Tradition and Innovation

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, June 17.

Oscar Wilde was a paragon of dry, satiric wit, so I tend to forget that his writing could be a bit maudlin, too. Some scenes in An Ideal Husband, for example, become downright cloying if not handled with what I ever so humbly consider to be the proper arch tone. As for Wilde’s story “The Nightingale and the Rose,” it tilts dangerously toward bathos—which perhaps makes it well suited for ballet. Ballet, as a medium, can transform the mawkishly sentimental into something beautiful and affecting.

But I have mixed feelings about Christopher Wheeldon’s new short ballet based on Wilde’s short story. Wendy Whelan danced the role of the Nightingale with lovely, avian delicacy, and Bright Sheng’s score, commissioned for this work, had some striking, exquisite passages, particularly during the Nightingale’s death. The ballet has lingered in my memory, yet the tearjerking sensibility, mixed with unsettling imagery and staggering cynicism, left me uncertain about the work as a whole.