And the Audience Went Wild

Saturday night we went to see New York City Ballet in a three-part program entitled “Balanchine Meets Peck.” As admonition/confession up front, I once again state that while an enthusiastic fan of ballet, I am not qualified by experience, study or otherwise to be a critic. But I paid for our tickets and am entitled thereby to speak my mind. So I will.

In truth, I am in thrall of what ballet dancers are able to do. Their physical discipline and skills, musical sensibility and endurance are beyond my ability to relate. I noticed on this particular night that I was actually holding my breath as they began the program. I had to remind myself more than once to breathe while I tried to focus on one or two individual dancers at a time while the action swirled around them.

The first section, entitled Principia, choreographed by Justin Peck, listed in the program as Soloist, Resident Choreographer and Artistic Advisor to NYCB. The name roughly translates to “first principles” and is explained on the composer’s website this way:

“The new ballet is called “Principia,” based on the work of Isaac Newton and inspired by the neo-classical architecture of Étienne-Louis Boullée, who designed Newton’s Cenotaph (though it was never built). We can think on the order of the universe to better understand our role in it. Ballet is a great vehicle for investigating the basic principles of life—of movement, physics, thought, aesthetics, politics, and behavior.  New York City Ballet is a great company to see right now as they undergo big changes and return to form. We live among the chaos and according to the laws of nature (and society). Let us not forget ourselves for what we have become. Let us remember who we are called to be.”https://sufjan.com/

Even after seeing the performance, that description escapes me. Nevertheless, there was both structure and connection between the dancers and the music in the performance and, though I am no fan of “modern music,” the performance captured and held my attention from beginning to end. The audience was enthusiastic in its applause for what had to be challenging for the dancers.

The middle section, Symphony in Three Movements, was a wholly different matter. The music was by Igor Stravinsky who, for reasons I cannot explain, is one of my favorite classical composers. George Balanchine choreographed the dance; there is nothing I can add in that regard that would be worth reading. Everything about this was magnificent and, in my view, the audience reaction was stronger than for Principia.

Then, the show went off the rails. The third installment, The Times Are Racing, performed to music by Dan Deacon and also choreographed by Peck, was for me a total failure. It had little to nothing to do with ballet, as I understand the concepts. The music was a monotonous repetitive electronica beat that sounded like what I would expect to hear in a video game arcade. The dancers wore what looked like street clothes, including tennis-style shoes, and I could detect no unifying concepts in their movements or any real connection to the music, such as it was. It’s obvious, of course, that only highly skilled dancers could have “enacted” this performance, but it was not “ballet.” It would have been quite at home, I think, at Paul Taylor Dance Company.

I have to report, however, that the audience response, that I do not begin to understand, was more enthusiastic for this piece than either of the first two or, perhaps, the first two combined. Such are the mysteries of the arts.

No need to belabor this, but I am concerned that Justin Peck’s vision for New York City Ballet is going to dominate the future of its culture. That would be very unfortunate, because I believe this approach to “ballet” at one of the city’s great art institutions will ultimately cost it a large share of its audience. Experimentation is a good thing in art – recreating classical works only goes so far – but if NYCB is going to be dominated going forward by the type of music and dance exhibited in The Times Are Racing, it is headed for trouble. Just one person’s opinion, but strongly held.

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