I loved, loved, loved “Estancia,” the new Christopher Wheeldon ballet that enjoyed its world premiere on Saturday night, May 29, 2010, at New York City Ballet. Wheeldon is a brilliant choreographer whose work I already enjoyed; this was the piece I was most excited to see all season and it didn’t disappoint.
“Estancia” was the second piece in last night’s program, so let’s go in order. We begin with “Dances Concertantes,” a Balanchine ballet that, much like Friday night’s “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” started in the 40s and was revisited and reworked by Balanchine in the 70s. It wasn’t quite as wonderful as “Concerto,” but it was perfectly entertaining.
While watching the ballet, I thought perhaps a better name for it might be Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Ballet: There were four trios of soloist and corps de ballet dancers and one couple of principal dancers (Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia.) Each group was dressed in a different vivid and saturated color so when they moved about the stage, it looked like Bob Ross’s palette come to life.
The ballet itself was presented as if it was a show-within-a-show, like we were watching entertainers and jesters performing for the court. It reminded me of the masque performed as a wedding celebration in The Tempest - mostly unrelated to the plot and serving as a fantastical diversion. Mind you, there was no context for this stand alone ballet, but the show-within-a-show feel of it reminded me of this old Shakespearean device.
All the performances were very good. I did find that the music for each colored-pas de trois ended too abruptly for my taste - there was no musical cue to tell you that the end was near so the dance would end and before a response to clap was triggered in me, the dancers would leave the stage. The dancers were clap worthy, though, particularly the always engaging Sterling Hyltin and her pas de deux partner, Gonzalo Garcia. Garcia, in his yellow and black costume, looked like a tree frog leaping across the stage. And Hyltin danced across the stage like she owned it.
Next was “Estancia.” I can’t stop gushing about this piece. Taking place in the Pampas region of Argentina, “Estancia,” which means ranch in Spanish, tells a simple love story: City boy happens upon a ranch and falls for a country girl; this girl is a rough and tumble kind of gal, exemplified in her success at taming a wild horse; she feels the city boy isn’t up to snuff and refuses his advances; to prove his merit, he tames a wild horse, after which point she falls for him and life on the ranch continues. (The wild horses elicited this quip from a kinish sitting in my row: “Well, there was a lot of horsing around in that ballet!” Very punny old man, very punny.)
That’s the story. Now on to the dancing. “Estancia” was thrilling. It was the most exciting, skillful and joyful narrative ballet I’ve ever seen. I love how Wheeldon plays with space: filling it, dividing it, creating it - he’s just incredible. What I like in particular about this narrative was that unlike a lot of other story ballets I’ve seen, this was full of dance - not just movements and charades used to tell a story but beautiful, extraordinary dance. (Indeed, Wheeldon was aware of this potential hurdle. In an interview included in the program, he says, “The challenge is to not get bogged down with mime and too much acting, and to keep it light on its feet and very choreographic.”)
Tyler and Tiler appeared together again, as Tyler Angle danced the city boy and Tiler Peck was the country girl. Angle is long, limber and leaps like a lasso and Peck is a talented, fun and lively dancer. Their love pas de deux was breathtaking and easily rivals (and maybe overtakes) Peter Martins’s Romeo and Juliet balcony scene as the loveliest romantic pas de deux to date.
I should remind readers that City Ballet’s theme this season is Architecture of Dance and sets for five of the seven new ballets were created by Santiago Calatrava. Wheeldon’s ballet was one of the five. However, Wheeldon felt that he needed the entire stage to tell his story so a structure in the middle of the stage, like in Benjamin Millepied’s, wouldn’t work. Instead, Calatrava designed two beautiful backdrops to serve as the settings for “Estancia.” The first was a beautiful abstract design; upon seeing it revealed, I thought, “I’d like to hang that on my wall!” The second drop depicted the endless ranch horizon. It was beautiful, and lighting designer Mark Stanley complemented it and the ballet with simple light cues to help us keep time.
What was perhaps most exciting about being there to see “Estancia” last night was that it was its world premiere. That's right, it had never been performed publicly before but if the audience’s reaction was any indication, it will be performed over and over and over again for many years to come. The ballet ended to an ecstatic outburst of rousing applause that held steady for at least a solid five minutes. (Try clapping for even one minute straight - five minutes is a long time!) The principals, Tyler and Tiler, were given flowers and then Christopher Wheeldon himself came out on stage for a well deserved curtain call. The audience (and I) loved this and applauded even more heartily, with hoots, hollers and thundering “bravos” raining down. I truly feel like history was made last night. Already a successful choreographer (and former City Ballet dancer,) it is now safe to say that Wheeldon is a modern master, and that “Estancia” is one for the canon. (Bonus fun: When the evening was over and I was exiting the theatre, I spotted Christopher Wheeldon in the lobby so I ran over to gush to the brilliant Brit for a moment!)
"Estancia” was a hard act to follow and “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet” was a huge let down after such an exciting and thrilling piece. I really wish “Estancia” had closed out the night but instead, this too-long, pretty but drab piece held that honor. Other than the length, there was nothing particularly wrong with or objectionable about the ballet, it just paled (literally - the costumes were all pastels and the sets were in muted colors) in comparison to “Estancia,” and even to “Dances Concertantes.” Even the great Benjamin Millepied and Jared Angle jumping around the stage couldn’t save this piece. They say timing is everything and I think that’s entirely apropos here. If this had been the first or even middle piece of some other program, it still might have felt too long but it would have been enjoyable. Instead, I just kept replaying “Estancia” in my head and waiting for the program to be over so I could go home and take off my heels!