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Flash Review, 10-23: Ballet's Next Hope
All-Star Casts Shine in Sparkling Wheeldon

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2008 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Christopher Wheeldon has come to represent the future of ballet choreography. His company Morphoses presented its second City Center season, October 1-5, and we could see why his promise is so great. The opening night program included two Wheeldon works, a masterwork by one of his mentors, Sir Frederick Ashton, and a New York premiere from Canadian newcomer Emily Molnar.

Wheeldon's choreography shows the breeding and grace that is very much in the tradition of masters like Ashton -- lifts that skim the ground, making the women weightless; subtle details like the sweet nudging of partners' heads that adds emotional punch to a simple lunging pose -- and the neoclassic distortions that Balanchine innovated, which Wheeldon uses to dynamic effect, not as arbitrary decoration.

"Polyphonia" (2001) is a Wheeldon masterwork. Using clear and simple compositional tools like canons and counterpoint that suddenly syncs into unison, Wheeldon sets the remarkable invention of his movement in bold relief, giving it archetypal clarity. Set to the incredibly dense, battling rhythms of Gyogy Ligeti's "Etudes pour piano" -- played with prodigious virtuosity by Cameron Grant -- the opening section is a metaphor for chaos. Four couples simultaneously shuffle similar choreographic motifs, filling the stage with jagged, yet crystal clear action, which finally melds into satisfying harmony.

Subsequently, the quieter, lyric aspects of Ligeti's piano music support ravishing duets, solos, and trios that range from an adagio, leaning pas de deux for Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Craig Hall to a playful one for Tyler Angle and Wendy Whelan, coyly shifting their torsos opposite each other. Wheeldon creates seamless transitions and endlessly surprising, emotionally saturated entwining between pairs of his superb guest cast, which also includes Tiler Peck with Gonzalo Garcia and Teresa Reichlen with Jason Fowler -- NY City Ballet members all and some of whom were in Wheeldon's original cast. They embrace his movement with expressive subtlety and imbue it with the passion of dancers truly in love with their task.

Ashton's eerily abstract moonscape, "Monotones II," set to Erik Satie's sparse "Trois Gymnopedies," still looks shockingly modern 42 years after its creation. Maria Kowroski, Rubinald Pronk, and Edward Watson, all in white unitards, move through the technically exposed postures with heavenly precision.

Molnar's "Six Fold Illuminate," which premiered in September at Sadler's Wells Theatre, is dolled up in costumes by hot fashion designer Narciso Rodriguez -- décolleté necklines on the men's pastel shirts and white unitards on the women. The music is Steve Reich's "Variations for Winds, Strings, and Keyboards," and therein lies the problem.

For a young, energetic dance maker, the persistent minimalism of Reich's music is an open invitation for kinetic overindulgence. The choreographer packs the dance with every step she's ever done or seen, and the result is a textural relentlessness that quickly becomes too much of a good thing, ultimately dulled by its desperate need to dazzle.

The opening solo, danced by Morphoses member Drew Jacoby -- a sumptuous Amazon who has graced such first-rate troupes as Alonzo King's Lines and Dwight Rhoden's Complexions, and William Forsythe's ballet "Herman Schmerman" -- sets the motor revving with huge extensions, expansive gesturing, and what looks at first like a disconcerting accident that turns out to be an intentional motif. Coming out of a stepping turn, Jacoby is suddenly face down on the ground. She rolls and recovers instantaneously, but the tumble leaves a sour taste. Only when petite Céline Cassone repeats a similar slipping fall to her shin in her variation do we realize the disconcerting spill was deliberate.

Molnar has a handle on moving people around the stage in quick canons and accumulating unisons. And Wheeldon's dancers handle the material with aplomb. Rory Hohenstein (formerly of San Francisco Ballet), Edwaard Liang (NY City Ballet), Pronk (Dutch National Ballet), and Watson (Britain's Royal Ballet) along with Cassone and Jacoby have impressive credentials; all are masters of contemporary ballet vocabulary and deliver the full-out physicality with the finesse and polish that helps mitigate the chaos.

Morphoses in Christopher Wheeldon's "Commedia." Erin Baiano photo copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy Morphoses.

Wheeldon's new "Commedia" uses Igor Stravinsky's "Pulcinella Suite" for a light-hearted escapade introduced with costume designer Isabel Toledo's bright circus-y capes, masks and chapeaus, reminiscent of a Picasso painting. In fact, Picasso did the costumes for the 1920 ballet by Leonid Massine to the same score. The accessories are quickly doffed to reveal sleek white leotards embossed with black diamond shapes. Dancers subsequently don hood masks and clown hats to delineate characters.

The characters are not specific, but the series of sections create a delightful atmosphere -- a rangy trio for Jacoby, Liang, and Bronk, a sprightly allegro duo for Stix-Brunell and Leanne Benjamin, a tender pas de deux for Benjamin and Edward Watson (both from the Royal Ballet), and a dashing solo for Hohenstein are decoratively abstract and filled with the magical invention that makes Wheeldon's choreography so richly rewarding.

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