Critic’s Notebook: New York City Ballet: A Story in Three Choreographers

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After making it, Mr. Wheeldon, who had joined City Ballet in 1993, retired from dancing to focus on choreography. Mr. Martins shrewdly created for him the post of artist in residence. And “Polyphonia” (2001), the next work on the all-Wheeldon program, demonstrates why that confidence was deserved. Set to piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti, it’s obviously, allusively in the line of Balanchine’s bracing modernist works “Agon” and “Episodes,” yet it doesn’t feel derivative.

Alas, the rest of the Wheeldon program doesn’t keep rising. Already in “Liturgy,” from 2003, there are signs of a rut, of a narrowing into one avenue of success (the elastic, extremely acrobatic pas de deux), and the jump to “American Rhapsody,” choreographed last year, is a large falling-off. The ingenuity is still there, and the craft, but smothered in hokeyness, settling for something rote.

Mr. Wheeldon did make work for City Ballet between 2003 and 2016. Two more pieces — including his biggest hit, the 2005 “After the Rain Pas de Deux” — are scattered among the highly uneven offerings of the seven remaining Here/Now programs. But the gap does imply a break, the moment in 2008 when Mr. Wheeldon resigned to concentrate on his own, ill-fated company, Morphoses.

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New York City Ballet members performing Alexei Ratmansky’s “Namouna,” at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Ratmansky: The Russian Contender

By that time, there was competition, for in 2006, Alexei Ratmansky, then the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, had made “Russian Seasons.” Here was a surprise: a work dense with classical steps, steeped in ballet history, as musically responsive as any lover of Balanchine could wish, but full of character and feeling and suggested stories about love and marriage and death. Its humor is distinctive, not always flattering to human nature. It feels wise.

Joining it on the all-Ratmansky bill is “Namouna” (2010), just as wonderful. Though it, too, is rooted in ballet history, it is not quite like anything else: a screwball comedy that’s also a hallucinatory dream.

Between the two Ratmansky works is a missed connection, a path not taken. After “Russian Seasons,” it was widely assumed that Mr. Ratmansky would become resident choreographer for City Ballet. But in 2009, he shocked everyone by joining American Ballet Theater instead. He has since made two works for City Ballet — both, strange and original and marvelous, are highlights of later Here/Now programs — and he unveils a premiere at next week’s gala, but his departure left an opening.

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Company members in Justin Peck’s “In Creases,” part of New York City Ballet’s Here/Now Festival. Credit Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

Peck: New Blood

Mr. Peck filled it. His program begins with “In Creases,” the first piece he made for the company, in 2012, when he was a 25-year-old member of the corps de ballet. It introduced his precocious command of craft and composition and his uncommon imagination. It’s unformulaic and kaleidoscopic, with intricate groupings that grow and change like life-forms and a guileless enthusiasm for invention and exploration. No wonder Mr. Martins gave Mr. Peck the resident choreographer job in 2014.

Firmly based in classical technique and Balanchinian musicality, Mr. Peck’s choreography seems of the moment, colored by contemporary manners. It’s egalitarian, flattening ballet’s traditional hierarchies, with principal dancers often costumed the same as everyone else. A relay chain of duets in the middle of “New Blood” (2015) treats men dancing with men and women dancing with women no differently from men and women dancing together.

The pas de deux, as a vehicle of emotion, hasn’t been Mr. Peck’s strength, and yet “The Dreamers,” a 2016 pas de deux on the program, is a fascinating examination of ballet conventions, a novel drama. I find the large-scale “Everywhere We Go” (2014) impeded by its Sufjan Stevens score, but the invention doesn’t cease. Mr. Peck is an astonishing talent, better represented later in Here/Now by “Year of the Rabbit” (2012) and “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” (2014). (There’s also a Peck premiere buried in the otherwise dreary-looking Program 8.)

And that’s where City Ballet is today. Except there’s one more story remaining in the numbers: the high percentage of very recent works by many different choreographers. Logistics are surely behind this choice — these pieces are fresh in the dancers’ memories — but it’s also a display of fresh life, signs of a promising generation. Maybe there’s a sense now that after Mr. Wheeldon and Mr. Ratmansky unquestionably enriched the repertory without ascending to divinity, that no one, not even the prolific Mr. Peck, needs to fill the Balanchine role alone.

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Source: New York Times

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