of those reciprocally fertile relationships – was central to the shaping of the company’s aesthetic. It still infuses the ballets created for her and those she transformed.

She was long, lean, and leggy, a thoroughbred racehorse of a dancer, with an exquisitely chiseled face that complemented the clear precision of her technique. Those phenomenal legs – only in America do you find them, Balanchine claimed – operated with the razor effect of X-Acto blades; on pointe, her feet were like darts aimed unerringly at the bull’s-eye. Unexpectedly for her body type, she possessed a sensuous streak, more evident in close-up photographs, perhaps, than in performance, where it was simply a latent factor – until Jerome Robbins seized upon the quality for the very subject of his Afternoon of a Faun. Temperamentally she was a combination of sophisticated chic, impish wit, and potent, magical poetry. This last was her dominant trait; the moment she appeared onstage, she stirred the imagination.

LeClercq’s sense of humor was remarkable for its subtlety. Her travesty of ballet’s artifice in Bourrée Fantasque was so delicately calibrated, duller souls often missed it entirely. In Western Symphony, Balanchine combined her wit with her chic, making her the incarnation of a cowboy’s yearning for a city gal – Paris clearly being the metropolis in question. In lyrical roles, most notably the adagio movement of Symphony in C, her gangly body with its penchant for rakish angles softened into willow-tree pliancy and she achieved a poignancy that seemed to arise from the music and be one with it. As the doomed heroine of La Valse, she was the epitome of romance tinged with the macabre and, above all, a figure of enticing mystery. Something about LeClercq always remained ineffable – and Balanchine made a ballet about that too: In the “Unanswered Question” section of Ivesiana, she was simply borne aloft, swum through dark, unmarked space in ever-shifting positions by a contingent of barely visible men, forever just beyond the reach of the one who sought her. This role proved that you can dance magnificently, sublimely, without your feet touching the ground. LeClercq’s courage and grace in living usefully and creatively after her illness might be said to have proved that once again.

Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; the New York State Theater.

Stopping Short