Whereas the program curated by Misty Copeland for the Ballet Across America series privileged energy, attack and largely celebratory narratives, Justin Peck’s choices reflected an emphasis on relationships and things less ‘finished’, where the question was flung back to the audience.

L.A. Dance Project in Millepied's <i>Hearts and Arrows</i> © Teresa Wood
L.A. Dance Project in Millepied's Hearts and Arrows
© Teresa Wood

This was notable, from the start, in Benjamin Millepied’s Hearts and Arrows, performed by the L.A. Dance Project. The company boasted a gym class aesthetic, and indeed the high-spiritedness, horseplay and the rapidly altering groupings, whipped pony tails and bobby socks did remind one of a scene from senior high. Indeed, they have filmed it along the Los Angeles river concrete channel – shades of John Travolta in Grease. Set to the restrained repetitive intensity of Philip Glass’ String Quartet no 3, it was still a bit rough about the edges – length in extensions seemed to be sacrificed – but, in fairness that seem to fit with the spirit of the piece. What worked best, I thought, was the abrupt punctuation marks between each of the 6 movements. Having sketched a narrative (some flirtation, some bullying, perhaps, some interpersonal ‘issue’), the ends clearly expressed some crisp exclamation or question: ‘So there!’ ‘Is this love?’ ‘Are you ok?’ ‘Take that’ and so forth. At the end, the dancers rapidly formed a diagonal on the stage, reminiscent of the chart of the evolution of man. Homo sapiens tumbled into being front of stage, and looked puzzled. ‘Is this it? Is this all?’ his posture seemed to suggest.

Justin Peck’s own Year of Our Lord from Year of the Rabbit followed next, with two principal dancers from the Miami City Ballet, Patricia Delgado and Jovani Furlan. Set to music by Sufijan Stevens, this was an invitingly melancholic pas de deux. There was great feeling in the partnerwork: there was a moment when both were nestled into each other, forming a concave curve sheltered against the world. Their movements extended, spilled over the last echo of music, folding in an embrace, which was touching.

The theme of relationship – and the delicacy of relationships in particular – continued after the intermission with Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, danced by the Joffrey Ballet. The simplest of costumes and the simplest of music (cello, violin and piano) mean that we are to focus our attention entirely on the symbolism and beauty of movement. It is a very pure work, a work where we can see light and shadows in the bodies and expressions of the dancers and in their background (golden drops fall intermittently). The men were given the opportunity to explore adagio movements – with penchés, arabesques and lengthy extensions. This was lovely to see. The last tableau – with dancers arranged in a sort of aesthetic altar of sacrifice –drew a murmur of pleasure from the audience.

The Joffrey Ballet in Wheeldon's <i>Fool Paradise</i> © Andy Ross
The Joffrey Ballet in Wheeldon's Fool Paradise
© Andy Ross
The agenda of Ballet Across America is, evidently, not to be all about America. Its internationalism throughout is patent; Wheeldon is British, Millepied French, to mention but two examples, though both have worked extensively in New York. Both on Wednesday night and tonight, South Africa is brought to stage. First there was Mandela; tonight it was Kyle Abraham’s The Gettin’ performed by Abraham.In.Motion. There was a lot here to explore, the work shot through with both American references (the live music on stage was an interpretation of We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite) and South African ones (the apartheid signage dividing the stage into ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ areas – neatly, the multi-racial dancers are oblivious to the division). The whole consisted of different vignettes, which were left open-ended. The black and white male dancers locked in dance – example of competition and rivalry, downright animosity, camaraderie? The woman dragged off stage by two men – in violence or in fun? There was also the role of the vocalist, Charanee Wade – voicing out the dance, fleshing out possible meanings, asking more questions, especially in her final explosion of stereotypes (I’m a black woman slaveowner, it begins, and carries on in similar vein). The (black) female dancer walks across the stage as the curtain falls. Begun, questioning, unfinished, complicated, Peck’s offering was an interesting and thought-provoking one.

Comparisons are, as they say, odious, so it is perhaps a mark of artistic success that we got both the positive energy and happy vibe from Copeland and complexity and depth from Peck: both notable strands of the contemporary ballet scene in America.