City Ballet: Mirage, Plainspoken and Hallelujah Junction

This weekend marked the closing of New York City Ballet’s 2011 Winter season. On Friday night’s program were three pieces, all by contemporary choreographers. In fact, two of the three pieces are less than a year old! Playing at the State Theatre were Peter Martins’s Mirage, which premiered last spring as part of the Architecture of Dance celebration; Plainspoken, a new Benjamin Millepied work that premiered this August in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and a slightly older Peter Martins piece, Hallelujah Junction, set to a score by John Adams and which premiered at City Ballet in 2002 after enjoying its world premiere at the Royal Danish Ballet in March 2001.

First up was Mirage. You may remember that I saw and thoroughly enjoyed this last June, when it was having its premiere run. It was beautiful and exciting then and it is beautiful and exciting now. I was struck once again by the sense of time and its power over us. The two dancers who appear at the beginning, in this case Chase Finlay and Anthony Huxley, stand in front of the Santiago Calatrava-designed structure and mirror each other in a round sort of way. (One dancer begins the dance and then after an eight count, the other dancer begins the same dance, following the beginning, just eight counts behind.) Throughout Mirage, they act almost as gate keepers of time. Each time they appear, you get the sense that some time has gone by; the structure moves and shifts and the principal couple, Jared Angle and Jennie Somogyi, return to the stage to explore this new moment in time.

With the slightly scattered and discordant, though never cacophonous, score (in one moment is slips into a bar or two of a jazz riff!) and the mirror-in-the-round dancing, you get the sense that time is playing tricks on you; you’re not sure if what you’re hearing or seeing is actually happening - sort of like a mirage. On Friday, Angle and Somogyi were terrific, gracefully navigating through the mirage, dancing under the giant Calatrava structure and on top of the haunting shadows it created. Kudos also to Finlay and Huxley. As our time-keepers, they impressed throughout, particularly their extension when their minute hand (their leg) wound around the clock. Those are two very limber fellows!

Next was Plainspoken, the new Millepied ballet. Plainspoken seemed to be an exploration of relationship tensions; of the push and pull; of how we rely on one another to help us through and how we learn to help ourselves. Everything was messy - in a good, loose, casual, natural way. This made sense because Plainspoken is just that: it lacks a fancy set (it’s just a lit backdrop; the color keeps changing and how much of it we get to see varies); there are no fastidious costumes (while I didn’t like the purple and neon yellow combo the men wore, I loved the women’s outfits: purple boy shorts paired with a purple strapless smock which had a slit in the back - exactly what I’d like to lounge around in on my days off); and nary a move of fancy footwork. Just casual, emotional dancing. (At one point in the piece, I thought to myself, “This is so much more modern than anything I’ve seen at City Ballet. Much more Twyla Tharp than George Balanchine.”)

Dancing Plainspoken were just four couples, which, on Friday, were made up of seven principal dancers, Sterling Hyltin, Tyler Angle, Teresa Reichlen, Amar Ramasar, Jennie Somogyi, Janie Taylor and Sebastien Marcovici, and one corps de ballet member, Justin Peck. They all seemed to get it and worked wonderfully together. You won’t be surprised to know that I thrilled over Hyltin’s performance. She has this beautiful way about her, this slightly slinky wilt that is just so intimate - like she’s dancing and moving her hips the way you would when you’re home, dancing around your kitchen while making dinner. (What, you don’t do this?!?)

But what really impressed was the pas de deux between Taylor and Marcovici. It was beautiful and loving and mature. After their pas de deux, it dawned on me that each “movement” was a different stage in the relationship. Each couple or combination of dancers represented a different aspect of relationships and the tension that arises (and eventually settles itself) at that time. This pas de deux was also much different in pace than the rest, particularly the beginning and end, which seemed to echo one another. The preface and the epilogue, as they were, were intense and fast and showed the eight dancers messing with each other, in a way. Plainspoken was playful and also, as the title suggests, easy and understated. No bells or whistles. Just the dance.

Do you remember a few weeks ago when I saw After the Rain I mentioned that going in to see that, I was picturing a certain ballet? After watching After the Rain I realized that what I had been picturing was not, in fact, After the Rain but I readjusted and then thought it was Hallelujah Junction. Turns out, what I’ve been picturing all season isn’t entirely Hallelujah Junction, either. I correctly remembered the dueling pianos (what a fantastic sight to see!) but the way the stage is divided in the picture in my head was absent in Hallelujah Junction. I’m thinking now that perhaps what I’m picturing is Christopher Wheeldon’s Mercurial Movements, which I’ll see this spring. (Check back then to see if my memory is working - even a little bit - or if I’ve fantasized an entire ballet in my head!)

All that said, I liked Peter Martins’s Hallelujah Junction, in particular because of the great John Adams score and, on Friday, because of the terrific performances from Daniel Ulbricht and my favorites, Sterling Hyltin and Robert Fairchild. The way this is staged, as efficiently described in the repertory notes, “The two pianists, dimly lit and facing each other [upstage center], appear to hover in the darkness above the dancers.” These pianists expertly execute the score, which “centers on delayed repetition between the two pianos,” demanding intense dancing from the dancers - and those dancers readily oblige.

Parts of the dance are all about energy - a sprint - and on Friday were realized in perfect form by Ulbricht. He bounds out on stage and executes his steps with intensity and precision. On the other end of the spectrum, parts of the dance are about longing and are languid. These moments were brought to beautiful life by Hyltin and Fairchild. It is such a delicious treat to watch these two dance together. They both have expert technique but what thrills the most is that, individually, they both always look like they’re having fun dancing. So when they dance together, they truly ignite; their chemistry is fantastic. They move together like each is a flower that they’re simultaneously caring for and showing off. Getting the chance to watch Hyltin and Fairchild dance together to this amazing score just makes me want to shout, “Hallelujah (Junction)!”

Head over to for more information about any of these pieces and to book your tickets for the spring season, which begins in May.