Eight Is Enough

Diamond in the Rough: Maura Bigonzetti's Vespro.Photo: Photograph by Paul Kolnik

The New York City Ballet is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its Diamond Project this season. Named for its chief benefactor, Irene Diamond, it was ostensibly devised to keep the company’s repertoire on the cutting edge by a periodic wholesale commissioning of new work in the classical vocabulary. Theoretically, the plan is admirable; the results so far – 49 pieces by 27 dance-makers – have been dismal. This comes as no surprise, really. With the passing of Balanchine (and the genius of the British school, Frederick Ashton), ballet choreography entered the Age of Lead. Mrs. Diamond might have put her generosity to better use – the tending of the Balanchine canon, to cite the company’s most urgent need.

The latest Diamond Project ballets – there are eight of them – are much like their predecessors. They tend to fall into one of two categories, like furniture sold in department stores – Traditional and Modern. The ballets in the latter category claim to tell us about life today. According to their composite report, its features are hostility, rage, bad sex (requiring near-grotesque extremes of physical flexibility), violence, angst, alienation, and anomie.

Vespro, by Mauro Bigonzetti, artistic director of Italy’s Aterballetto, made the biggest splash in this domain, with its cannily calculated daring. It turns disaffection into lurid semi-abstract rites animated by streamlined bodies clad in Russian Constructivist–inspired swimsuits. A small virtuosic compere opens the piece by assaulting a grand piano and its player (the composer of the commissioned music, Bruno Moretti) and proceeds to “conduct” the acrobatic exploits of two featured couples for whom love is war. A small ensemble, when not employed to flesh out the proceedings, huddles around the piano with the countertenor and soprano-sax player required by the score. At the finish, the heart-of-darkness lighting erupts into a rainbow display, and the leader of the menace-infused revels hops atop the piano to lead his flock in a paean to a highly dubious glory. Compared with Bigonzetti’s effort, Peter Martins’s pièce d’occasion, The Infernal Machine, seemed to be a mere footnote – in its understanding of coupling as an opportunity for a woman to be pretzled and tangled in her man’s embrace as if they were wrestlers curiously equipped with acrobats’ joints.

Albert Evans’s Haiku (the charismatic dancer’s first choreographic venture) is an amateurish example of the genre, its crudely disjunctive phrasing failing to connect to the urbane discontinuities of the John Cage music it presses into service. Evans is markedly unresourceful when it comes to arranging his small cast in space and downright vulgar in his obsessive use of full-frontal female crotch displays; only Balanchine (working with Allegra Kent in Bugaku) could make that pose subtly erotic.

Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses, an echt-Modern work, was by far the Diamond Project’s most sophisticated entry; the NYCB’s resident choreographer, Wheeldon is nothing if not a smooth operator. Set to György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, the piece is modest in its ambitions as compared with, say, Polyphonia, Wheeldon’s major contribution to date in the school-of-Balanchine vein, but it quotes fluently from the master, as if confident of being worthy of its heritage. The dance is a quartet that proposes two couples as a conjoined unit constituting both a physical and a social web; as individuals, the figures are intermittently spiders and their prey. The implications made about the human condition are expectedly bleak, yet the ballet is entirely without resonance. Its most striking features will be recalled as freeze-frame shots capitalizing on the glamour of the grotesque.

The Modern category is by far the larger one, and the choreographers contributing to it seem to display greater enthusiasm for their subject than their colleagues who are producing tepid stuff in Traditional. This smaller department may exist mainly to pacify the conservative element in the NYCB audience that likes to believe everything’s beautiful at the ballet. Traditional contains both neoclassical ballets (in the vein of Petipa) and neo-Romantic affairs (in the wafting-skirts vein of Fokine and Robbins). Peter Martins’s bland and blank Bach Concerto V, emphasizing shifting geometric patterns, sets itself up as a neoclassical entry; fatally, it fails to offset this formal landscape with any telling activity for the principals. Stephen Baynes, resident choreographer for the Australian Ballet, may well have been inspired by Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering for his more substantial Twilight Courante (set to selections from Handel), but his attempt to evoke love in a nostalgic mood and a communal setting is sabotaged by self-conscious contrivance. The piece lacks not just heart but breath.

Interestingly, the two Diamond Project works choreographed by women – female choreographers are something of a rarity in classical dance – straddled the Traditional and Modern camps. Both were essentially mechanical items, dutiful and predictable in their craft and suffering from the Moderns’ misguided tendency to let their chosen score dictate their every move. Both, though, were softened by a humanist subtext. Unfortunately, the emotion-driven material was banally treated, either because these choreographers lack the innate gift of giving it theatrical life or because they get no support from the climate in which they’re operating – one that puts its money on sleek surface appearances, ignoring the concomitant emptiness at the core.

If By Chance, by the very young NYCB corps dancer Melissa Barak, hints at a situation in which young romance is deflected from its course by the fact that the lovers belong to opposing tribes. Set to a Shostakovich score incorporating folk elements, which Barak conscientiously reflects, the piece is done in by its stultifying schematic construction and a step-for-note fixation that prohibits musicality.

Miriam Mahdaviani’s affectedly titled In the Mi(d)st, to music by Oliver Knussen and Aaron Jay Kernis, is a reverie for six couples who seem to exist under a tender, melancholy pall. How can we love, these pairs appear to be asking, in a time and place governed by grief? Far too much of the choreography reduces the women to a state of collapse in their men’s arms, their limbs extended into a fathomless void. Other moments refer – too vaguely and too pallidly – to problems that might be resolved in couples’ counseling. The celebratory finale is simply inexplicable. To view the action, one must peer through one of the elaborately suggestive glooms with which the company’s lighting designer, Mark Stanley, has been obsessed of late, wondering all the while if one really wants to see more – or perhaps less.

New York City Ballet
The Diamond Project; at the New York State Theater.

Eight Is Enough