Guten Morgen

Peter Martins’s newest ballet, called Morgen, after one of the ten Strauss lieder to which it’s set, is arguably the most attractive work he’s created for the New York City Ballet. Through six figures shown, serially, in the nine different male-female pairings possible to them, it explores the world of intimate, exclusive bonds.

Darci Kistler portrays a luminous creature, almost an incorporeal one, floating in and out of Jared Angle’s arms, forever beyond his grasp, an inspiring muse. Janie Taylor is the embodiment of lush, daring motion dominated by tricky, impetuous lifts. (This performance surely proves her a star.) She’s introduced in the second duet of the piece, ably partnered by Nilas Martins; the two look like a matched set of dulcet blond angels. Succeeding them is the “dark” couple, Jenifer Ringer and Jock Soto, jet-haired both and here dark – dangerous even – in spirit, revealing the complexities, the difficulties, and the dire consequences of romance. They seem to represent maturity and experience as well as the tragic ambivalence that lies at the heart of any intense relationship.

Then everyone changes partners for another three duets, and once again for three more. Throughout, the aspects of love, let’s call it, that were originally proposed are sustained and amplified. If the rich psychological observation of the piece is its chief virtue, its inventiveness in partnering runs a close second. This facet of classical dance has long fascinated Martins; in Morgen, the results of his explorations are, for once, not persnickety or weird but physically and theatrically thrilling.

Alain Vaës, whose décors typically have a strong, disquieting presence, has pierced the dancing ground with five huge, asymmetrically placed pillars unconnected to any architectural structure. Martins’s choreography uses them deftly, collaborating in a Di Chirico effect. The dancers gaze out from their maze of stone columns and emptiness to the natural landscape of trees, sky, and lake depicted on the backdrop, blurred like a faraway, unreachable vision. Vaës also designed the ballet’s costumes – flowing outfits in cloud-and-water hues suitable to poetic fantasies inspired by the Romantic era. Mark Stanley’s delicately calibrated lighting moves from an attenuated dusk to a tender, just-tinged-with-rose dawn as if there were no night in this imagined world, and no day either, only the hours meant for musing.

The structural flaw that mars the ballet is so obvious, one can only assume that Martins, ordinarily astute about technical matters, chose to leave it uncorrected. Be that as it may, nine pas de deux in succession is more than the viewer can absorb. Granted, Martins establishes the women’s individual temperaments admirably – and in dance terms, not just through appearance and acting. (The men, more deft means of support than fully developed personalities, are necessarily less distinct presences, but still adequate to the occasion.) Even more to his credit, Martins makes clear the emotional weather of the relationship described by each duet. But a spectator can hold only so much in memory and is unlikely to retain more than the first three rounds; the succeeding material begins to blur. Then, by No. 7, we start wanting something else to happen and chafe at our long-unfulfilled anticipation of having the connection among all the players defined.

Martins faces up to that issue only with the final song – and flubs it. The six figures meet and greet (barely), change partners (as if to acknowledge past history), briefly form a twined, all-girl circle that the menfolk shadow uneasily, and then go their respective ways. New York City Ballet fans, bred on the exquisitely delineated social structure of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer and Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, are bound to find Martins’s vague conclusion disappointing.

The soprano Elissa Johnston made a fine job of the singing, under the baton of Grant Gershon. One might question the suitability of the Strauss lieder to dancing, self-contained as they are and largely devoid of dance rhythms, but I am not going to be that one.

Morgen had its premiere on the company’s Balanchine-less gala program, where it was paired with a second new ballet, Christopher Wheeldon’s Variations Sérieuses. Wheeldon has just been appointed New York City Ballet’s first resident choreographer in an official confirmation of the confidence the company – indeed, much of the dance world – has in his abilities and promise. This is a confidence I don’t share, and Wheeldon’s latest effort only increases my recalcitrance.

Variations Sérieuses is set to Mendelssohn piano pieces, adapted and orchestrated for the occasion by Mack Schlefer. Essentially, it’s a ballet about a gimmicky set. The illustrator Ian Falconer has designed a small toy theater-style stage, complete with dusky-orange curtain and ring of glowing footlights, that we see from the side, as if we were standing in the wings, looking crosswise at a skewed angle into the wings opposite. The choreography spins that hackneyed tale of backstage life – the dewy aspirant (Alexandra Ansanelli) realizing her dream of replacing the arrogant prima ballerina (Maria Kowroski) who is hoist with her own petard. The story, which desperately needs an original twist, is peopled with a caricature gallery of types native to the turf: the fanatical ballet master, the perpetually faceless corps de ballet, support staff with assorted agendas, et al. And of course the performance these figures finally present is meant to be a gentle spoof of the traditional repertory – one, it should be noted, that has never been NYCB’s. Wheeldon fails to animate any of this stuff with originality or conviction.

Throughout, the tone of the piece is grievously uncertain. At times, it aspires to a condition – impossible to achieve today, really – of ingenuous sweetness. Elsewhere, it would, apparently, be witty, even sardonic, if only it could summon the daring and skill. And, to gum up the works, there’s Wheeldon’s persistent desire to charm. Well, Falconer’s toy theater is certainly beguiling – for about five minutes. Then, dammit, we want some understanding of how we’re to take what we’re looking at, some characters and action that engage our imagination, and, better yet, some real dancing.

The New York City Ballet
Morgen, choreographed by Peter Martins;
Variations Sérieuses, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.
At the New York State Theater.

Guten Morgen