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Wheeldon's Polyphonia

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A quick note about Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet, Polyphonia, which was premiered tonight at NYCB.

In a nutshell, it was wonderful. I liked very much the way Wheeldon explored some of the choreographic trails Balanchine blazed with Agon, without looking derivative. Yes, it's a leotards-and-tights ballet (beautiful deep purple ones, by Holly Hynes). The various pieces for piano by Gyorgy Ligeti were pleasant enough, if not memorable, but the dance Wheeldon made to them was quite extraordinary.

I'm still enthralled by the memory of the three scrumptuous duets for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto.

I'd gladly see this ballet many more times. More later.

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I'm new here and new to ballet. I've only been watching for about 2 years now, so you'll have to pardon my not knowing all of the terms.

I went to last night's performance at NYC Ballet too. Here's my thoughts.

Overall I didn't like the way the program was set up. It was really hard for me to watch 2 piano pieces in a row.

2&3 Part Inventions. I liked the piece overall, I thought the two lesser female roles were danced far better and seemed more rehearsed than the 2 female leads. I really enjoyed watching Eva Natanya too, she reminds me of a young Jennie Ringer. The musicality and the fact that she looks like she's really enjoying it.

I thought Rachel Rutherford's solo was beautiful. She's a stunning woman and the way she swoons with her arms is just magnificent.

Polyphonia. It reminded me of Episodes at some parts but I liked it overall. I really liked the lighting of the piece too. There was a section danced by Jennie Somogyi and Edwaard Liang were they waltz that was very clever.

Wendy Whelan is a beautiful human rubberband! I really enjoyed watching how far (and seemingly easy) she could move her body. Jock Soto was very dark and mysterious opposite her. Overall I liked the piece, but it lacked originality. Some parts I thought (like the waltz) were very original, but I could have assumed it was a Balanchine piece (which in a way is an backhanded compliment too).

Scotch Symphony. I had never seen this one before and I really loved it. A couple of other notes. The majority of corps dancers wore their hair in a low bun and there were a few girls that had the buns on top of their head. That may be nitpicking on my part, but it broke a pattern I noticed. Am I reading too much into that?

Janie Taylor and Kyra Nichols. Taylor was great, lots of gusto, she just went for it. A little unpolished but Nichols makes up for that. She's the grand dame of the company and her little nuances were beautiful. I felt like she was what Taylor will be after she gets out of lass mode (at least in the ballet) so that was a nice complement of dancers. I really enjoyed Taylor though, watching her I wanted to go out and buy a kilt and bright red socks!

I apologize for however raw this is, as a newcomer to ballet (and writing about it) it's overwhelming sometimes how much knowledge everyone here seems to have, please go easy on me smile.gif

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Leigh, This is just a comment on your great review of last night's performance. I have to say, I agree with whoever said that programming was a problem--two piano, cutsey juvenile ballets in a row made for a very long evening!

Leigh said that the change in atmosphere in Scotch Symphony just has to be accepted, that at the end people just dance. Watching it last night, it struck me that there might be a coherent plot. The first movement is the human community symbolized by the little Scotch girl (I usually like Janie Taylor a lot, but she seemed too light in this, kicking as high and wild as she could, and not crisp enough.)

The second movement is the magic one, where the James character meets an enchanted creature. I imagined that Nichols was under a spell which "James" could break, which explained the men blocking his way. She kept telling him what to do (all that pointing) and when he finally obeyed her, the spell was broken. There is a myth to that effect, I seem to remember--once the man does what he is told, the creature becomes human. (It is more complicated than that.)

And the third movement is back in the human community, celebrating the wedding and then everyone celebrates order and harmony.

I have seen it many times, and this was the first time it struck me like that, but it seems to fit.

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One of the greatest things about Balanchine for me is how, in pas de deuxs, something intense always seems to be happening, only you can't say what it is. In the pdd in Agon, for example, or in many passages in Serenade. Something happens that is almost supra-rational or supra-narrative, something resonant which the viewer is left to infuse with emotion and meaning. My struggle with Scotch Symphony the other night was that I did not sense anything to be happening between the couple, I felt Askegaard to be present, but those broad fourth positions, arms karate-chop wide, preparing for every pirouette, in Nichols' part seemed to get in the way for me and I just wondered.

I've really got to see this again.

A problem for the ballet viewer is that few things in art are more subjective seeming than "nothing happened for me" or "nothing seemed to be happening."

[This message has been edited by Michael1 (edited January 05, 2001).]

[This message has been edited by Michael1 (edited January 05, 2001).]

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I guess I did find Polyphonia derivative. As Leigh mentions, not only does CW make references to Agon and Episodes but also to Martins' River of Light and Esctatic Orange. I had a real feeling of been there, done that better. It wasn't that the dances weren't well crafted, Wheeldon is very talented, or expertly danced. There were even a few nice touches for me, like Somogyi's waltz number or Ansanelli's solo and duet with Craig Hall.

