NYC Ballet: Commissioning, Fingers Crossed
Timing is everything in life, and a few years ago I got lucky on a trip to Seattle in time to tour the university’s art gallery (unlocked for the purpose) just before its Santiago Calatrava exhibition was taken down. There were big photographs of his work on the walls, and—in a truly brilliant curatorial coup for a venue with a very modest budget—large, beautifully executed models in white paper of Calatravan projects completed and to-come. In an even more brilliant coup, some of the models had been placed on top of the rough wooden packing crates in which they were shipped, putting them at eye level. There was nothing to do but fall in love, right then and there.
Because you have to see his work for yourself, and little of it has been completed in New York (his downtown transportation hub has been postponed and painfully scaled back, and the Metropolitan Museum’s 2006 Calatrava show was too small to give a sense of what he’s accomplished elsewhere in the world), we could be thankful to the New York City Ballet for commissioning five new works, all with décor by Calatrava.
On paper, it was an inspired idea. On stage, only two of the ballets, by Benjamin Millepied and Peter Martins, used Calatrava’s signature sculptural genius for the sets; two of the others mostly required him to paint large backdrops. Of course the architect can also paint better than most artists. But why waste his talent? Well, Peter Martins had a good idea but, as with most dance commissions, once the choreographer is engaged, (s)he will do as (s)he will.
So let us pass over three of the five, and remember fondly the two best, and Calatrava’s contribution to them. For Millepied, he created a piece of sculpture against, and through which, the choreography was danced out. With dramatic lighting and costumes in deep, saturated shades of teal, scarlet, and purple, Millepied used the sculpture to advantage, changing its appearance, and making it almost appear to move with the dancers. Yet the set’s simplicity expressed a whiff of classicism that complemented the dancers’ moves.
The ballet, Why am I not where you are, was a stunner, displaying Millepied’s talent for filling the stage with dancers, each of whom has a different agenda, yet all of whom combine harmoniously in a kind of choreographic counterpoint–reminiscent, in this way, of Jerome Robbins. It is as lush, and seemingly effortless, as the shifting colors and lights that keep its magic alive.
But it was Peter Martins whose approach truly complemented Calatrava’s imagination, with a 3D, gold metallic frame containing a series of stretched cords, almost like a harp. During the ballet, the large circle broke in half, moved, and tilted towards the audience, traveling in space as the dancers moved under it—displaying Calatrava’s engineering skills as well as his artistry, while permitting Martins’ choreography to take to the air.
Martins had also co-commissed (with the Chicago Symphony and the L.A. Philharmonic) a new Violin Concerto by Esa-Pekka Salonen for his choreography; it was a musical magnet, conducted by the composer, and played by soloist Leila Josefowicz. The ballet, Mirage, proved an equal partner to set and score and remains an example for the future of high-level collaboration.