Wheeldon Waxing Romantic; City Ballet Missing the Mark

The mystery of Christopher Wheeldon deepens. Yes, he’s the most talented of the younger ballet choreographers—indeed, where’s the competition? Yes,

The mystery of Christopher Wheeldon deepens. Yes, he’s the most talented of the younger ballet choreographers—indeed, where’s the competition? Yes, he’s particularly good at nurturing dancers and identifying their essential qualities. Yes, he’s always intelligent, almost always interesting and rarely vulgar—I would have said never vulgar, except that the memory of An American in Paris lingers (and, to be fair, that sad failure was more shallow than vulgar).

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But what is he really about? Why don’t his ballets—and we’ve seen a lot of them by now, a dozen or so for City Ballet alone—add up to a coherent artistic statement? Where is the major work that will identify his essential qualities and justify the hopes everyone has placed in him? Or is his major work the group of pieces he’s already made to Ligeti and Pärt: Polyphonia, Morphoses, Liturgy, After the Rain and Continuum (made for San Francisco)? Perhaps that collective work is going to constitute his contribution, and it’s only the specter of Balanchine, with his uniquely full armory of classical, neo-classical, dramatic, romantic and avant-garde work, that leads us to expect more from him. Everyone understood that it was unfair to expect Peter Martins, who inherited the company, also to inherit the mantle of genius. Are we burdening Wheeldon with impossible expectations?

His latest piece, Klavier, is a particular puzzlement. The music he’s chosen is the third movement—the 18-minute adagio sostenuto—from Beethoven’s towering Hammerklavier piano sonata, Opus 106. This is one of the most profound, and thorny, of Beethoven’s works, comparable in density and depth to the last quartets. It isn’t easy to perform; it isn’t even easy to absorb. But one thing about it is clear: Its monumental architecture is crucial to understanding any part of it; the adagio movement shouldn’t be made to stand alone. Listen to any recording (I grew up on Schnabel’s profound interpretation but lately have been listening to the more tempestuous Pollini) and you’ll realize why dropping in on the Hammerklavier is not only impertinent but futile. This is not music that wants to be danced to. Balanchine warned against choreographing to Beethoven, and here’s further proof that he was right.

Klavier takes place in that familiar ballet territory of romantic loss and longing. The look is High Decadent: a fallen Venetian chandelier, ungainly costumes featuring see-through black net for the women and deeply unflattering necklines for the men—they have some kind of floral decoration, like wilting leis. (Jean-Marc Puissant, a favorite Wheeldon collaborator, is responsible for the design.) Trying to be Romantic, Wheeldon has used music that is intractable: The more you concentrate on it, the less relevant the dancing is; the more you concentrate on the dancing, the less you understand why such great music has been reduced to background sound. Wheeldon doesn’t work from inside this music—no one could. Instead, he only uses it to establish the mood. The only idea I can find in Klavier is the desire to stretch the range of his favorite dancer, Wendy Whelan, into lyricism, and with her usual intelligence and determination she has risen to the challenge. But she could have risen to it more easily and effectively with a more pliable piece of music, and we might have had a real ballet rather than an exercise.

There are two lead couples in Klavier—Whelan with Sébastien Marcovici and Miranda Weese with Albert Evans (but forget the men; they’re conveniences)—and Wheeldon has helped Weese, too, to a rare expressivity. There are also two trios, featuring some of the most talented of the company’s younger dancers. As in all Wheeldon ballets, the groups are cleverly deployed, and the big duets for the stars are effective, too, although Whelan has been given much more to do than Weese—a confusing circumstance, since at the start they’re presented as balanced counterparts. As for the shape of the ballet, it depends on that overworked device of returning at the end to the beginning (everyone walking solemnly to the front and to the rear)—you see it coming a mile away.

Is the whole thing meant as an homage to Balanchine’s sublime Liebeslieder Waltzer? I hope not, but if it is, this is Liebeslieder as Jerome Robbins might have made it. Robbins, though—even in his less successful works—had a distinctive voice; Wheeldon’s is as yet undeveloped, or perhaps he’s just too adaptable. Or maybe he just likes to take on tough assignments. His last three big City Ballet pieces have been set to implacably resistant scores: Shambards to James MacMillan; An American in Paris, another piece Balanchine shied away from, despite his admiration for Gershwin; and now the Hammerklavier. Come on, Wheeldon, give yourself a break!

AS FOR THE BALANCHINE REPERTORY, what I’ve seen this season at the State Theater has been at best second-rate. Weese presents Allegro Brillante as charming and sweetly pretty, whereas in fact it was meant to be a slam-bang, take-no-prisoners showpiece. Maria Tallchief (on whom it was made) swarmed all over it; Melissa Hayden came on like a herd of rhinos. That’s the fun of it. Wake up, everybody—this is a Tchaikovsky piano concerto, not La Source.

The Stravinsky pairing of Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, almost always performed together, can now be placed on the official list of endangered Balanchine ballets, along with Bugaku and Orpheus. As danced by Darci Kistler, it’s a black hole—unrecognizable and uninteresting. It’s tragic to see this once-great dancer reduced to such emptiness, but it’s more tragic to see Balanchine reduced to zero.

And then there’s Symphony in CBizet, as it’s lovingly referred to throughout the dance world. The good news is that Jennie Somogyi, slowly repairing after the dire accident that kept her offstage for so long, is back in command. As I’ve reported, her Sugar Plum was tentative, and her first performance of Bizet’s first movement wasn’t at full strength. A couple of weeks later, though, on the night of the Klavier premiere, she was her terrific self—pouncing on the music, secure, triumphant. (Her partner was poor Nilas Martins, looking more and more like Philip Seymour Hoffman and pathetically inadequate. Please, someone, release him—and us—from this agony.) We also had Sofiane Sylve in the adagio movement, and it’s just like her Swan Lake—all Ballerina, and French Ballerina at that. She’s so sure of herself, so apparently pleased with herself … and no one, presumably, has suggested to her that she doesn’t have the faintest idea of what this very great role is about. She has no sense of the whole, no mystery, no arc, no depth.

Sylve is an intelligent dancer—won’t someone help her? Bizet’s second movement isn’t an impossibly difficult challenge: We’ve seen an entire array of great performances, from Tanaquil LeClercq down through Kent, Verdy, Farrell, Kistler and on into the present. But those were Balanchine dancers. When you see Somogyi followed by Sylve, you get the whole story: one, full of joyous energy; the other, a Star Turn. In Bizet’s glorious coda, there are Somogyi—and little Megan Fairchild and even Abi Stafford—giving us their all, and there’s Sylve, sort of keeping up while graciously behaving like just one of the girls. It’s the kind of dancing they love in Paris, where hierarchy trumps expressivity every time.

Wheeldon Waxing Romantic;  City Ballet Missing the Mark