Leigh said that Scotch Symphony is a departure for NYCB. Well, I'd disagree (think La Sonnambula, Serenade, Union Jack etc...). And I think that's one of the probelms with Wheeldon's ballet. He's produced your typical NYCB "leotard ballet." I think that the succeeding generations of choreographers have lost a few of Balanchine's lessons. One being that just because a ballet is abstract that it is not without meaning. If post-modern ballet comments on the music, Wheeldon never shows me why he's chosen Ligeti, why these particular pieces, why the contruction that he's chosen. All that twisting and contorting in the Wheelan section...then I look at some of the simple ideas that Balanchine has used in Scotch Symphony. The way the lovers stand together and corps men and women create a sort of trestle over the lead couple with their arms as they reach towards each other. Or when in La Source the soloist and the corp women bourree backward with their arms outstretched. It happens only for a bar or two but it seems so easy but unexpected.

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Well, I really, really liked it.

I won't go out and buy the music (yes, you're correct, you did hear it in "Eyes Wide Shut"), but I thought it was a most interesting ballet.

Who is cavilling about leotard ballets? In New York? Aren't we used to them by now? And Holly Hynes did an excellent job with the aubergine colour and subtleties of cut for the men.

Does the fact that he quoted movement from other pieces label his work as "derivative," and therefore, not valuable and interesting? I know a great many contemporary choreographers whose work is immensely derivative -- yes, shadow patchwork-quilts of others' works, and yet they are still beautiful and evocative.

I don't agree with the self-promotion (puffery) label being placed on this artist and neither do I agree with the paeans being sung in the NYTimes. I do think that the work I saw on Thursday night was very, very interesting......the lighting was superb, the dancers were cast properly (although I doubt if ever another pair of dancers but Whelan and Soto can do their roles justice) and I found it a really stimulating and well-danced performance.

If I make a black and white dress with a big hat setting it off is everyone going to say it's no good because it quotes from Cecil Beaton? Of course not. And if you do, I wouldn't care, because a good idea doesn't cease being a good idea just because I didn't use it first.

I thought this ballet was a solid, well-crafted work that I would not be at all adverse to seeing again----and not only because here in Washington we have to sit through mostly drek in new ballet creations....never mind the costumes.......

[This message has been edited by Juliet (edited January 06, 2001).]

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Originally posted by Manhattnik:

I didn't have a problem with two piano ballets in a row. I had quite a relaxing time at Starbuck's until the first intermission. They make a really nice gingerbread latte.

Manhattnik, that would be the Starbucks a couple of blocks to the south, yes? I know Starbucks is just about everywhere now, but they aren't in the State Theatre, surely. It can't be that bad. Yet. Can it? smile.gif

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As an artist who has spent most of my life getting the term "derivative" lobbed at me, I say there is nothing wrong with quoting or even with derivation. But if you're going to do it, you had better borrow very very well, because it's the first line of attack if people don't like the work.

I think Wheeldon quoted effectively in Mercurial Manouevres and did not in Polyphonia. In Manoeuvres the borrowings mostly all referred to the same source, offered a clear picture and even a commentary on the source material. In Polyphonia the borrowings are scattershot (Here's some Agon, here's some Forsythe, here's a sprinkling of Fearful Symmetries) and the effect is that you don't know why they are there. What is the "subject" of Polyphonia? If it is "modern ballet", which I think is the reason for these quotes, then Wheeldon needs to get that across, and frankly, I think he may not know what the subject of the ballet is. Derivative is fine. But Wheeldon was also comparatively indiscriminate in my opinion.


Leigh Witchel - dae@panix.com

Personal Page and Dance Writing

Dance as Ever

[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited January 06, 2001).]

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Great to read the views on this new ballet. I saw Wheeldon's new ballet he did last summer for the Royal Ballet (There Where She Loves) and thought it was a wonderful piece.

I'm not that up to date on what he has choreographed but I was wondering if he has turned his hand to a 3 act ballet?

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Not only does Manhattnik go to Starbucks, he brings back cookies. I could have used on on Thursday--I found the Wheeldon upsetting. So many contortions. From the fourth row, Whelan looked like a circus act rather than the very grand ballerina she is. Agreed, two piano ballets is bad programming, but maybe when the evening was scheduled Wheeldon hadn't selected the music. As for Scotch--suddenly, after the pastel Robbins and the noir Wheeldon, there they were. Steps with intrinsic meaning. What a concept.

