Living Dangerously at the Ballet

2.7.2014

By Brian Schaefer

In its quest to attract the ever-elusive “young audience,” New York City Ballet has conjured some clever tricks.

Sara Mearns & Adrian Danchig-Waring in Liam Scarlett’s "Acheron" | Photo by Paul Kolnik

They’ve invited famous fashion designers to spice up costumes, partnered with Sarah Jessica Parker and AOL for a behind-the-scenes online promo-mentary series, scored a viral hit with a 9/11 tribute vid, and generated buzz with a large-scale installation by artist JR in which a massive photo of life-sized dancers carpets the foyer of their home theater in Lincoln Center. It has taken Instagram by storm.

They’ve even started throwing public parties: On Art Series evenings, all tickets are $29, a DJ remixes Top 40 at intermission, and post-show beer is free. In other words, they’re trying.

So it’s a bit perplexing when the company commissions a new work from a choreographer in that same target age demographic and the results look so staid. “Acheron,” from 27-year-old British choreographer Liam Scarlett, a rising star in the ballet world, made its debut on January 31. The piece is lovely, sophisticated in many ways, clearly the work of a gifted dance maker… and frustratingly risk averse. 

The title refers to one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. One of the most striking elements of Scarlett’s work is how he uses the large cast to evoke the rush of a determined current and the splash of angry water. There’s something cinematic in the way he directs your gaze, often unexpectedly. The accompanying organ concerto by Poulenc aids this grand effect, supplying the work with various moods. 

On a smaller scale, however, the movement becomes mortal. Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild—frequent partners on-stage and full-time romantic partners off-stage—are the company’s most thrilling pair: She’s fearless; he’s mesmerizing. If anyone’s going to go for broke in your choreography, they will. But the pas de deux they’re given in “Acheron,” like many other sequences in the work, while reaching for wildness, ultimately remains politely restrained. 

This is a notable contrast from the previous piece on the program, “Spectral Evidence,” an audacious work by the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj that was not particularly well received when it premiered in the fall. (There were grumblings when it was included on the winter lineup again; the woman seated in front of me deemed it “wacky.”)

Robert Fairchild and Tiler Peck in Angelin Preljocaj's "Spectral Evidence" | Photo by Paul Kolnik

The premise of “Spectral Evidence” is vaguely that of the Salem Witch Trials. At one point, thanks to some lighting effects, four women appear to burn at the stake. A brief, nervy solo for Fairchild has him screaming soundlessly, mouthing to words in French and flinging himself, as if possessed. It’s a ballsy, very un-ballet morsel that drew some titters from the audience. But watching an expertly executed breakdown is riveting, and ballet has so few moments of ugly abandon. 

There are many justified criticisms of Preljocaj’s work, yet it’s refreshingly experimental—a departure from romance, an anti-fairy tale. Something scary and dangerous exists at its core—which makes “Spectral Evidence” feel responsive in some way, especially because we live in a scary and dangerous world.

Clearly, Scarlett is not interested in this effect. He is a classical choreographer and he plays by ballet’s rules and makes pretty things, much like the celebrated choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, a fellow Brit with Royal Ballet roots, who gave the world yet another “Cinderella” in the fall (performed by the San Francisco Ballet). But “Cinderella” is not how you make an art form relevant to new audiences. 

From a promising voice like Scarlett, one hopes for something brash and new. At the moment, he seems to be playing it thematically, aesthetically and stylistically safe. In 10 years, should we expect his version of “Cinderella”? Or will he surprise us with something bolder—and perhaps a little bit dangerous? 

“Acheron” will be repeated frequently throughout the winter and spring at New York City Ballet. Visit NYCBallet.com for scheduling.

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