Gala Offers Slim Pickings, Capped by Wheeldon’s Weakest

You’ve heard of feast or famine? City Ballet’s Spring Gala gave us feast and famine. Five courses were dished up, and in a curious order: first, a heavy entrée; then, three hors d’oeuvres; finally, a fallen soufflé. You were left stuffed and stupefied-and hungry.

The program was a statement: The company’s future lies in The New. All five works were City Ballet premieres, three of them by dancers still dancing. And this is the tilt of the entire season, in which 43 ballets are being performed, only 17 of them by George Balanchine. Well, he isn’t here to make new ones, and someone has to, because the Balanchine repertory isn’t honored enough in the way it’s rehearsed and presented to inspire young dancers and to attract a young audience. Balanchine today at NYCB is both the core reality and a shadow, all too often danced dutifully rather than urgently and with conviction.

If we had a major choreographic presence to shape a new aesthetic for the company, the situation would be less grave. Petipa was followed by Fokine; Ashton was followed by MacMillan-in each case a step down, but the succession, the evolution, had validity. It’s now almost a quarter of a century since Balanchine’s last major work, Mozartiana, and what do we have? Peter Martins, whose scores of ballets have yet to reveal a singular talent, although he’s an expert craftsman, and the young Christopher Wheeldon, the company’s crown prince (he’s been given the title “resident choreographer”), whose career is beginning to look rocky. So where can new repertory come from?

From Broadway: Susan Stroman, with her Double Feature, and Jerome Robbins, with West Side Story Suite plus his N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, which after 47 years is now invading City Ballet for the first time and looking like outtakes from West Side Story itself.

From alien planets: Boris Eifman’s excrescence, Musagète.

From young hopefuls in the company who have some smarts, some moves, but-as yet-nothing to say.

That was the case with the three earnest duets clustered in the middle of Gala night. Albert Evans, Benjamin Millepied and Edwaard Liang all know how to put steps together, yet their work is unmemorable and indistinct. You might conclude that Evans was the most fluent, Millepied the most self-consciously clever, Liang the most original, but all three pieces were without personal stamp-or content: standardized 21st-century City Ballet choreographic exercises. For the record, the duets were named Broken Promise, Double Aria and Distant Cries (don’t they sound like three new perfumes?), and they deployed three pairs of excellent dancers. But the distance between their level of accomplishment and that of Wheeldon’s beautiful After the Rain duet of last season is the distance between aspiration and talent.

Peter Martins’ Tala Gaisma (or Distant Light), the name of the violin concerto by the Latvian composer Peteris Vasks to which it’s set, is a far more expansive and mature treatment of partnering. It was intended as a farewell homage to Jock Soto, who has been a superb partner for 20 years, and was to feature him with three ballerinas: Darci Kistler, Sofiane Sylve and Miranda Weese. Unfortunately, Soto was injured and was replaced, gallantly, by Jared Angle at the premiere, but the two men are such dissimilar physical types that I suspect the ballet will look very different when the bulkier Soto takes over.

One man and three women is an essential Balanchine situation- Apollo, Who Cares?, a central section of Serenade-but in the new Martins piece, although the one man is present throughout, he isn’t the heart of things: He’s a necessary accessory, on hand to present the women. There’s a series of essentially romantic encounters between the cavalier and the individual ballerinas and Martins has cleverly tailored his duets to the ballerinas’ qualities. For Kistler, the demands are relatively light (lots of languid falls) and the most is made of the glamorous plastique of her torso, the lovely quality of her arms and that famous Kistler hair, now at mid-length. For Sylve, there’s some dynamic action, but she’s perversely undermined by the lunatic hairdo she’s been permitted (encouraged?) to sport. Weese has been given perhaps the most complicated material, and she handles it capably, but she’s a smaller-scale dancer than the other two and she recedes. (The exact same thing happened earlier in the season when she danced with Sylve and the thrilling Ashley Bouder in Who Cares?)

There are stretches of Tala Gaisma that drag-at half an hour, there’s just too much music to fill-but this is one of Martins’ best ballets in a long time. It isn’t vulgar ( Thou Swell), it isn’t sterile ( Morgen, a more academic exercise in partnering), it isn’t pretentious (you name it). I can imagine going to see it again.

But no power, human or divine, could get me to expose myself a second time to Wheeldon’s An American in Paris. This is one of the great disappointments-disappointing in itself, but even more so for what it suggests about Wheeldon’s career at this moment. He’s at his best in the dark, modern world of Ligeti and Pärt- Polyphonia, Morphoses, Continuum, After the Rain. His previous story ballets have been thin and forced, but there’s been nothing as feeble as this. The idea was to produce some kind of gloss on the famous Gene Kelly movie, but all Wheeldon has done is to reduce it. (And I don’t even like the movie.)

Look! We’re in PARIS! You can tell from the flics rushing by in their blue capes and kepis, from the nuns with little children ( Madeline should sue), from those bohemian types in their red berets, from that naughty oh-so-Gallic hooker, from that tour-de-France bicyclist hitting the tape. And from that excitable young American all in white who’s smitten with that sweetly pretty young thing, though he’s momentarily sidetracked by that wriggly sexpot in red and black. These roles are danced, respectively, by:

Damian Woetzel, who tries gamely to make something of a nothing role. (He just isn’t Gene Kelly, whom you can’t help thinking of even if you don’t like him; in fact, he’s barely Damian Woetzel. The real Woetzel has been at his brilliant best this season in Union Jack, in the Jacques d’Amboise role. Isn’t it odd how good choreography helps a dancer look better?)

Jenifer Ringer, as soft and as pink as a nursery, with her inevitable charming smile, but also with little to do in the totally predictable young-love duet-except try to cope with her unflattering dress.

Carla Körbes, that wonderfully talented girl who was promoted to soloist the very day of the Gala and was rewarded by this role in which all her ravishing qualities are hidden-an unhappy surprise, since one of Wheeldon’s great virtues is his ability to reveal dancers to us.

The physical aspects of the production are a disaster. Adrianne Lobel’s series of cubist-y Paris paintings used as backdrops and scrims are clever and appealing, but they’re so large that they miniaturize the dancers. The Holly Hynes costumes are beyond description hideous-I’ll just single out the Day-Glo-ish lime-green gloves and sneakers that inexorably draw the eye away from the unlucky dancers wearing them.

But the crucial problem is that Christopher Wheeldon has brought nothing at all to the party. He has no take on the music or on the story. He’s developed no personal vocabulary-every single moment is cliché and/or generic. It looks as if he’s completely depleted. Someone should have reminded him that Balanchine, who loved Gershwin, tried working with his orchestral pieces and abandoned them-he saw that while the music had effective passages, it had no structure. Wheeldon was out there with nothing under him.

Perhaps it’s time for him to stop darting around the world fulfilling commissions (and, on occasion, not fulfilling them) and, instead, to settle down, take stock and commit himself fully to the company that has, to a large extent, committed itself to him. There’s a lot to be said for continuity.