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Well, as far as I'm concerned, Whelan is a grand ballerina when she's buttering her toast. I thought she was magnificent in the Wheeldon. Wheeldon's got all-too-rare kinetic and spatial smarts -- when other choreographers decide they're going to do the obligatory leotards-and-tights hommage to Balanchine it looks perfunctory and formulaic. Remember, if you can stand it, Martins' Reliquary. Wheeldon understands that choreography is about making shapes in time and space, and his shapes are damn interesting. Yes, he's working on turf that's familiar to City Ballet audiences, but I thought what he did along those lines was witty, engrossing and moving. Let's face it, none of us would care a fig about Balanchine if, first and foremost, his ability to string steps together to create a larger whole wasn't downright fascinating (I know, that's an undertsatement). I'm not going to say Wheeldon's a nascent Balanchine, but he has assimilated an understanding of how dancers create shapes in space which shows, at least, that he's not only been paying attention, but has the facility to put to use what he's learned.

And, while there are certainly situational and logistical allusions to other works, I don't think there's a single out-and-out quote. Even the girl-down-the-back bit refers to Episodes, but not exactly.

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I have mixed feelings about this ballet. I enjoyed it very much; in fact, I left the theater feeling exhilarated, my mind filled with Wheeldon's dazzlingly inventive images. Yet, as much as I tried, I couldn't look at all of that fabulous choreography and see a coherent ballet in it. The ballet looked to me like some cold exercise in creating novel combinations of steps and body movements, wonderful to watch, but ultimately unsatisfying, like eating an extremely tasty meal, but being just as hungry at the end as you were when you sat down to eat. It was a first impression, of course, and the chances are pretty good that I just didn't understand what Wheeldon was up to. But not understanding ballets is kind of a hobby of mine; I'm quite good at it, in fact. From this one, though, I came away with the feeling that there just wasn't much to understand, that there was nothing to wrestle with or think about, the way there is with most Balanchine ballets. It left me with the impression that no matter how many times I see it, the whole will never be more than a collection of discrete parts. It's worth seeing, in fact it's brilliant to look at. But to me it was a cold brilliance, and I wanted it to be a lot more.

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Originally posted by eWolf:

From this one, though, I came away with the feeling that there just wasn't much to understand, that there was nothing to wrestle with or think about, the way there is with most Balanchine ballets. It left me with the impression that no matter how many times I see it, the whole will never be more than a collection of discrete parts. It's worth seeing, in fact it's brilliant to look at. But to me it was a cold brilliance, and I wanted it to be a lot more.

eWolf, I think you just about summed up how I felt. I enjoyed it, but not for the gestalt. Separately each piece was interesting to watch. But, afterwards, as I thought about it, I could only think of the unifying aspects of the neat lighting and quoting of Balanchine pieces. I agree with Leigh that there's nothing wrong with quoting. Balanchine certainly quotes other Balanchine. But, when that is one of the few things I can take away... that's when it bothers me.

I do think that Wheeldon knows how to use his dancers very well. He knows how to show them off to good effect. After seeing Martins' Concerto Armonici, which I think makes both Whelan and M. Tracey look worse than they look in other ballets, I certainly value a lot more that ability to tailor choreography to a specific dancer.


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I saw "Polyphonia" in the 1/6/01 matinee performance. I agree with those who have said that one problem with the ballet was that it did not hang together well. To me it seemed like several separate dances that were not in any real way unified. Some of the individual parts I liked and some I did not.

Technically, there was little to complain about. I really liked the costumes and lighting and the dancers were spot-on.

Polyphonia compared badly to Mercurial Maneuvres, which I liked, in at least two ways. One, I didn’t feel that Wheeldon was comfortable in this style, it didn't come naturally and so the seams and the effort showed. He was having a difficult time choreographing in this style and as a result had nothing left over to make the ballet coherent, or meaningful. MM, by contrast, seemed to just flow. Two, he really didn't show me anything new about the dancers. One of the lovely things about MM was the nice big role for Liang, who I like a lot; Wheeldon showed us Liang in a different light than we had seen him before. (I got a similar feeling about Ansanelli here -- we were seeing a new side of her -- but not to as great an extent.) Here, he mainly showed us what we already know about Soto and Whelan, having seen them perform Agon, etc., over the years -- they are really good at these contortionist things, they can look cold and dispassionate while doing them; they will be rock-solid as dancing partners and yet can have next to no obvious emotional connections. Well, we've SEEN that. Show me something else. I almost got the feeling that Wheeldon knew that was what he was doing when, at the end of their last (I think )pdd he had Whelan and Soto, after he has passed her under his leg which was at right angles to the stage, simply kneel and stare out at the audience. They seemed almost defiant: "This is what we do. We did it. We did it perfectly."

Yes, its better than Reliquary. Not exactly strong praise. I don’t think this ballet shoe Wheeldon is a bad choreographer; he did move the dancers around, he has a good feeling for space. I think it showed either that he isn’t going to be comfortable doing leotard ballets, and perhaps shouldn’t try, or at least that he should think a lot harder before doing another one.

