Sunday in the Pit
New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center
"I'm about to watch a bunch of people dance around in a theater named after one of the Koch brothers." I think to myself as the last chimes ring and I hurriedly crab-walk across a full row to my seat.
I want to like dance–that is to say dance, not the fun life-affirming dancing you do with friends, but the serious austere dancing you watch in a hushed awe atop velvet cushions–though I have to admit, it eludes me. I want to like it because I generally like things, especially art things, and cultural things and especially things that make me feel like I live in New York. On the other hand, I don't want to like it. I don't want to like it for its position at the top of the heap of the snooty arts, the kind of art that readily compares itself to architecture, or would use the word "interstitial" to describe preparing a salad. But, then, back to the first hand, I do think pretension is a funny and cool milieu.
Those of us who strive for a lifestyle of appreciating the arts can often find it–the hard part is what and with whom. We live in an expanded field of medium fluidity, genre non-specificity and creative chimerism, but there is still an intangible tribalism to all of it. Sometimes it's intentional, cultivated, even prized, but most of the time you simply stick with what you know. For me, having never attended the ballet before, trying to construct an opinion on dance is something of a leap of faith. Is what I think cool actually trite, or what I think boring actually highly nuanced? If I think this sucks, is it, perhaps, because I suck? With this in mind, I choose to wear my naïveté on my sleeve and take the plunge into Lincoln Center–though not without a protective coating of THC.
“Barber Violin Concerto”, with choreography by Peter Martins and music by Samuel Barber, begins and I think to myself “this is ballet," as if straight out of a New Yorker cartoon, two dancers–a man and woman–emerge from stage right. They are wearing tights and ballet shoes and billowy silk. They are doing their thing; prancing and spinning, lifting and being lifted. Their bodies are lithe and their movements precise and powerful. I immediately get the sense that they are like greek statues animated, not only for their beauty and skill, but for a stale lifeless air they have about them. It seems ancient and ghostly but not wholly unappealing.
The two exit and are replaced by another couple–this time the man is shirtless and the woman with her legs bare and her hair down, they are both barefoot. I have a predisposed sense that ballet is supposed to be visceral, like an abstract painting or a tone poem, but I still try to organize a narrative in my mind. This is the story of a fierce war between the prissy shirt and shoes wearing dancers versus the primal barefoot shirtless ones. I feel drawn to the barefoot people, who must symbolize passionate bohemians–or at least Mediterraneans. The quartet makes dance-introductions and circles each other for awhile, eventually breaking off into new pairs. The barefoot man and the woman in tights emerge alone and a seduction begins. Soon they are moving so intimately that it seems less like dance and more like couples yoga. The music swells and it's obvious that this scene represents them fucking–a treasonous love affair. I can hear a woman behind me whisper and giggle.
They are replaced by their two counterparts, and this time the seduction is comic relief. The man walks stiffly and the woman dances a lighthearted jig around him. Her movements grow increasingly wacky and the audience is cracking up, they are really loving it. I prepare myself for a fiery conclusion–a fight between the barefoot people and the shoes people–but it turns out that was the last scene and the whole thing is over already. I guess it wasn't about war, just about two couples who are swingers.
So out of place am I that I don't even know there are multiple shows happening today. I linger in my seat taking notes when I hear the chimes warning to get back or get locked out, I guess there's more to see.
The second performance, with choreography by Jerome Robbins and music by Robert Prince, begins. We see large letters on stage reading “N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz” and I can tell by the title, right away, that things are going downhill–fast. The stage is now covered in a mass of young people dressed in black skinny jeans and United-Colors-of-Benetton sweaters, with matching cultish grins plastered on all their faces. By comparison, the last four dancers now seem almost equine in their stateliness.
This show is about Jazz–not a show of jazz but a show about jazz–and I feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck with displeasure. We see streets rendered gritty with cartoon linework, low lighting and rhythmic snapping and are led to believe that these young people are a cool gang of street tuffs, but to me they seem like a bunch of dorks. Their movements are unimpressive, and the volume of people on stage seems to be only to hide each other’s mistakes, but the audience loves it, even more than the crazy dancing scene of the last performance. What they love, I'm guessing, is to see these fresh-faced kids reliving their own days of fresh faces, and I find myself growing sad that a couple dozen seemingly passionate young dancers are being held hostage by more Baby Boomer bullshit.
By now, I've lost all interest in this performance and my mind wanders. I find myself thinking about Boomers and their place in the current world and eventually onto the departure of President Obama–I feel sad not only because I will always love him as my platonic ideal of a Good President, but because it means a return to Boomer Leadership. Anyway, my attention refocuses as the performance thankfully comes to an end.
When the curtain raises on the final performance, “The Most Incredible Thing”, with sets and costumes designed by the visual artist Marcel Dzama, choreography by Justin Peck and music by Bryce Dessner, I feel silly to have tried keenly analyzing the first two–this is so clearly the main event. The aesthetic is old-fashioned but not out of touch, Fritz Lang's Metropolis with a dose of DMT. We see a stage full of large beautifully painted set pieces in a rich earthy palette, but what really shines are the costumes. Everything is just so, designed with the crisp, efficient, lines of an illustrator, elegantly constructed with minimal material and maximum effect. Shapes are simplified, colors are sparse–but beautifully so. The choices on display are not obvious ones, but they are confident and inventive, and together they unify into a wonderful whole.
The movements of the performers are not especially showy or bold, but instead work in service to the costumes. One dancer giving solid rose-like form to a dress made of large disc of simple red silk, and another using an oversized metallic club-hand as a ballast for all of his movements. We see a robotic armored guard–wider than he should be, because he is composed of two people in mirrored half-costumes, walking in tandem and eventually splitting down the middle to reveal a ballerina within.
What I'm drawn to especially is the smallness of much of what is on stage. When a group of tiny child-ballerinas clad in sparkly silver form a circle and dramatically throw glitter into the air, only a minuscule silver puff emerges–just enough to fit into a tiny hand. It takes real courage to be small when your options are seemingly limitless.
The experience was beautiful–though I never stopped wishing I was watching a movie instead. Even though together the movements, music and visuals combined into an excellent whole, I still felt it was a waste. The half-storytelling allowed through dance comes across with childlike simplicity, when the mature choices behind these costumes could have marinated into a truly satisfying cinematic repast.
Reflecting on it afterwards, I find that ballet is like sports–both for its physical prowess and for its repetition. Sports are essentially the same, night after night. The rules don't change, the teams don't change, and the equipment doesn't change. If you like that thing, there's a lot of it to like. If you don't like that thing there's a lot of it to not like. But occasionally there's innovation. Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, a man of his times, is able to shoot three pointers from so far down court as to appear almost like a drone pilot, and now kids in playgrounds across the country would rather shoot than dunk. Hopefully young ballerinas will find the inventiveness I see in "The Most Incredible Thing" inspiring as well.
Nick DeMarco, May 2016