Wheeldon by Three: A Triple Bill Brings out the Best in City Ballet’s Ballerinas

Wendy Whelan is lyrical; Maria Kowroski soars in <em>Les Carillons</em>

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. When a ballet company spends a lot of money on gimmicky pieces, it’s stuck with them for a while—they have to earn their keep. Likewise, when it spends a lot of money on an arid version of a classic, it too has to serve again and again. In its current season, City Ballet is reaping what it sowed: Yet another go round for Peter Martins’s arid, antiromantic Romeo and Juliet, and exhumations of the awful Lynn Taylor-Corbett Seven Deadly Sins (gimmick: Patti LuPone singing—badly—the Kurt Weill/Lotte Lenya songs) and the awful Peter Martin Ocean’s Kingdom (gimmick: music by Paul McCartney). I can’t imagine any knowledgeable ballet-lover wanting to see any of these more than once. The rest of the season is standard City Ballet fare: lots of Balanchine, though nothing out of the ordinary (no revival, say, of Kammermusik No. 2), but some of the big guns—Vienna Waltzes, Union Jack—to complement some of the delicious small fry: Steadfast Tin Soldier, Donizetti Variations. And an assortment of Robbins ranging from the dreary In Memory of … to the frisky Interplay to the classic Fancy Free. And then there’s the one real event: a triple bill from the gifted if erratic Christopher Wheeldon, centered on a newly commissioned piece called Les Carillons. I can tell you what the music is—Bizet’s first and second L’Arlésienne Suites. I can tell you who’s responsible for the bewilderingly pallid and blobby mess of a backdrop (Jean-Marc Puissant) and the oddly unbecoming costumes—boys in brown, one arm bare; three leading women in red gowns, two others not, corps in shimmery blues (Mark Zappone). But I can’t tell you what this ballet is, because on first viewing I didn’t detect a through-line or a unified approach; its five movements seemed more about creating complicated movement for its five ballerinas than about responding to Bizet. It’s showing us a great deal, but what is it telling us? There’s a precedent for a work featuring five ballerinas—Balanchine’s gem of a Mozart ballet, Divertimento No. 15. But it’s unfair to compare Mr. Wheeldon’s new piece to one of Balanchine’s greatest—his talent is not on that level (nor is anyone else’s). What he might have learned from Balanchine, however, is how to knit a ballet composed in sections into a seamless whole, leading to a finale that resolves everything harmoniously instead of just stopping. But this is the very area in which Mr. Wheeldon has always been weakest: deploying a large number of dancers in an effective finale. His finales just look muddled—like what Balanchine used to call “spaghetti.” (This is a failing that he shares with his coeval choreographer Benjamin Millepied.) Where he’s strongest is at identifying the particular skills of his women and revealing them in solos and duets. In Les Carillons he has superb talents to work with. It was he who first grasped the special qualities of Wendy Whelan, in such works as Morphoses and Polyphonia, and they have remained loyal to each other. Here he shows her in an unusually lyrical light—more elegant, less clenched, but effective. And he has recognized and exploited (in the most positive sense of the word) Tiler Peck’s uncanny musicality, giving her a solo of both delicacy and complexity that she sails through as if there were no difficulties, as if she were discovering each ingenious moment as it arrives. This is invention on a high level. And he has encouraged Maria Kowroski along the path to greater expansiveness. She may not be the strongest dancer in the company—far from it—but she’s the most gorgeous, and she’s taken her time to acknowledge how gorgeous she is. When Mr. Wheeldon has her up in the air, those long legs soaring, she’s everything we always thought she could be. With the tremendously talented Sara Mearns he’s less effective—no one has yet shown us who she really is beyond her rushing, thrilling way of moving. Les Carillons is far from a total success, but it’s also far from a failure. What a relief after the fiascoes of Seven Deadly Sins and Ocean’s Kingdom! It was followed on the program by Polyphonia, to me Mr. Wheeldon’s finest ballet. Yes, it’s Balanchine-inflected—that upside-downsy moment from Episodes—but it has its own artistic unity and it gives us Ms. Whelan at her most extraordinary. Talk about signature roles! And although she may be winding down, you wouldn’t know it from this performance. (The beautiful piano score by Ligeti doesn’t hurt.) Alas, the event was blighted by the injury Jennie Somogyi sustained on stage; as she hobbled off, it looked serious. We can only hope it wasn’t a snapped Achilles tendon. Ms. Peck rushed on in her place, revealing yet again that she can dance anything. But that was little solace: Ms. Somogyi has had an injury-ridden career; she should have been one of the great ones. Unfortunately, circumstances kept me from seeing the final ballet of the triple bill—DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, which Mr. Wheeldon made for the Royal Ballet in 2006 and which was received with great enthusiasm there. I’m particularly sorry to have missed it because I’m always hoping to find him fulfilling the great promise we all saw in him when he arrived on the scene. He’s occasionally astounding, always capable, sometimes slick, never stupid or vulgar. What’s missing? Some inner necessity to make this ballet to this music? Even so, we’re lucky to have him.