Contemporary Ballet Is Alive and Well at NYCB

Christopher Wheeldon, Alysa Pires and Justin Peck are the choreographic forces behind a program that shines a beautiful light on the future of ballet.

Six dancers in red costumes pose as couples, with two dancers dipping the third in two groups on a bare stage.
Aaron Sanz, Roman Mejia, Peter Walker, Andres Zuniga, Maxwell Read, and Jules Mabie in “From You Within Me” Erin Baiano

New York City Ballet’s 21st Century Choreography II is what you might call accessible. The pieces in this mix of new and recent works are easily digestible—no spicy surprises, nothing tough to chew on—which has a certain appeal. Even those who think they don’t “get” dance can get into these dances.

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The program, one of several in a lively Spring Season, opens with Christopher Wheeldons From You Within Me. Wheeldon has had a healthy 30-year relationship with New York City Ballet. He joined the Company at age 19, dancing from 1993 through 2000. From 2001 through 2008, he served as the Company’s first-ever Resident Choreographer. After choreographing and directing MJ The Musical, his second Tony-award-winning Broadway production, he returned home to Lincoln Center to create his 22nd ballet for NYCB.

Wheeldon’s new, non-narrative ballet is languid and limby. The piece is set to Arnold Schoenberg’s 1899 Verklärte Nacht (translation: Transfigured Night), an achingly romantic string sextet inspired by Richard Dehmel’s poem of the same name. Instead of turning toward the music for choreographic inspiration, as he usually does, Wheeldon asked acclaimed visual artist Kylie Manning to create paintings in response to the score. The paintings were scaled up to become the set’s translucent scrim and backdrop and, more importantly, became the basis of the ballet itself. Wheeldon and Manning first met last fall through a mutual friend. He was immediately drawn to her sense of scale and movement, the “almost violent beauty” in her work, and knew he wanted to collaborate.

Wheeldon’s choreography is at its best in the intimate solos and duets, faltering only slightly in the breakout trios which occasionally slip into tableaux and the theatricality he has recently been immersed in. But Manning’s oceanic set—she spent several summers as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, spending months at a time in open water, and you can see that sense of expansiveness here—and vibrant costume designs, in collaboration with Marc Happel, are exquisite, as is Mary Louise Geiger’s otherworldly lighting.

Four dancers in black and gray costumes pose on a bare stage.
Olivia Bell, David Gabriel, Mary Thomas MacKinnon and Victor Abreu in “Standard Deviation” Erin Baiano

Following From You Within Me is Alysa Pires’ NYCB choreographic debut: Standard Deviation. Pires, a young Canadian choreographer born and raised on the traditional territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ people near Victoria, B.C., held the title of Choreographic Assistant with the National Ballet of Canada from 2019 through 2022 and has been called “a dancemaker to watch.” Pires first caught the eye of NYCB’s Resident Choreographer Justin Peck while attending the New York Choreographic Institute (an affiliate of NYCB) in the spring of 2019. It was also there that Pires met Australian composer Jack Frerer and they created the first iteration of Standard Deviation.

Pires has described her choreographic voice as “being out of control enough that you can feel the fall, but organized enough that you can transform it.” You might not understand exactly what she means, but you can see it happening on stage: a sort of off-center, disciplined spiraling. You can also see her background in contemporary dance poke its way through the movement vocabulary, grounding the dancers (clad in Canadian designer Dana Osborne’s elegant costumes) in patterns and angular shapes. The duet between Mira Nadon and Adrian Danchig-Waring is a highlight, and Tiler Peck is luminous as she takes on Pires’ delicate, muscular style.

It must be noted that Frerer’s original score for full orchestra and saxophone is a force to be reckoned with. It lies somewhere between an urban soundscape, a jazzy film score, and a sultry atmosphere thick enough to be scenery. Whatever it is, its presence takes up half the stage, asking the dancers to move around and through it. They do, with grace, and the result is spectacular.

A group of dancers in streetwear and sneakers strike poses while a male dancer dips a female dancer in center
Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia, center, and company in “The Times Are Racing”. Erin Baiano

The program closes with Justin Peck’s The Times are Racing, which first premiered in 2017 to great critical and audience acclaim. It still deserves all the praise. The beloved “sneaker ballet” for 20 dancers is set to Dan Deacon’s innovative electronic score. The dancers, wearing bright street clothes designed by Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony, run around and pump their fists in the air, coolly executing Peck’s signature fast footwork inspired by rhythm tap and Dance Dance Revolution. At its center is a love story, danced extraordinarily by Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia: two people who manage to find each other and connect amidst all this noise.

Peck, NYCB’s Artistic Advisor and Resident Choreographer (only the second in the Company’s history, after Wheeldon) has gone from corps dancer to soloist to one of the most sought-after dance makers at lightning speed. Much has already been said about him and the more than 35 works he’s created for NYCB and other companies around the world. Suffice it to say that Peck manages to do the impossible again and again: create something that feels truly new in an aging art form. The Times are Racing is the perfect way to close out the program. I dare you to watch it and not leave smiling.

If these pieces are indicative of the future of ballet—more same-sex duets, daring musical scores, more sneakers—then the future is bright. Even brighter and more enjoyable, perhaps, than its past.

21st Century Choreography II continues at David H. Koch Theater through May 16.

Contemporary Ballet Is Alive and Well at NYCB