Before Polyphonia, which turns 10 this month, Christopher Wheeldon’s pieces for the Royal Ballet, whose school he attended, and the New York City Ballet, where he danced, marked him as a major talent. After this modernist leotard ballet, created on eight dancers from NYCB, the young Brit was a sensation.
Polyphonia – which repeats tonight, Tuesday, Thursday and in the spring – descends from the daring, flex-footed, angular Balanchine ballets that in 2001 were looking dangerously faint. Like Agon, The Four Temperaments and Symphony in Three Movements (gloriously paired with the Wheeldon on Wednesday), Polyphonia transplants us to a “forest of symbols that watch a person with their familiar gaze”, as Baudelaire, the quintessential modernist, put it. The symbols – in dance, steps – reorganise experience as a dream does.
Polyphonia’s steps emphasise the grave balance between people. Tyler Angle carries Wendy Whelan on his back like Aeneas did his ailing father from burning Troy – except her legs are bent sharply over his shoulder like scythes. She straddles his hips like a plough and rotates her body full circle, like the shadow on a sundial. The images are ancient and mythical, rooted in heaven and earth.
Wheeldon uses the floor like the contemporary choreographer he is – the dancers lying and crouching there, and bending over straightened legs like storks. He honours Balanchine without repeating him.
Balanchine could alert you to the beauty and rhythmic juice of music you hadn’t paid much attention to. Likewise, Wheeldon organises the anarchic sound of Ligeti into beats and fashions a single organism from the 10 short numbers. At least that is how it is supposed to work. On Wednesday, with several dancers debuting in their roles, the ballet didn’t entirely cohere.
Some dancers approached the movement swoonily, others more directly. Sara Mearns gave the solo that Alexandra Ansanelli originated an expansiveness and vibrancy that extended even to moments of suspended motion. It was an exciting interpretation, but it eclipsed the poignant swaying from foot to foot, as if in the arms of an imaginary partner, that prepares us for the intimate jigsaw of the central pas de deux (Whelan and Angle on Wednesday).
Still, I felt grateful all over again for the work and amazed that, at a wee 27, Wheeldon knew how to make a plotless ballet, to a fragmented score, that would speak to us.