New York City Ballet won’t perform again until September 2021, which means 18 long months off stage due to Covid. But there is still new work. The company’s digital season features five slick short films, beautifully shot, mostly by director and ex-dancer Ezra Hurwitz, mostly using the Lincoln Center plaza as their backdrop.
There’s a limit to the depths you can reach in a few minutes of film, but each short is a pleasing peep into a choreographer’s MO – three of these artists are new to NYCB and little known in the UK.
In Sidra Bell’s Pixelation in a Wave (Within Wires), two pairs of monochrome dancers add architectural interest to the vast planes and elevations of the buildings around them. Aerial shots capture shadows on the steps, reflections are multiplied in glass; bodies shift in scale, one moment filling the screen, the next just details in a landscape. Bell is the first black woman to create a work for NYCB, but she has run her own company for nearly 20 years, and her movement has self-possession and certainty; ballet with streamlined stretch and sawn-off angles – a port de bras that ends in a fist – and a hint of jazz’s geometry. The music, by her father Dennis Bell, brings lush bristling chords and cool tension.
Choreographer Pam Tanowitz chooses the Guggenheim Bandshell for her stage. Its bold shape, like a portion of an onion dome, is a good match for the determined, purposeful lines danced by Russell Janzen in Solo for Russell. The performance is cut with shots of Janzen moving his roll of vinyl dance floor around the plaza, seeking out the right spot, getting dressed, interweaving process into finished product, with the sense that dance is work. Tanowitz has a talent for choreography that is thoroughly unsentimental and abstract but somehow profound and worth taking seriously even when dressed, like Janzen, in pastel streamers and see-through trousers.
Two of the choreographers can’t resist getting in the plaza’s water feature. For Jamar Roberts’s Water Rite, dancer-to-watch Victor Abreu plays with the curving splash and spray to the sound of Ambrose Akinmusire’s soulful strings. In Andrea Miller’s New Song, her quartet start in the sun-blanched plaza before wading into the pool. The camera glimpses Unity Phelan through the hollow of a Henry Moore sculpture, dancing as if she’s in possession of something precious. Then it pulls back wide, drinking in the dancers running and flying free, transported by the haunting music of Chilean composer Victor Jara.
NYCB’s resident choreographer Justin Peck takes the whole of the city as his stage, from Chinatown to Brooklyn Bridge Park, and he gives it some heroic, air-punching spirit in Thank You, New York, set to a soaring country rock anthem by Chris Thile. Dancer Georgina Pazcoguin sums it up in her voiceover: “New York is the most precious and long-term relationship I’ve had in my life and I am not going to give up on her now,” before finding her freedom on a Manhattan rooftop.
Peck’s choreography marries meticulous detail and casual grace, his ballet-in-sneakers aesthetic a natural to be danced on the street. As the song swells like a cheesy drama’s season finale, it’s clear Peck is trying to speak the language of the screen rather than the concert stage – with the kind of unfettered sentimentalism that embarrasses most Brits – and why not? What’s the point of digital dance, after all, if it only imitates something we’d rather see on stage?