Contemporary Quartet

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, February 11.

Carousel is the quintessential example of great music paired with an asinine story, so whoever had the idea to create a short, essentially plotless ballet using the musical’s swooning, long-lined waltz and elegant song orchestrations was a genius. You get the pleasure of “If I Loved You” (one of my all-time favorite songs) and some lovely romantic dancing without having to sit through the apologia for domestic violence or the silly celestial intervention or the outrageously heavy-handed graduation scene.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon is a good fit for City Ballet’s Carousel (A Dance). With his eye for ensemble work, Wheeldon uses the chorus to create a lovely impression of an old-fashioned merry-go-round. The dancers’ staggered pirouettes and leaps suggest wooden horses going up and down. In the final reprise of the waltz, they actually bring out golden poles to underline the effect, but that isn’t necessary. The light, jaunty steps are evocative on their own.

Carousel (A Dance) opened City Ballet’s Contemporary Quartet program, which featured four recent, post-Balanchine additions to the company’s repertory. The second selection, Eliot Feld’s Intermezzo No. 1, actually reminded me of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer. Both use chamber music by Brahms—piano solos in Intermezzo, a vocal quartet accompanied by four hands at the piano in Liebeslieder—and both feature but a few couples rather than a larger ensemble. Feld’s choreography grows quirkier over the course of the ballet, however. The steps are playful and sometimes a bit off-kilter, with frolicsome hops and odd lifts.

Peter Martins’ Friandises closed the program. His work uses specially commissioned music by composer Christopher Rouse, and each brief movement suggests a dance number from a traditional French suite: the siciliane, the sarabande, and so forth. It’s an interesting idea (in college, I studied several suites by Bach and Handel, so perhaps I’m just a sucker for the concept), but neither Rouse nor Martins had as much fun with it as they could have done. The music sometimes feels too heavy to be dance-like, and the dancing itself occasionally demonstrates energy without animation.

My favorite work on the program was Jorma Elo’s Slice to Sharp, which used music by Vivaldi and Biber. Frankly, I was surprised I enjoyed the dance so much. Last year I saw another of Elo’s works, performed by the American Ballet Theater, and considered it fussy and musically insensitive, yet Slice to Sharp enthralled me with much of the same agitated choreography.

Part of the key to that riddle might be that the intricate, improvisatory quality of Baroque music actually suits Elo’s hyper-kinetic aesthetic quite well (certainly better than Mozart’s classicism or Glass’ minimalism do). In Slice to Sharp, both music and movement are ruthlessly athletic, ornate, and indefatigable; it’s the kind of dancing that’s both exhilarating and exhausting to watch. On Sunday, one ballerina actually fell out of one of the many flying catches, but even that didn’t slow the work’s perpetual motion or diminish the magnificently impressive performance.

Attending the ballet has become something of an obsession of mine since I moved to New York (though two shows in two days is not something I want to repeat—poor planning). I started going because it was relatively new to me; I studied music, film, theater, and literature to varying degrees in college (not that I’m any kind of expert), but my dance education ended when I stopped taking ballet classes at age eight. With ballet, I can enjoy being a completely amateur audience member, so to speak.

With this program, however, I started to feel more grounded in my appreciation for ballet. I feel like I’m beginning to recognize the work of different choreographers, and that’s so exciting. It’s still very difficult for me to distinguish the dancers from each other (it doesn’t help that my seats inevitably prompt nose bleeds), but I feel confident that with time, I can learn to do that, too. And in the meantime, of course, I’m enjoying my informal education.

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