Ever since I saw it last week, Kyle Abraham's The Runaway for New York City Ballet has been haunting me.
Of course, it was a big deal that the interim leadership team (specifically Justin Peck) asked Abraham to choreograph on the company, marking the first time in more than a decade that NYCB has hired a black choreographer. But what struck me most was not the symbolism of the commission. Or even the experience of hearing Kanye West blasted at Lincoln Center, for that matter. It's what Abraham did with Taylor Stanley that I haven't been able to stop thinking about.
The ballet opens with and returns to a series of extended solos for the remarkable NYCB principal. And each one is absolutely jaw-dropping. For someone who has always seemed so at home in Balanchine's house, Stanley looked just as comfortable taking on Abraham's hybrid movement style. He easily slipped between extended développés and the Nae Nae, confidently melting a jeté into a body roll, then morphing a phrase of popping into a classical port de bras. All the while making the mashup look completely natural.
As a kid, Stanley trained seriously in jazz, hip hop and tap while at The Rock School, and at one point even dreamed of dancing for Missy Elliott. Then he fell in love with Balanchine ballets, and quickly made a beeline for the top of Mr. B's company. Yet seeing the artistry he brought to something so far from his typical repertoire there made one of my colleagues question, "Is Taylor Stanley being wasted at New York City Ballet?"
Of course, that seems like a ridiculous thing to ask. He's a principal dancer at one of the best companies in the world. How could that be a waste? But this piece showed a glimpse into a totally unexplored branch of his talent.
So maybe New York City Ballet had been "wasting" Taylor Stanley in the sense that they had never before fully capitalized on the extent of his versatility. In just three weeks, Abraham (who typically spends a year or more to build a new work collaboratively with his dancers) brought out never-before-seen magic. And not just in Stanley—I've never seen any dancer or choreographer bleed neoclassical technique into a mix of street and contemporary styles so masterfully before. What would happen if Abraham and Stanley could dive in even deeper together on a longer piece, with a more generous creation period?
It just goes to show you what kinds of artistic breakthroughs can happen when a company looks outside the obvious choices and hires a range of voices to collaborate with its dancers. By bringing a new background, a different expertise, a divergent sensibility—and of course, his singular vision—Abraham created something truly original. I can't help but think that Mr. B himself would have approved.
Now, I'm just hoping that Stanley gets cast by Emma Portner, who also received an eyebrow-raising commission from NYCB for this spring. What might she be able to discover within Stanley that we've never witnessed before? We'll just have to wait and see.