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Modern Program from NYCB

New York City Ballet, Company in Justin Peck’s The Most Incredible Thing (photo by Paul Kolnik)

Ballet has a long history of divertissements that have no dramatic coherence. The flimsiest of excuses can justify a series of pretty entrées, going all the way back to the foundation of the genre in French courtly dance. That is essentially what Justin Peck has created in his new choreography, The Most Incredible Thing, given its local premiere by the New York City Ballet on Tuesday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It is an act-length ballet driven more by its quirky, colorful costumes than by dancing or story-telling.

Peck drew the story of The Most Incredible Thing from the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the same name (Det Utroligste). It concerns a contest for the hand of a princess, won by an inventor, whom Peck calls (somewhat ponderously) the Creator. His invention is a miraculous clock that produces twelve automated scenes, one for each of the hours, providing the excuse for the twelve colorful entrées that dominate the ballet. A menacing figure, the Destroyer, challenges the Creator's victory by laying waste to the clock and claiming the princess for himself. Not to worry, because the figures from the clock come back to life and save the day. Peck has softened some of the religious overtones of the clock figures, changing Moses at One o'Clock into a Cuckoo Bird, danced by the energetic Tiler Peck (no relation to the choreographer), with movements recalling the Firebird at times, and changing the Three Kings (Three o'Clock) from the Biblical Magi into sword-wielding warrior-kings.

Other Reviews:

Sarah L. Kaufman, New York City Ballet injects incredible zing into new Peck ballet and other works (Washington Post, March 2)

Joan Acocella, Stepping Up: The precocious rise of Justin Peck (The New Yorker, February 29)

Alastair Macaulay, At New York City Ballet, Works That Tell Stories and Don’t (New York Times, February 22)

---, ‘The Most Incredible Thing’ Brings Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tale to Life (New York Times, February 3)

Brian Seibert, Justin Peck Calmly
Creates a Kingdom at City Ballet
(New York Times, January 29)
Sadly, though, these entrées do not advance the story in any way, and they are effectively performed twice because the dancers all come back to life at the ballet's conclusion. In fact, one remembers neither the story nor the movements of the dancers, but the eclectic, brightly colored costumes (designed by Marcel Dzama, supervised by Marc Happel): the grey hoops of the Five Senses, the pointed hats of the Eight Monks, or the black-white spirals of the Nine Muses. Taylor Stanley was an earnest Creator, overshadowed by the skull-capped Destroyer of Andrew Veyette, who danced a tense pas de deux with the Princess of Sterling Hyltin. The pop-minimalist score by Bryce Dessner, guitarist of the indie rock band The National, is repetitive and, while it does not offend, it goes in one ear and out the other.

In the middle of the evening came Balanchine's classic choreography to Tchaikovsky's second piano concerto, rounding out the Balanchine-Tchaikovsky set from the company's 2013 visit. The cadenzas and solo moments played by soloist Susan Walters corresponded with beautiful solos and duets featuring the tall, lithe Teresa Reichlen. Her partner, Tyler Angle, had a charming scene in the slow movement with five women on either side, like fanned-out shadows, accompanied by a gorgeous duet of solo violin and cello.

The first act featured two short choreographies by Peter Martins, the company's Ballet Master-in-Chief. In The Infernal Machine, the movements of the dancers, Ashley Laracey and Amar Ramasar, on the darkened stage seemed to have little to do with the antic passage through countless sound worlds found in the score of the same name by Christopher Rouse. A snippet quoted from Beethoven's op. 130 string quartet flies by, half unnoticed near the piece's halfway point. Likewise in Ash, Michael Torke's often disjointed score inspired contrapuntal movements for the dancers, often separated only by a beat. It is a shame that we did not have the chance to hear the company's own orchestra, which conductor Andrew Litton now leads. His work here with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra left some details to be desired.

The highlight was an excerpt of Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain. The evening's best-matched couple, Tiler Peck and Jared Angle, took turns moving one another along, in a slow-moving, longing-drenched choreography that goes a long way to make Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel, a piece I find hard to tolerate in concert performance, a more complete work. Violinist Arturo Delmoni and pianist Nancy McDill provided the steady pulse of the music, with the section-ending "ping" notes corresponding to flicks of arms or feet on the stage.

This program repeats Friday evening, with a second program centered on Bournonville's La Sylphide presented in the rest of the run.

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