REVIEW: Aaron Copland meets the 21st at New York City Ballet

Dance · Reviews
Megan Fairchild, Roman Mejia, center. From left, Emilie Gerrity, Jonathan Fahoury, Daniel Applebaum, Isabella Lafreniere. photo: Erin Baiano

There is so much that is invigorating and innovative about Copland Dance Episodes, Justin Peck‘s major new full-evening work for New York City Ballet in its world premiere on January 26. Yet it also connects with, and alludes to, traditions and earlier works. It’s bracingly fresh and new – a ballet that sharpens your vision and expands your horizons.

For 75 seamless minutes, Peck’s fluidly logical abstract work persuasively weaves together Aaron Copland’s three well-known seminal ballet scores. They reverberate familiarly while also being scrubbed of the much more dramatic and specific ballets for which they were composed: Billy the Kid (1938). Rodeo (1942) Appalachian Spring (1944). For anyone familiar with the original choreography, it’s difficult on first viewing to fully erase the distinctive characters, costumes, and specific moments with which they’re so strongly associated.

(And also difficult not to wonder: how does the version of Appalachian Spring used by Peck omit the tense, demonic section that in the Martha Graham original choreography serves as the ominous “sermon” by the preacher, a role originated by Merce Cunningham?)

Ashley Laracey, Unity Phelan, Emma Von Enck. Copland Dance Episodes, A Ballet By Justin Peck, photo: Erin Baiano

When Peck’s Rodeo premiered in 2015, it made a winning case for hearing this music in a new, contemporary vein. With fifteen men cavorting, competing, and sizing each other up—and one woman threading her way through to connect for a lush, dreamy duet—it marked a new level of maturity for Peck, at a very early point of his career.

Peck’s idea, in Copland Dance Episodes, that Copland merited further exploration, and that the three scores could fit together for a whole greater than the sum of its parts, is fully justified. It’s a dance that is carefully thought out (and at times veers towards the schematic), but its inventiveness, along with elements of surprise and humor, sustains its momentum and high level of interest.

photo: Erin Baiano

Peck chose the artist Jeffrey Gibson as his scenic designer, but the entire stage is an open expanse throughout the intermission-less (and pause-free) ballet – a receptive canvas for Brandon Stirling Baker’s creamy, subtle and eloquent lighting design. Gibson’s contribution is on view as the audience settles in: a vibrantly colored drop curtain in which geometric patterns are overlaid with target-like circular designs, a large one framed by two smaller ones.

Gibson’s design mirrors elements of the choreography, in which a circular pull is a recurring motif, fluidly employed. It also echoes the two trios that are major players in the ballet and, in their own way, as central and significant as the two lead couples. Three playful, rambunctious men (Roman Mejia, Harrison Coll and Anthony Huxley) launch the action of Rodeo and become linchpins throughout the evening. In Ellen Warren’s bright, clean and simple costumes – which draw on the palette of Gibson’s artwork, with an emphasis on turquoise and rose shades – this trio is always easy to spot on stage.

So are their female counterparts (Megan Fairchild, Indiana Woodward, and Ashley Hod) who first appear in the quiet, stately opening moments of Appalachian Spring to join and seemingly replace the men for that portion of the ballet. They soon assert their own virtuosity during “Rue of Three,” blazing through successive solos.

Left: Alexa Maxwell, Jovani Furlan. Right: Miriam Miller, Russell Janzen

Peck gives such titles – often highly resonant ones – to each of the 22 “episodes” identified in the program, The duet for the original Rodeo couple (roles now danced by Mira Nadon and Taylor Stanley) is named “Two Birds,” and Peck gives these two an ongoing trajectory throughout the ballet. After their seemingly harmonious encounter in the first section, they pass through fleetingly in brief, expansive stage-crossings and ultimately arrive a moment of confrontation and separation, their prior closeness replaced by an aching vast distance.

Nadon then returns for one of the most intriguing sections, “Armor,” in which she is surrounded, shielded, possibly guided by four very tall women. Nadon seems poised for a new journey, one that will reunite her with Stanley — but not for long.  

Another couple, Tiler Peck and Chun Wai Chan, dominate during the Appalachian Spring middle section, unspooling a continuous duet (“Alone Together”) in several separate sections that presents them as more youthful and in sync – as yet unaware of  forces that might test their connection.

