Justin Peck: Copland Dance Episodes
The premiere of Justin Peck’s poetic Copland Dance Episodes marks several firsts. Before Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes (2015), Aaron Copland’s music was essentially absent from New York City Ballet’s repertoire; it now occupies an entire evening—another milestone as Peck’s first full-length ballet for NYCB. It’s also a brief one, at seventy-five minutes or so with no intermission, a departure for this company whose programs usually run far longer. Jeffrey Gibson created the visuals—brightly colored geometric designs for the pre- and post-dance front curtain, while Ellen Warren designed the sleek color block leotards spanning the rainbow, and Brandon Stirling Baker set the varied lighting schemes.
This is Peck’s twenty-third dance made for NYCB (he has created over fifty works altogether), and in some ways, at just thirty-five years old, he has fashioned his own mid-career retrospective herein. The twenty-two-section dance takes root in Peck’s earlier Rodeo, and his style matches Copland’s spare, spacious, timeless compositions. The piece elicits emotions from amity to grandeur, with emphasis on community and ritual.
We spy self-quotes—the starting block crouch, the tall/short guy visual joke, the packed group from which a couple pops up. While he has shown great range in other dances, and on Broadway and film, he remains true to his modern ballet idiom in Copland. Energy ebbs and flows in seamless movement transitions. Pods of dancers convene, dissipate, and rejoin like old friends. Couples discover one another, in this case Taylor Stanley/Mira Nadon and Tiler Peck/Chun Wai Chan, tracing their own story arcs.
Two spritely trios of women (Megan Fairchild, Ashley Hod, Indiana Woodward) and men (Harrison Coll, Roman Mejia, Anthony Huxley) in yellow and blue dance separately and eventually unite. Their flitting allegro passages summon thoughts of birds, abetted by their costumes colors, which also evoke the Ukrainian flag. All petit allegro dynamos, they perform with a felicitous virtuosity—Mejia whipping through turns in second and landing softly in slo-mo pencil spins, Woodward’s sparkling footwork, Fairchild’s darting direction shifts.
Stanley and Nadon display their compatibility in a repeating chain of jetés in second splits, in sync and facing one another. As distance forms between them, the leaps lose energy, and finally their paths part ways. In a gripping scene, they parlay later on—one “speaks” centerstage, in a disc of light, as the other “listens,” standing in silhouette downstage, taking turns, but eventually splitting. Tiler Peck and Chan embody romantic love, even as she pulls away questioningly at moments. Chan, a new principal, carves a bold presence with quicksilver, expansive technique.
In the pod sections, each dancer has different steps, but they eventually coalesce and move as teams, often catching a faller or hoisting someone in a flying scissor kick. When all thirty pack tightly to form a cluster, small shoulder shrugs initiate a mass pivot, recalling the shifting direction of a flock of birds. In a section wittily called “Phone Home,” the ensemble, spread evenly across the stage, raises aloft an index finger. Copland Dance Episodes may be a relatively short evening, but it is packed full of Peck’s incrementally revolutionary ballet.
Keerati Jinakunwiphat’s Fortuitous Ash
Receiving a commission from New York City Ballet means, among other things, that you’re creating a work for a prestigious company (especially significant as the first Asian woman to do so), but also that it will be compared to existing repertory; Keerati Jinakunwiphat created the premiere of Fortuitous Ash in this crucible. Slated between Voices (2020) by Alexei Ratmansky and Everywhere We Go (2014) by Justin Peck, it provided an elegant showcase for nine dancers.
The music by Du Yun sets a moody, spare tone, with chiaroscuro lighting and a wispy kite hanging by Dan Scully. Dancers enter one by one, backs to us, gliding, posing, raising a leg high, finding a stop/start cadence. Arms make cruciforms, slowly unfold, or lengthen unendingly. Horns blare chaotically; a man does a double tour en l’air, one of the standard ballet moves that sometimes seem wedged in. Three women team up, partnering, supporting another’s leg; they perform a phrase in canon. When the cast fills the stage, they bounce and leap hyperactively. Lined up in a specific order, the leotards’ hues form a chromatic rainbow (costumes by Karen Young) recalling Merce Cunningham’s Second Hand curtain call.
Yun’s score finds more melody, then forefronts an electric guitar, crescendoing to a raucous cacophony. The dancers, in a column, each strike a signature pose; one thrusts out a ribcage, or curves to the side. Two men leap in tandem, and a pair of women run on and off. The group creates a handsome tableau for the finale, the formation rising up and away from us.
While agreeable enough, this awkwardly-titled premiere’s recurrence in future repertory will be proof of enduring appeal. Alexei Ratmansky is set to join the company as Artist in Residence later this year, and Justin Peck is currently Resident Choreographer/Artistic Advisor, recalling an era when George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins worked side by side at City Ballet. This may mean less oxygen for up-and-comers such as Jinakunwiphat, but despite this, it’s a thrilling prospect for audiences.