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.

“The Nightingale and the Rose” is the kind of story I would have loved as a teenager. A Nightingale overhears a heartbroken young man, a Student, lamenting that his Professor’s daughter will only dance with him if brings her a red rose, but none are to be found in his garden. Touched by the Student’s grief and expressions of love, the Nightingale searches through the garden, too, and finds a withered, bloomless red Rose-tree. She begs the Rose-tree for a single blossom, and it tells her she must impale herself on its thorns and sing through her final hours under the light of the Moon. Only that sacrifice—her life’s blood and her dying song—can produce a red rose. The idealistic Nightingale does as the Rose-tree instructs, and the next day the Student happily plucks the red rose from his garden. But the Professor’s daughter rejects him anyway, and the bitter Student discards the rose and the possibility of love. Both of them are oblivious to the sacrifice of the Nightingale lying dead beneath the Rose-tree.

Wilde’s story uses some Christian imagery, but Wheeldon’s interpretation reflected a more exotic mysticism (to my Western eyes, at least). The alluring, birdlike mannerisms he created for Whelan—coupled with her stark beauty—marked her as something almost alien, not an obvious Christ figure. The set featured a glowing Moon with a single eerie eye that watched the proceedings and shed a single mournful tear.

But what truly unsettled me was the portrayal of the Nightingale’s painful, prolonged death. Wheeldon represented the Rose-tree first with two male dancers and then another fourteen, as well, moving together in a tangle. Their simple costumes, brown and blood-red, made it difficult to distinguish one man’s limbs from another’s, and the Nightingale threw herself into that twisted fray, her back arching and arms fluttering in agony. The elaborate, intricate choreography was gorgeous, undeniably so, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching some kind of horticultural gang bang, a bloody virgin sacrifice, a more elegant Rite of Spring.

When the Rose-tree chorus finally parted to reveal Whelan’s crumpled body, the effect was horrifying, not tragic in the classic sense, and when the angry Student literally stepped over her body, the movement looked unforgivably cold, even though I knew he didn’t see her, so to speak, in the context of the story.

Ultimately, the ballet felt less like a sensitive if sentimental parable about our inability to recognize real Love (perhaps God’s Love) and more like an artful depiction of human callousness and brutality. That’s valid, I guess, but it’s terribly heavy, and it left me feeling battered rather than touched.

And yet, days after the New York City Ballet’s program, “The Nightingale and the Rose” is what persists in my memory. Martins’ “Jeu de Cartes” was cute, but I thought Sterling Hyltin, supposedly one of the company’s rising stars, looked wobbly and shallow in the lead role of the Queen of Hearts. I’d seen Balanchine’s “Davidsbündlertänze” before, and after “Nightingale,” I couldn’t focus well on the quiet elegance and muted drama of its many pas de deux.

To my surprise, I find myself wanting to see “The Nightingale and the Rose” again. Maybe I would like it more. Maybe I wouldn’t like it at all. But Wheeldon’s ravishing, imaginative choreography haunts me, and in the end, I think that speaks well of it.