Copland Dance Episodes, A Ballet By Justin Peck, NYCB, Photo: Erin Baiano

Not every moment of every duet sustains the same level of invention, but Peck more than makes up for that with the work’s overall elegant construction and the ingenuity and vigor of the ensemble sections. It’s quite heroic for just 30 dancers to carry such an enormous work; Jerome Robbins’ Goldberg Variations, of similar duration, calls on much larger forces. There are moments when Peck’s wit and ease at capturing the essence of this distinctively American, often propulsive music make one grin with delight.

Copland Dance Episodes captivated me throughout. At its conclusion I felt that not only had Peck successfully “scrubbed clean” the deep imprint of iconic works of American dance history, but that my very vision had been renewed. Using his own “blank page or canvas,” Peck has created a ballet that, in Sondheim’s immortal line, can “give us more to see.”

all photography by erin baiano for new york city ballet

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.

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REVIEW: Cécile McLorin Salvant plays Royce Hall

Music · Reviews

While she’s no stranger to Southern California audiences, vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant’s show presented by CAP UCLA’s Royce Hall on January 26 reinforced her status as a one-of-a-kind singer. Through her idiosyncratic artistry, willingness to indulge the moment, and her genial manner, Salvant charmed and thrilled the near capacity of Royce’s floor.     

In the broader sense, she’s one of the many daughters of Betty Carter—singers who rebuild a familiar song from the ground up, rearrange it almost to the point of non-recognition, and improvise over that framework. Those are dangerous waters, though, and Betty ruined more good singers than she bred. Salvant skates close to the edge of effusiveness, but always manages to tack back to the tonal and melodic. Unlike Carter and most of her acolytes, Salvant is not swing-centered.

She’s singular in a number of ways. Her vocal radius is near breath-taking: she has a precise falsetto, a strong middle register, and she can dip down into male-range chest tones. More subtle but no less important, Salvant can calibrate her vibrato—sometimes at three different settings on the same tune. She draws material from wildly divergent sources, and brings it in all in under a surprise-filled musical tent. Her personal style is, well, personal: a gossamer caftan flowed over a sequined dress with a feathered flounce, which topped strapless orange platforms.   

Show tunes are an important component to Salvant’s music. Cabaret singing and jazz singing are as alike as chalk and cheese. In the former, singers use their gifts to pay homage to the song; for the latter, singers use the song to showcase their individuality. Like the late Wesla Whitfield, Salvant is one of the few who can bridge the two in meaningful ways. She prefaced her turn on “There’s No Business Like Show Business” with a quote from Elaine Stritch at Liberty (“As the prostitute once said–it’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”). The tune was driven by Keita Ogawa’s peppery drums, and it luxuriated in Salvant’s mercurial voice: girlish (“…Someday I’ll wake up…”) to full-throated (“Some-WHERE…”), glissing and sliding, with flashes of melisma and self-mockery, but a million miles away from Ethel Merman. The seldom-heard verse opened “Over the Rainbow” cleverly slid Munchkin-like refrains from “You’re Out of the Woods” in and out of the performance. And when she rode the brisk drum rhythm on the encore shuffle, it was briefly thrilling.

Her small but resourceful band buoyed Salvant and carried her throughout. Pianist Sullivan Fortner — Grammy-nominated for his arrangement of “Rainbow” — touched the century-old piano accompaniment for Bessie Smith’s “Sam Jones Blues,” brought the dissonant pounding in the piano-voice duet “Ghost Song,” and lacy lyricism to Sondheim’s “Being Alive’ from Company. Guitarist Marvin Sewell churned the tightly-strummed pulse of “Because,” and nylon-string finger-picking to Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe.” Alexa Tarantino’s flute interludes added instrumental color, especially her haunting bass flute solo on “Rainbow.”

Salvant may let her band’s reins loose, but she’s unquestionably the focal point: jumping from John Dowland’s old English ballad, “Flow Not So Fast Ye Fantasy” to Nina Simone’s streetwise “Ain’t Got No” from HAIR, waving her arm for emphasis as she improvises or taking “Reason to Believe” straight and folksy. She may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Salvant is an original stylist. No one can take that away from her.

Kirk Silsbee publishes promiscuously on jazz and culture.

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Dance · Reviews
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Architecture & Design · Music
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