Any day now, the faithful will start scattering palms in Christopher Wheeldon’s path as he walks down Broadway to Lincoln Center, and why not? He’s already shown himself to be pretty good at raising the dead, or at least waking up the lethargic. But if Wheeldon is feeling the pressure of being hailed as the messiah by a ballet world starved for saviors, he sure isn’t letting it interfere with his work. Shambards, the brilliant new ballet he has just unveiled for the Balanchine-centennial celebration at the New York City Ballet, carries him giant steps beyond anything he’s done before. All his gifts are on display—the originality, the deftness, the musicality, the intelligence—but fused so powerfully we can’t distinguish the steps from the music, the ideas from the style. It’s a huge achievement, all the more so in view of its thoroughly unlikely subject matter. Scottish cultural despair? Yes, but trust me.
Wheeldon starts with the music, as always—here an exciting, fully danceable piano concerto commissioned from the Scottish composer James MacMillan, who also conducted the premiere. (Cameron Grant was the fine pianist.) Shambards is the title of the second movement of the concerto, and comes from the harsh and mournful poem “Scotland 1941,” by Edwin Muir. (“Burns and Scott, sham bards of a sham nation, / and spiritual defeat wrapped warm in riches, / No pride but pride of pelf.”) Fragments of traditional Scottish music run through the score, Michael Nagle’s brooding backdrops evoke hills and heath, and hornpipes flicker through the choreography. But this is no kilt ballet: Though Wheeldon has Scotland on his mind, his movement is flooded with metaphor.
We see a regiment of dancers first, motionless, lined up across the stage with their arms high and bent like the dry branches of winter trees. In Holly Hynes’s black and brown leotards, this stark tableau looks like an army in camouflage—Birnam Wood, perhaps, secretly harboring the forces of fate. In a moment, the dancers are plunging forward in phrases so pure and angular they could be math problems come to life, yet a racing musical pulse infuses the choreography and keeps it from impersonality. Out of the welter of bare, clashing limbs comes Carla Körbes and Ask la Cour, approaching one another until they touch hands—not romantically but formally, as they shape their palms and fingers into a geometric unit. Their duet is sober and intense, very private. He drags her gently, supports her when she falls across his knee—and suddenly everyone else is doing the same thing. What was private has multiplied, and it peoples the world.
“Shambards carries Wheeldon giant steps beyond anything he’s done before. All his gifts are on display.”
Now the sleek, modern lines of this duet fade, and a different couple emerges—Jock Soto with Miranda Weese, who looks oddly out of place in a long tutu. In fact, she is out of place: She’s a spirit, swirling away as Soto tries to reach her. He’s dancing with a dream, not a partner, and it’s a dream from a past that cannot be retrieved. When we hear a bit of supersaturated ballet music and see the russet woods on a new backdrop, we remember La Sylphide—the original romantic ballet, set in a forest clearing in Scotland. At the end, Soto holds his prize, captive and lifeless.
In the final section, shot through with Scottish folk and fiddle music, Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht lead a thrilling take on the hornpipe. What’s remarkable about this and all the allusions Wheeldon weaves through this ballet is that they function so well as abstractions. When De Luz and Ulbricht step smartly forward, slapping the sides of their legs, they’re launching a spree of utterly contemporary dancing even while they’re swept up in traditional sounds and rhythms. Wheeldon and his collaborators are working here at a level we rarely see anymore—creating ballet with all the trappings of a grand spectacle, yet with a vibrant, brainy, modern sensibility. In a ravishing last image, Soto drags Weese backward through two lines of dancers, each quietly collapsing as she passes. He’s brought a fantasy down to earth and watched it expire, just as in Muir’s poem, but out in the audience we’re flying high, and ecstatic.