Puffballs, Storm Clouds, and Goodbyes
New York City Ballet's Fall Fashion Gala merits buzz, but is the dance buzzworthy?
The New York City Ballet Fall Fashion Gala celebrates the synergy among dance, fashion, and mavens of both. In recent years, it hasn’t been a font of much great dance, but it’s had more success on the fashion side of things; this year’s commissions reinforce that. Choreographers Sidra Bell and Andrea Miller produced very different works (including the chosen letter cases for their respective titles), each possessing moments of interest, but ultimately falling short on choreographic invention.
That said, Bell’s SUSPENDED ANIMATION is notable, primarily for its fantastic costumes designed by Baton Rouge native Christopher John Rogers. He cites being influenced by anime and Gaugin, and by going to church and seeing people dressed in their bright, monochrome Sunday best. His creations for NYCB dazzled—running the gamut of garment shapes from full coats to ball gowns crafted of neon-hued tulle, some with headpieces. (In the pre-show film, Rogers also names Teletubbies as an inspiration; indeed, one finds a comical element that somewhat undercuts his couture’s sartorial elegance.) As dancers pirouetted, many of the garments spun, revealing legs previously hidden; others wore short tunics or feather-like capes. The costumes’ colors luminesced in the darkly lit piece (by Mark Stanley), and descending transparent scrims added layers through which to see the glowing dancers.
The movement, to music by Nicholas Britell, Oliver Davis, and Dosia McKay, felt sublimated in order to showcase the dynamic costumes, intentionally or not. Rather than performing fluid phrases, the dancers posed, darted, burst through steps quickly, and exited. When a man carried a woman, he appeared instead to be carrying a puffball. Some wore lampshade or spiky hats, or collar ruffs, evoking the Elizabethan era. Eventually, outer garments came off to reveal sparkly bodysuits, some customized with cutouts and straps. With little continuity, the choreography felt as if someone sat at a keyboard and typed random letters. For the curtain call, the dancers stood in order of the spectrum’s colors, reminiscent of Merce Cunningham’s Roaratorio. The costumes certainly deserved a standing O on their own.
Andrea Miller’s premiere, sky to hold, featured costumes by Colombian designer Esteban Cortázar. One of the accompanying songs, by composer/singer Lido Pimienta, provided a loose narrative to ground the dance, in which Taylor Stanley is a seed who falls in love with an aptly cast storm, Sara Mearns. A bank of fog covers the dancers in the opening scene; they move en masse, wheeling like a flock of birds as the mist clears. Mearns, in a high-necked leotard and skirt in cool shades, hair in ropy lengths, dances with an unstoppable force, spinning and leaping, at the center of an endlessly bourréeing group of women in storm cloud colors. Stanley remains connected to the ground most of the time, arching into backbends, somersaulting onto his shoulder, or rolling around his pelvic girdle. (His absolute commitment to the material, and his physical acuity, gave the melodramatic dance some needed spine.) Once Mearns and Stanley meet, however, they’re ineluctably drawn together despite being pulled apart by their tribes.
Cortázar created chiffon tunics with asymmetrical hems, and wispy scarves layered over ombré, multicolored unitards. As the dance progresses, the performers change from earth, to cool, to warm hues. A mylar backdrop unfurls from time to time, lending an amateur feel. Nicole Pearce’s lighting effectively shifted from alien to lava floor. Pimienta stood downstage for sections in a fantastic yellow gown, singing in her ethereal, soaring voice, swaying in time to the beat.
The Fall Fashion Galas undeniably receive buzz and press. The emphasis on fashion lightens the expectations for the choreography, and no doubt attracts new viewers and attention outside the dance world. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how marvelous it would be, at least when the costumes take such primacy over the dance, to see the performers simply voguing on a runway.
Mauro Bigonzetti choreographed AMARIA, another September premiere, as a bouquet to departing principals Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar, the title a concatenation of their names. The duet consists of tasteful partnering designed to make the most of Kowroski’s limby lines. She seems a throwback to Balanchine’s era and has burned like a quiet star amid the company’s galaxy. For better or worse this season, she has been cast frequently with Ramasar, perhaps a convenient packaged send-off, but unfairly chaining her to a dancer with a tainted recent history. In any case, his verve and confidence, and her Hollywood glamour, will be missed.