Les Carillons, Polyphonia, and DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse

The New York City Ballet on Sunday, February 5.

I learned after the fact that New York City Ballet’s all-Wheeldon program was a special honor for the relatively young choreographer, something usually done only with the works of George Balanchine or Jerome Robbins, but when I bought my ticket, it never occurred to me that the programming was anything out of the ordinary. Wheeldon’s work has been a constant in City Ballet repertory for the half a dozen (!) years I’ve been attending, and I’m sure I’ve seen more of his pieces than Robbins’s.

The program this weekend demonstrated why that’s the case, why the company created the role of resident choreographer for Wheeldon in 2001 and why it continues to champion his work even after his departure in 2008. Even in his weaker pieces, Wheeldon’s aesthetic fits New York City Ballet. Often playful but always elegant, acutely conscious of music, making gorgeous use of the corps, his work truly does feel descended from (though not derivative of) Balanchine’s. He can justify a full program easily.

“Les Carillons,” a premiere set to music by Bizet, opened the program, but it was probably the most traditional and least interesting work. (It didn’t help that Bizet’s suite opens and closes with an arrangement of “March of the Kings,” which I found incredibly distracting as that carol has always been a terrible earworm for me.) Still, it was jaunty and fun, with several flirty pas de deux (some light, some rather dark in a fittingly Carmen sort of way) and a rousing, energetic ensemble number at the end.

I preferred “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” (created for the Royal Ballet several years ago), a kinetic, pulsing work that clearly drew inspiration from the music’s inspiration: a high-speed train line. Composer Michael Nyman’s minimalist swellings and recedings lend themselves well to the motion of the dancers, and Wheeldon made conspicuous use of foreground and background, always driving forward, pushing entrances, adding intricate detail work in the corps.

My favorite work, though, was “Polyphonia,” set to a series of piano pieces by Györgi Ligeti. It reminded me a bit of the black-and-white Balanchine ballets I’ve grown to love, with a similarly stark aesthetic and a quiet genius for bringing forth the lines and touchstones in music that might not be immediately accessible. (I don’t mean that as criticism. For the record, I think Ligeti’s piano music is beautiful, but its romanticism is fraught with angles and dissonances that can sometimes seem forbidding.) Several of the episodes within the ballet use dramatic lighting to striking effect. In the first, for example, the ensemble almost seems to be dancing with the enormous overlapping shadows behind them, as though Wheeldon had choreographed not for eight but for sixteen.

And then “Polyphonia” pares down to just two dancers, Wendy Whelan and Jared Angle, in an achingly slow, smooth pas de deux, curling and unfolding with perfect control—the kind of thing that puts Whelan’s alien grace on stunning display. (She originated the role when it premiered in 2001.) Intellectually I know it must take incredible strength to move so deliberately and sinuously through the positions Wheeldon created for her, but Whelan wields her body with such cool control, without the slightest bobble or jerk, that she looks inhuman in the very best sense. Everyone always makes a big deal about how Whelan is the last City Ballet dancer personally selected by Balanchine (though she was too young to ever work with him), so it’s lovely how well Wheeldon—perhaps not Balanchine’s direct heir, but certainly a choreographer who has become tightly linked to his company—choreographs so well for her. One can imagine that Wheeldon sees in Whelan the same austere, sinewy beauty and strength that Balanchine must have seen because he sets that beauty so exquisitely well. That alone makes an all-Wheeldon program cause for celebration.