Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company

October 29, 2009

Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company
New York City Center, NYC

October 29–November 1, 2009

Reviewed by Susan Yung

Continuum. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy Morphoses.

There is much to embrace about Morphoses, which celebrated the collaborative spirit of the Ballets Russes this season. Artistic director Christopher Wheeldon’s affable pre-curtain speeches make you feel like a friend at an open house. The company uses live music when possible; this year featured a new collaboration with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, conducted by the vibrant Alondra de la Parra. Short films preceded each dance, often showing rehearsals or the company at leisure, which made the performers seem more accessible. And yet there remains a gap between reality and expectations, still high in the company’s third year.

Of the two programs, the first had just one dance by Wheeldon—the charming Commedia (2008), to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, with playful costumes and sets by Isabel and Ruben Toledo, respectively. Wheeldon’s signature duets and trios, clever and inventive, punctuate this ballet; Danielle Rowe and Rory Hohenstein handled a devilishly fast section with aplomb. Aussie Tim Harbour contributed the premiere of Leaving Songs, a somber kinetic poem contemplating the cycle of life, symbolized by egg-like opalescent balloons. Fluid phrases were filled with rippling torsos, or bodies waving in a cluster. Just one piece appeared on both programs: Lightfoot León’s Softly As I Leave You. Look past the literal “trapped in a box” motif and the clichéd Bach and Arvo Pärt score and you’ll see the strong, supple dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk working in harmony.

Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky are major figures leading the new guard of ballet choreography, so it’s rewarding to find them on one program. Ratmansky’s Boléro (2001) begins in such dimness that, intriguingly, we can barely see the woman who’s dancing. There is a flirty competitiveness between the three pairs of women and men, and the dynamics build according to the music until the finale, when the men lift the women in upside-down splits timed to the booms. Their toying with the ubiquitous music is humorously satisfying, like a cartoon balloon “BANG.”

Wheeldon’s Continuum (2002) began the second program, dubbed “the piano program” for its live accompaniment by Cameron Grant and Susan Walters. For such a musical choreographer, Ligeti might present a conundrum, yet Wheeldon rises to the challenge. In grass green costumes, the eight dancers perform vignettes to a suite of piano etudes and short pieces. Each section has its own inner pulse and motifs—unfolding developpés, proper positions fractured by collapsed knees and crooked wrists, funny sideways leaps with bent knees. We see many novel partnering positions—Wendy Whelan in a handstand, legs sweeping like clock hands, supported by the lithe, long-limbed Andrew Crawford.

Rhapsody Fantaisie
, a premiere by Wheeldon, features a striking set of red and white windsocks (by Los Carpinteros) that riffs on many of the dancers’ horizontal shapes, and sleek red costumes by Francisco Costa (form-fitting dresses and harem pants). The Rachmaninoff piano music seems to have inspired Wheeldon’s choreography, perhaps to its detriment. While Wheeldon is at heart a romantic, here the tendency toward illustrating emotion, or adding a filigree to match the music, or creating a movement to depict a musical construct, leaches strength from the whole. One of his great gifts—using basic ballet steps, or the innate elegant lines of ballet, to subtly allude to a psychological state—is dissipated here.

Even after just two shows, it is easy to appreciate the superb company Wheeldon has assembled. Whelan always inspires/is inspired by his work, and NYCB vet Edwaard Liang, with dazzling confidence and clarity, has never shone brighter. Melissa Barak, once in NYCB’s corps, is given major roles and a spotlight in which to thrive. Rowe always draws the eye with her bold, crystalline line. Crawford is a major talent, with technique to match his striking stature. He kept pace with the seemingly boneless, high-flying Pronk. Wheeldon may not yet have a permanent company, but he’s able to attract excellent new and familiar dancers to carry out his vision.