In the late 1990s, the prognosis for ballet choreography, in the US at least, was dire, with too many new pieces simultaneously portentous and trivial. At New York City Ballet, choreographers evinced little interest in tradition beyond Balanchine at his most inimitably renegade. Then a young corps member, trained at the Royal Ballet, began making dances. With an un-American sweetness, neither smug nor obfuscating, and an eagerness to absorb and transform ballet genres, Somerset-born Christopher Wheeldon was the first of a generation to infuse ballet’s future with hope.
The NYCB premiere of Soirée Musicale this week returned us to that transformative moment. Created for the school’s graduating class of 1998, the ensemble piece plays brightly with the dance idioms in its tasting menu of a score, Samuel Barber’s appealing Souvenirs. The waltz’s upward lilt becomes a high-flying split leap, and the downward step descends to a kneel. The tango is treated to Busby Berkeley-esque magnification. Throughout the ballet, arms circle and waft with a rounded amplitude that welcomes us as ballet arms have always done.
Soirée Musicale also introduces that Wheeldon signature, the seamlessly entangled pas de deux. Without warning, Lauren Lovette and Chase Finlay were moving as one, her gorgeous limbs tucked around his body like a mermaid’s tail as he carried her aloft. Whether or not they manage to arrive, couples in Wheeldon ballets are always heading towards the utopia of a single, more complete self.
In the freshly minted A Place for Us the choreographer exposes the anatomy of that romance. Stop-motion pauses that arrest the movement’s flow serve to emphasise exactly when the partners first clasp hands, exactly where she puts a palm he can lean into. Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild seem to have dictated the roles Wheeldon created for them, the steps fit them so well. Peck’s capacity for clarity at breakneck speed meant the notches in time always registered. Fairchild’s rough hunger for the moment at hand broke it open to view.