City Ballet: All Wheeldon

I’m calling it now. The All Wheeldon night at New York City Ballet is one of my favorite things, if not my number one favorite thing, of 2012. I am absolutely in love with Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography. His work is special enough, and to get to see three pieces in one night, for one of them to be his breakthrough work; for one to be a City Ballet premiere; for one of them to be a world premiere – it was a very special night.

We begin with the world premiere of Les Carillons. Wheeldon’s latest work is set to Georges Bizet’s Suites No. 1 and 2 of L’Arlesienne. (The music was composed for an unsuccessful play. After the play closed, Bizet “took steps to ensure [the score’s] survival,” and turned it into an orchestral piece, according to repertory notes.) The conceptual artist choreographer teams with costume designer Mark Zappone (I want the women’s dresses!), scenic designer Jean-Marc Puissant and lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger to great effect. (More as we go through.)

Les Carillons is amazing. It is absolutely breathtaking and beautiful. Once it was finished and we entered intermission, it took me a solid three minutes to calm down and stop shaking from excitement. Leading up to the premiere, Les Carillons had been described as a plotless ballet. It may be plotless but there is most definitely a story and oodles of emotion. Les Carillons is really a meditation on love – in all its forms and in all its stages. The stories were there; the human emotion was there. There wasn’t a through-storyline (or plot), but this was more than just dancing.

Wheeldon had been talking about the wonderful women this ballet features, and it’s easy to see why (though I’ll give credit to the incredible men, too!). Taking the stage were Sara Mearns, partnered with Amar Ramasar; Wendy Whelan, partnered with Robert Fairchild (guess who was ridiculously excited about that pairing!); Maria Kowroski, partnered with Tyler Angle; Ana Sophia Scheller, partnered with Daniel Ulbricht; and Tiler Peck, partnered with Gonzalo Garcia.

(Note: There was so much I loved about Les Carillons (and the entire night, actually), and I was so full of excitement that I know there are things I’ll miss or get out of order in this review. Please excuse the scattered nature, and chalk it up to me being too thrilled to think straight!)

This piece begins in an almost aggressive fashion, but the dancing was still very classical in form. Then Sara Mearns and Amar Ramasar come out for a sultry pas de deux. Corps members are “watching” them (dancing a little here and there). The couple fills the stage with a dance slightly reminiscent of the third movement in Interplay.

Next Tiler Peck comes out with a fiery passion. With each new emotion, each new kind of love, Geiger’s light changes. She back lights the scrim, which Puissant has painted to mirror the women’s costumes, and both mirror the movement. The multi-hued gray scrim has straight, vertical lines, and some of the choreography was crisp and precise. The scrim also has rounded edges, suggesting a fluidity that infuses much of the choreography.

Then Wendy Whelan and Robbie Fairchild take the stage, and it’s exquisite. They’re lovers exploring one another and the bounds of their love. The two extraordinary dancers are developing a good chemistry on stage and it’s simply marvelous.

After their pas de deux, Fairchild leaves the stage and a corps of girls comes on, but I have no idea what they were doing because I was busy watching Whelan get over her love. She is frozen at the wings, with her hand stretched out to the now absent Fairchild. She slowly weaves through the dancers and comes center stage, a look of longing, vulnerability and passion on her face. I thought, “If this was a musical, she’d break out into song with her 11 o’clock number.” Sure enough, she proceeded to dance the ballet equivalent – dancing an incomparable solo. It’s clear the unparalleled Wheeldon is showing off just how amazing his frequent collaborator is.

Later, the five men are bounding around the stage when all of the sudden they stop. They’ve come under the spell of Sara Mearns. She’s got them (and us!) bewitched and she knows it as she goes into a seductive dance. She absolutely commands the stage. (This is turning out be a great, breakthrough year for Mearns, who premiered not only in Les Carillons, but originated the lead role in Peter Martins’s and Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom this past fall.)

Next Tyler Angle and Maria Kowroski come out. They were much better together on Saturday night than when I saw them the previous week in In G Major. Their long, lithe bodies fill the stage in beautiful, striking poses. Soon Tiler Peck returns to the stage. The lights are a jovial yellow and Peck, who shows incredible core strength in the way she effortlessly holds her arms, goes into her dance. Like spring come to life, she is intoxicating and playful, and she continues when she is joined by Daniel Ulbricht and Gonzalo Garcia.