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Guest MichaelClancey

Wheeldon's lack of depth is really beginning to bore me. His ballets are beautiful, but they're like a beautiful woman with nothing to say.

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Originally posted by Shirley:

I'm not that up to date on what he has choreographed but I was wondering if he has turned his hand to a 3 act ballet?

Wheeldon did a version of A Midsummer Night's dream for the Colorado Ballet, but I'm not sure if it was three acts. However, it is a story ballet, if that's what you were wondering.

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I only just saw Polyphonia this evening -- from one viewing, I don't have much radically new to add to what has been said but I'm balletomane enough to want to give it my spin anyway. I partly agree with several of the criticisms above and in Leigh Witchel's review, but overall still feel more like Manhattnik and Juliet...That is, I left the theater happy, intrigued, and wanting to see the ballet again.

This is only the second Wheeldon ballet I've seen; the first was a rather slight pas de deux done for Darcey Bussell at the Royal -- pas de trois if you count the skirt which, in the opening of the ballet, had a rather large role to play. So first, I was happy with Polyphonia, because I finally had the chance to see for myself that the interest in Wheeldon is really justified. Also, I do think this ballet is about something -- albeit the something it is about, is just what is giving people pause. That is, it's about its quotations and allusions. The ballet even "stages" this with its theatrical lighting effects: when it opens with the four couples at the back of the stage in an allusion to and revision of Agon, the lights shine on that opening movement sequence in such a way that gigantic shadows of the couples are projected on the backdrop. The effect is repeated at the close of the ballet. It is as if Wheeldon is signaling that this is a ballet made to be a kind of shadow image or double of others. (Juliet referred to "shadow patchwork quilts.")...as if, too, he is signalling that it is a ballet overlooked by the giant shadows of Balanchine ballets past (Episodes, Agon...)Maybe that's a little fanciful, and almost certainly Wheeldon doesn't entirely pull it off, but I don't think he is working without thought -- and I do mean "thought" as refracted/embodied/suggested by the choreography, thinking through bodies, not concepts that can't be seen.

I also felt that even some of the most Balanchine-esque sections had distinctive inflections and qualities: the Agon type movements of the first pas de deux for Whelan and Soto also involved some lifts that had an eerie weightless quality that seemed to me rather different than Whelan/Soto in Agon...their third pas de deux had images of Soto cradling Whelan, sometimes distored and intensified into a kind of grasping, climbing imagery. This, too, seemed to me something more than re-cooked or cutesy Stravinsky ballet left-overs. (I have to admit, though, that I don't know the City Ballet repetory "cold" the way others here do; in particular, although I've seen Forsythe and Martins ballets, I would only very rarely recognize specific quotations of their work...)

One section of the ballet that many critics and people on this board have (rightly!) singled out for admiration is the material for Ansanelli -- the brief pas de deux with Craig Hall and the solo that follows. This is one of the most distinctive sections of the ballet. I don't know quite how to characterize the choreography, but one effect that Wheeldon uses (and elsewhere in the ballet, but mostly in Ansanelli's solo) is to have the dance phrases start -- and start slowly, gravely -- during a rest or pause in the music, so that the musical phrase seems to arise from soloist's movement or even her mood rather than vice-versa. Ansanelli also has a quiet, repeating step (image really) when she bourrees with her back to the audience and her arms in second, and then gives her arms the barest suggestion of a ripple; it is as if there were the barest recollection of Odette's exit at the end of Act II of Swan Lake. In my eyes, this was not an ingenious quote, but a delicate way of crystallizing the private, distant, slightly dreamy melancholy that infuses the whole solo.

I would have to see the ballet again, before I would say that the whole merely fell into parts -- but I understand the criticism. (It's a risk, too, that is aggravated when one assembles a score from a group of piano pieces that were not written as a suite or grouping of any kind.) Still, the final movement drew on an energy and on imagery that clearly developed from earlier sections of the ballet. Whether it really worked to pull the ballet together, is hard (for me) to say on one viewing, but perhaps not. I did think, too, that some sections of the ballet were decidedly slighter than others -- usually those in which I also thought the Ligeti music was slighter (or at least brighter, more tonal) than the others. Most egregiously, in the closing section when the whole ensemble straighten their arms and flex their wrists, criss-crossing their arms etc., the ballet does start to look like an apprentice work or merely "external" attempt to reproduce the company's modernist style, rather than exploring it from within...but for the most part, I found Polyphonia rather better than that.

Finally, it was excellently danced by everyone -- but Whelan was quite special. Part of what makes her special is that she is NOT just a rubber band or a contortionist; Her movements have weight and shape as well as stretch and flexibility. (No-one has really said otherwise, but somehow that suggestion seems to hover between the lines of how she gets described). Ansanelli, as the above already suggests, was also quite lovely. Andrew Veyette replaced Edward Liang.

[This message has been edited by Drew (edited January 18, 2001).]

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