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New York City Ballet // Benjamin Millepied’s Plainspoken // David H. Koch Theater, NYC // February 19, 2011 // Reviewed by Joseph Carman
Amar Ramasar, Sterling Hyltin, and Tyler Angle in Plainspoken. Photo by Paul Kolnik. Courtesy NYCB.
Benjamin Millepied seems to approach choreographing new ballets as if he were solving math problems. How do you work with dancers in groupings of eight, five, three, or two and keep multiplying the steps? Plainspoken, his latest work for New York City Ballet, which premiered last fall, retains his signature analytical stance with a skilled eye for craftsmanship. What he displays in his cerebral method, though, doesn’t quite offset the lack of artistic spark. Like Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, Plainspoken utilizes eight dancers who busily interact, but without enough levity or introspection to make the piece evenly engaging. With its sometimes frantic activity, interspersed with a few welcome human encounters, this is Interplay for the Twitter-obsessed set.
Each of the work’s seven sections suggests a different attitude or feeling. Set to a commissioned score for violins, viola, cello, and piano by David Lang, the choreography of Plainspoken doesn’t so much respond to the minimalist music, as react to it in a workmanlike manner. The use of pedestrian, sometimes angled movement with occasional staccato port de bras recalls some Tharpisms (push and pull moves, rag doll lifts) combined with standard classical vocabulary, like pirouettes and arabesques. The impressive assemblage of leading dancers includes Sterling Hyltin, Teresa Reichlen, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor, Tyler Angle, Justin Peck, Amar Ramasar and Sébastien Marcovici. Karen Young designed the appealingly simple costumes, purple shorts and sleeveless tops for the women and purple pants and yellow shirts for the men.
After an energetic opening for the four couples, Ramasar flirts with the four women. Hyltin and a group of men play tug of war in a dramatic conflict of uncertain origin. Reichlin and Peck run alternately playful and indifferent; and so on. A black drop at the back of the stage is raised or lowered to reveal a scrim with a different color scheme for each movement, such as the bright red indicative of Hyltin’s adrenaline surge. The most successful section is a tender pas de deux for Taylor and Marcovici. Here there seems to be an occasional connection, and Millepied lets down his choreographic guard to discover some genuine feeling.
Millepied isn’t lacking in vocabulary or even ideas. But there isn’t a real through line or sense of purpose for this ballet to hang onto. As a choreographer, he demonstrates a formidable prolificacy, experiments with various musical tastes, garners respect among dancers, and knows how to market himself. Plainspoken, however, brings us back to plain calculus. And calculus too often makes the eyes glaze over.
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