(I was actually impressed with Ulbricht here. He’s a shorter man so I often find that his stature inhibits his gracefulness. Not so in Wheeldon’s ballet.)

The final movement pulses and charges; it builds to this great climax – leaving you with such a rush. I found it amazing that so much of the choreography was classical and full of grace, and yet at the same time it was modern and progressive. These two brands of ballet are seamlessly woven together for a fantastically fresh feel in a traditional art form. Les Carillons is a superlative ballet (I have to see it again!), and confirms that Christopher Wheeldon is the future of ballet.

The second piece of the evening was Polyphonia, Wheeldon’s breakthrough work. (I saw this for the first time back in May and provided a fuller review then.) On Saturday night, Wendy Whelan once again danced in the role she created; she was joined by Jared Angle; Jennie Somogyi and Gonzalo Garcia (though Somogyi left the stage due to an injury; Tiler Peck danced in her place to conclude the ballet); Sterling Hyltin and Adrian Danchig-Waring; and Sara Mearns and Craig Hall.

What I found most notable about this performance was Sterling Hyltin. You know that I love her dancing, but what I love most about it is that she’s playful – she dances with flair. This is the most rigid and precise ballet I’ve seen her in and she nailed it. It’s a testament to her range as a dancer that she can do something totally whimsical like The Concert and something very technical like this, and thrill in both.

(It was also at this second viewing that I noticed the music for the fifth movement sounded like “Another Hundred People” from Company.)

Perhaps the most enjoyable part about seeing this piece again, aside from Sara Mearns giving an impressive performance and Wendy Whelan being amazing, was the reaction from the woman sitting next to me. She was largely unfamiliar with Wheeldon’s body of work and had never seen Polyphonia before. Hearing her “ooh” and “ahh” at the different poses helped me rediscover the piece, as we watched in amazement as the dancers hit their unusual poses.

Finishing the evening was the City Ballet premiere of DGV: Danse a Grande Vitesse. (The piece premiered on November 16, 2006, at the Royal Ballet in Covent Garden.) Wheeldon has spoken about how the score, Michael Nyman’s MGV: Musique a Grande Vistesse, was composed “to commemorate the 1993 inauguration of the north European line of the French ‘train a grande vitesse,’ more commonly known as the TGV.” And so Wheeldon’s starting off point for this ballet was one of travel. I don’t want to argue with a genius, but I think DGV is more about exploration.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design (he also designed this ballet’s costumes) looked like creation. These structures seemed to burst forth from the stage, and they got progressively bigger as you looked from left to right. As Jesse Belsky’s lighting design changed throughout, so did the appearance of the structure. At times it looked solid, other times translucent. It all added to this ever-changing, enigmatic landscape to be explored by the dancers.

As the exploratory journey began, I was reminded of American Idiot, the way the show starts by basically shooting the actors out of a canon. So, too, in DGV, the ballet begins and that freight train has left the station. It starts and then keeps going and going and going – absolutely non-stop.

Teresa Reichlen and Craig Hall are guiding us now, both displaying a keen command of Wheeldon’s frenetic choreography while still expressing an adventurer’s spirit. Next Ashley Bouder and Joaquin de Luz come out, continuing the non-stop action. The momentum is building. The corps dancers are literally running around the stage. Bouder and de Luz are leaping through the air.

Suddenly Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle come out and everything stops. The chaos subsides. The singular, visible back light turns blue, infusing the stage with a soft, relaxing, calming glow. Kowroski and Angle slow down the exploration – really taking in everything around them. They dance a beautiful, subtle, passionate pas de deux before the train takes off again.

Tiler Peck and Andrew Veyette come out, reigniting the furious choreography of before. They kick off this percussive throb that drives us to the end of the piece. (Three drummers are out on the thrust of the stage leading the charge.) The beat races on as the dancers rush around the stage, morphing in and out of breathtaking formations. And just when the flourish reaches its peak, the music softens. The corps dancers quietly leave the stage and the featured dancers remain for a moment of peace at the end of the journey.

This was such an amazing night of ballet. It was interesting to see three Wheeldon pieces in a row, to get to see some of the similar movements in each ballet. You get a sense of the things about ballet that really interest the prolific choreographer. Clearly, Christopher Wheeldon is a man who wishes to explore certain facets of dance, namely infusing modernity into such a classic form. He does it so well, and I can’t wait to see all three pieces again!

New York City Ballet’s winter season continues through February. Visit for more information and to purchase tickets.