Mercurial Manoeuvres, Episodes, and Fearful Symmetries

The New York City Ballet on Saturday, October 1.

Atonal music is easier to appreciate than to love—and it’s not particularly easy to appreciate. In college, I performed one of Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke on recital, but that selection stemmed mainly from a perverse impulse to be off-putting and inscrutable. Despite the hours I spent studying the work’s spiky lines and stream-of-consciousness form, it never truly coalesced for me the way Bach and Brahms and Prokofiev did. I can’t imagine that I played the piece particularly well.

But what I failed to learn of atonality from my own dogged study, I’ve learned easily from George Balanchine. Since I started attending the ballet upon moving to New York, Balanchine’s iconic “black and white” works—stark, stripped-down pieces, usually set to music by Stravinsky at his most esoteric—have consistently snuck up on me, somehow surprising me again and again and again with how much I prefer them to much of the floaty, romantic rep. Balanchine’s choreography shows me the music in the atonal—the shape of the lines, the rhythmic motives, the elegance in the severity—that I glimpsed but never truly grasped on my own. It’s finally dawned on me that I should stop being surprised. Balanchine is the best ambassador for modernist, twentieth-century music I’ve ever encountered.

By comparison to Balanchine’s magisterial “Episodes,” set to orchestral works by Anton von Webern, the other repertory pieces on the program seemed slight. Peter Martins’s “Fearful Symmetries” is flat and mechanical, relying too much on colored lights to provide, well, color. The steps themselves hold no passion, no particular direction. They’re interesting enough, but the work starts to feels interminable after a while. It doesn’t help that John Adams’s music for “Symmetries” is exhausting, not to mention tiresome in its reliance on synthesizers of some sort. Adams is actually my favorite minimalist, but “Fearful Symmetries” is far for his best effort.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Mercurial Manoeuvres” was much more fun, with beautiful patterning of the corps and a lovely, romantic pas de deux between Tiler Peck and Tyler Angle. Even the horrendously ugly costumes can’t diminish the appeal, and Shostakovich’s terrific Piano Concerto No. 1 (which features not just the piano but a marvelous trumpet part) gives the dancers’ movements extra energy and verve.

I enjoyed “Manoeuvres” a great deal, but it did feel somewhat predictable compared to “Episodes.” I simply never get bored with the way Balanchine’s choreography visually represents spiky atonalities. In “Episodes,” feet flex sharply, arms bend at odd angles, and the dancers move in perfect accord with Webern’s unexpected rhythms and accents. The steps aren’t passionate exactly—certainly not in the lush manner one expects from ballet—but they’re strikingly expressive and fresh, perfectly uniting music and movement in a way that elevates both.