It can be said that New York offers arts enthusiasts an embarrassment of riches. It’s a veritable cultural Mecca. But amidst festivals and tours in this vibrant metropolis, is it possible that even revered and traditional institutions must shout to be heard?

Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild performing in Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence © Paul Kolnik
Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild performing in Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence
© Paul Kolnik

New York City Ballet is far too dignified for such brazen tactics, but make no mistake – they will not let others pass them by, and this season’s Contemporary Choreographers program folds new trends into classical artistry. Created in 1998, Christopher Wheeldon’s Soirée Musicale is the oldest piece, but has only been part of the company’s repertoire since May of this year. Samuel Barber’s music and elegant costumes (Holly Hynes) set Soirée Musicale in a glittering ballroom without the help of an ornate backdrop. The movement itself, beginning with a waltz, establishes an elegant romantic tension on stage. Even during the Tango, when Brittany Pollack is supported by twelve men, there is a boundary neither gender will cross that is evocative of an older era. Lauren Lovette and Zachary Catazaro hone in on the sensuous side of this flirty give and take in their beautiful duet.

Angelin Preljocaj’s Spectral Evidence turns as far from Wheeldon’s semi-traditional world as possible. It opens in silence with the four men seated on a monolithic white set piece. The women emerge behind them snaking arms around their heads and chest in silence. From this haunting and abstract beginning, Spectral Evidence takes a series of jarring unexpected turns. Dressed in black pants and jackets with white collars, each of the four priests (they can be nothing else) is partnered with a witch. Their partnerships are fraught and uneasy, characterized by quirky gestures and thrashing limbs. Unfortunately, the audience is not allowed to draw their own conclusions – they are literally told what is taking place on stage. The women burn to the soundtrack (music by John Cage) of a crackling bonfire and lighting design that includes realistic orange flames. The one solo, bravely performed by Robert Fairchild, brings Spectral Evidence as close to the horror genre as any ballet has dared to go.

Switching gears completely once again, the program continues with Namouna, A Grand Divertissement. Alexei Ratmansky’s comedic love story follows a sailor, Tyler Angle, chasing the object of his affection, Sterling Hyltin, through a sea of women. Small details, such as the uniformity of most of the cast’s costumes, accentuate Ratmansky’s humor. When the sailor is stopped in his tracks by a wall of ladies identical from their yellow dresses and severe black bobs to their disdainful expressions, one has to laugh. During Namouna, audible chuckles are pulled from the audience, a group previously limited to gasps and applause.

Ratmansky uses the actual steps to create humor as well. The trio with Megan Fairchild, Daniel Ulbricht and Abi Stafford builds on the speed of the music with Ulbricht lifting and replacing his partners like a human shell game. Fairchild and Stafford also act the part of fighting for Ulbricht’s attention, but their duet in unison is sublime. Hyltin and Angle’s affair shows off their dramatic ability, too. Hyltin woos Angle with stunning lines and crisp movement interchanged with drags on a cigarette (stolen from his lips). She saunters with her hand on her hip and enough attitude to play this character in a movie.

With Soirée Musicale, Spectral Evidence and Namouna, New York City Ballet offers three very different contributions to the pantheon of contemporary choreography.

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