This winter, a humongous photograph of some 80 New York City Ballet dancers reclining in cosy clusters stretched across the Koch theatre’s vast atrium floor. Patrons lay down beside their favourite dreamboat dancer or climbed to the fourth level, where the bodies arrayed on rumpled paper turned out to form a beautiful eye.
The artist, known by the initials JR, not only captured ballet’s ethereal harmony, with the individual subsumed to a luminous whole, but also the youngish audience that NYCB’s recent Art Series, which commissions dance-inspired works from contemporary artists, was designed to attract. This second goal has become a mania for the company’s chief, Peter Martins. He has had famous fashion designers double as costumiers, tickets reduced to $29 on programmes deemed appropriate for fedoraed Brooklynites, and now, for the spring’s opening week, JR again, this time with his first ballet – or, at eight minutes, ballet scrap. It is also one of the few ballets he has seen.
A decade ago, the self-styled photograffeur became a sensation when riots broke out in a Paris banlieue where he had pasted his enormous portraits of residents on estate walls. The images gave the disenfranchised a face – indeed, many faces. Since then, JR has brought visibility to other forgotten and embattled corners, although that wouldn’t include Lincoln Center.
Fittingly Les Bosquets, inspired by those 2005 riots, takes disconnection as its theme. As the ballet police pumped their knees with the precision of a marching band, the residents hurled themselves forward, piled up and scattered. The soloists amounted to an odd couple. Lauren Lovette rose in the riot’s aftermath like the Dying Swan reborn. She bourréed toward guest artist Lil Buck, master of Memphis’s foot-fancy hip-hop dialect jookin, who spun and balanced on a sneakered toe. They were translating each other’s language into their own. A nice idea, but JR needed to know more ballet and jookin to flesh it out.
Still, the packed house responded jubilantly and remained robustly enthusiastic through several variations on this “I say to-ma-to, you say ba-na-na” theme. At two and a half hours, 21st Century Choreographers I proceeded like a shoe salesman working on commission: offer enough options and something is bound to fit. Sadly, Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna came too late for people to absorb its many shades of joy.