Birthday Blues

In the past several years, the New York City Ballet has taken George Balanchine’s birthday as the occasion to reveal the latest choreographic mishap or monstrosity created in the name of “making it new.” This year’s effort, Eliot Feld’s Organon, outdoes in its awfulness just about every such commission in recent memory.

Organon is nothing if not a think-big ballet. Nearly 40 minutes long, it’s set to solemn, ecstatic organ compositions by Bach, played onstage on digitally programmed electronic keyboards and amplified for cathedral effect. It employs an ensemble of 60 (half recruited from the School of American Ballet) and three principals. The already huge stage of the New York State Theater has been built out over the orchestra pit to accommodate the crowd, which, on its processional entrances, even infiltrates audience turf. A skeletal metal crawlspace of looping curves and treacherous angles hangs high upstage, portending – something or other.

The deliberately anonymous ensemble, uniformly clad in black unitards, is used to make ever-repeating reductive designs. At times the bodies are seated, standing, or upended on tiered benches to either side of the musicians; at times they lay claim to the full stage space – though only like mechanical figures set in slots, undertaking limited, predictable journeys. Obviously, this uninflected chorus is intended to be the foil for the three big guns. Damian Woetzel – representing, it would seem, either the Chosen One of a postmodern Rite of Spring or the Christ of the Flagellation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection – carries out a set of instructions that might read thus: “Run, turn, and jump like crazy, as if you were dancing yourself to death. Enter the junkyard jungle gym and slowly clamber through it, stripping to your jockstrap at the halfway mark. (Take care wriggling out of your tights. Don’t fall; there’s no net.) Back on solid footing, carry on Wild Child-style, then splay yourself flat on the floor. A white tent will descend from above to cover you like a very large bedsheet. Rise now and wind yourself tightly in it so you look like a mummy. Rewind (this is tricky) and emerge to assume ecstasy position – chest high, head flung back, arms angling up and out. Thank you very much; you’re a sport.”

Maria Kowroski’s chore is simpler if even more grotesque. A grand-scale and often sublime adagio ballerina, she has the eerie ability to hold her legs open beyond even the flat 180-degree-angle split. Largely devoid of dancing, her role in Organon has her continually performing this peculiar feat, however her partner holds her (erect and facing him, slung over his back, you name it). It’s an appalling assignment, demeaning to her as an artist and as a woman. Charles Askegard, the third principal, has been assigned the thankless role of deploying Kowroski’s body through its acrobatic, and oddly unerotic, maneuvers. He’s a capable dancer with lackluster stage presence; in this case, he’s just the man for the job.

Despite the weakness for smart-alecky gimmicks apparent in most of his work for his own company, Feld genuinely reveres the great pioneers of modernism in dance, and Organon refers to them liberally. From Martha Graham’s Primitive Mysteries come not merely Organon’s obdurately stark geometric patterning but also the dancers’ fixed gaze and pointing fingers, indicating an overwhelming sight above and beyond our view (in the Graham, it’s the Crucifixion). From Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces come the braided effects in the patterning and the short horizontal rows of seated bodies leaning first to one side, then to the other, faces impassive. Nijinska could make these blocks of flesh appear to reverberate with contained emotion; Feld can’t. From Doris Humphrey comes the use of tiered constructions to enhance choreography’s vertical dimension. Having stolen from the best, Feld proceeds to reduce their devices to a series of obsessive tics.

Choreographed by Eliot Feld, at the New York State Theater.

Birthday Blues