New York City Ballet
Which Came First: the Dance or the Music?
This time, it was all about the music. I had heard Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters (a triple co-production) last year; directed by Rebecca Taichman, it had a powerful story with contemporary resonance and some outstanding performances. But most of all, the score was emotionally compelling, listenable, and definitely worth multiple exposures. opera site
So when I learned that Muhly was preparing Two Hearts, a new ballet for NYCB with Benjamin Millepied (their fourth collaboration), I made sure to see and hear it. What a good move! Like Milliepied, Muhly understands the necessity for peaks and valleys, fast and slow tempos, lush harmonies and unison passages—but never at random. And, as in his earlier dances, Milliepied is equally adept at filling the stage with complex movement and many dancers, or creating high-voltage solos and duets. (See post of March 7, 2011)
Two Hearts is a joint venture that makes every move, every measure, seem inevitable.The ballet is roughly based on an old English folk song, Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor. Like many ballads whose origins are lost in antiquity, it is both modal and mournful. see/hear You can find three versions of the melody and 20 verses, all recounting a tale of woe in which everybody dies. In other words, the perfect vehicle for two highly sophisticated artists bent on adapting it for a 21st-century take on the eternal triangle. Of course they don’t stick closely to the story—it’s more an abstract mood piece—but here’s where it gets interesting. With their intuitive understanding of pacing and their sure grasp of aesthetics, drama and movement, their Two Hearts keeps you looking and listening all the way through.
The costumes (by Rodarte) extend Millepied’s ideas; they are black-and-white, yet each, like the steps the dancers perform, is subtley different, seeming to move with the bodies and the changing light (Roderick Murray). And then there’s the ballet’s master stroke, the surprise that cuts through your expectations at exactly the right moment: for roughly two-thirds of the work you see many dancers moving on and off the stage, combining and recombining in intricate patterns, always to instrumental music. It is artful, hypnotic.
Suddenly, you hear a woman’s off-stage voice, pure and vibrato-less, keening the story. The corps of dancers becomes two true lovers who twine around each other to the song in infinitely expressive ways. The shift in numbers and affect is immense, the shock of this less-is-more, cataclysmic. Their two hearts have become your one, and it may just stop for awhile. Like Muhly’s Dark Sisters, Two Hearts bears repetition.
During the curtain calls, when mezzo Dawn Landes joined the cast for their bows, she was in downtown black, from head to toe. Except for her shoes: covered in silver spangles, they begged to dance off to a new 21st-century yellow brick road.