“Everyone here looks famous!” whispered my date at New York City Ballet’s inaugural night of nothing but Christopher Wheeldon. I spotted only ballet regular Sarah Jessica Parker, but the theatre was buzzing. For the grand return of the prodigal – City Ballet’s resident choreographer until he left to try his hand at a company of his own – the house was packed to the fifth ring.
A whole night of his lush and imagistic work might have been overkill if each piece were not so distinctly scaled and shaped – the world premiere of Les Carillons; the company premiere of DVG: Danse à grand vitesse (both will be reprised this week and in the spring); and 2001’s spare, touching Polyphonia. And yet there was a constant. If Ballet was Woman for Balanchine, for the 38-year-old Briton it is the pas de deux.
You can hear in L’Arlésienne Suites – the score for Les Carillons – the vestiges of the pastoral drama for which Bizet composed the music: the tolling church bells, village processions and earthbound folkdances. But Wheeldon is not interested in the public sphere. His corps did not represent the public so much as amplify the private – the secret yearnings intimated in Bizet’s winsome, coquettish and simmering interludes for solo violin, flute and horn. And what do these people secretly want? According to Wheeldon, as much independence as union permits. Tiler Peck acknowledged Gonzalo Garcia without pausing on her plucky way. When they weren’t manoeuvring their lady, the men finessed their own steps. Men and women alike used the other as ballast – a friendly body to push against.
The pas de deux’s breathtaking variety and nuance distinguished Danse à grande vitesse as well. To composer Michael Nyman’s relentless, bombastic celebration of France’s high-speed rail, the ballet embodied the wayward, human equivalent of locomotion and its interlocking parts: more Gehry wave than bullet train. The gluey partnering emphasised tendon, muscle and flesh, nicely resisting the music’s throbbing heroics.
We had already had enough heroism for one night: smack in the middle of Polyphonia, beautiful, sinuous Jennie Somogyi ripped her Achilles tendon (not her first devastating ankle injury). The audience let out a collective gasp. You could see that her instinct was to keep dancing – that it took all her courage to hobble offstage and let the piano thunder in her wake.