New York City Ballet Review
February 22, 2022 | David H. Koch Theatre – New York, NY, USA
Kanye West, Jay-Z, and James Blake taking over Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Phillip Glass at New York City Ballet?
The very idea of it may seem shocking, but between double tours en l’air to spoken word rap verse and checking nails on stage, Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway was a sensational yet sophisticated masterpiece. Are Balanchine and Robbins rolling in their graves and 90’s post-modern dance reviewers shifting in their seats? Maybe. But the sweeping otherworldliness, dark humor, and powerful movement struck a strong chord with reactions from the audience either way.
The Runaway began with a solo danced by principal Taylor Stanley set to piano music composed by Nico Muhly. The brief solo was powerful and even the simple movement of his shoulder blades scaling up his back conveyed intense emotion.
After Stanley’s opening, a quirky duet for two women en pointe was followed with a more athletic duet for two men. While sticking with Muhly’s neoclassical score, the duets introduced the extreme costumes by Giles Deacon. The women wore bizarre wigs with oversized, spiky, jet-black ponytails and one dancer had on a long dress with a train that was all-consuming. Although the futuristic costumes were bizarre, the extreme choices didn’t take away from Abraham’s choreography but rather added to the alternative world he was building.
The neoclassical music theme continued for so long that the anticipation of ‘when’ the beat was going to drop almost became an ‘if’ it was going to happen at all – however when it did, the stage lights flashed like an inside of a club and the beat was so loud you could feel it in your chest.
Upon first hearing of The Runaway, I too, was skeptical when City Ballet announced a ballet set to rap music on their winter repertoire. With controversial rapper Kanye West featured in most of the tracks, I couldn’t help but assume the commission was a marketing scheme to boost ticket sales for a younger audience.
Abraham’s decisions were bold. His artistic liberties, although entirely unconventional, did not rely purely on a “shock” element to carry the piece along. The contradiction between rap stars and principal ballet dancers delivered an intellectual masterpiece. Abraham did not fail to deliver as he leaned into the concept creating an immersive and believable fantasy.
Two male dancers performed a duet to Kanye West’s “I Thought About Killing You.” While one male remained in his normal costume, another emerged onstage with a tall, spiked crown around his neck, covering his face. The costume change paired with West’s serious rap lyrics over a lazy R&B beat created a dark and eerie effect. However, in contrast, the dancers’ bizarre movement paired with certain moments in the song’s lyrics elicited laughter from the audience, even as the song rapped about suicide.
Principal dancer Sara Mearns particularly stood out in a spectacular turn sequence set to Kanye’s “Power.” The turn happened so quickly if you blinked, you would have missed it, but Mearns jetted out from the wings into a single-handed promenade in arabesque, pushed off of her partner’s hand to pull into a lightning-fast triple en dedans turn and proceeded to devour the stage completing a full manège twice before darting into the wings.
Her impressive turn sequence left the audience roaring so loudly, you could hardly hear the end of the music and continued as another dancer stepped onto the stage to wait in a single spotlight for the audience to become quiet and still again.
Humorously, Abraham inserted an entirely classical male variation set to Kanye’s spoken word “I Love Kanye.” The classical solo included immaculately clean triple turns and double tours and brought the house down once again with cheers.
The ballet ended with an emotional ballad “Don’t Miss It” by James Blake and Abraham’s ethereal and rippling choreography left audience members holding their breath. The dancers’ movements were simple, as they stood in a single-file line and performed the choreography as if moving through water to achieve a simplistic yet spine-chilling effect.
I could anticipate the ending as I began to recognize Stanley echoing some movement patterns from his solo in the beginning. I was left wanting so much more as Stanley returned to stand still in his opening pose.
As some audience members began to bolt for the doors before the curtain even fell, others immediately stood to cheer for a thunderous curtain call.
Those who remained to applaud the dancers made sure they ran past the golden curtain for multiple rounds. I was left in awe with the universe Abraham created with The Runaway and know it is a performance I will be left thinking about for a long time.
Other ballets on the “New Voices” bill included Emanon by emerging choreographer Jamal Roberts and Bartok Ballet by the established female choreographer Pam Tanowitz. Bartok Ballet was the first ballet created by Tanowitz for New York City Ballet and its highlight was the live string quartet playing onstage alongside the dancers. The movement included many harsh, linear, and many times bizarre and random movements to an obscurely abstract effect.
Opening the evening, Emanon was a delightful breath of fresh air with a jazzy twist. The dancers pummeled through a never-ceasing flow of fast footwork so gracefully and never made a sound. Robert’s ballet was straightforward, but it was incredibly refreshing to see immaculate technique displayed on the dancers. Emanon didn’t need anything sensational to make it original: the movement itself was refreshingly engaging. It was satisfying to appreciate the City Ballet’s technique and skill without any harsh and overly abstract affectations.
New York City Ballet’s Winter Season concluded this past Sunday with principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia’s retirement performance. Their Spring Season will run April 19 – May 29, including Amar Ramasar’s farewell performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Featured Photo for this New York City Ballet review of dancers in Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway from NYCB’s website.
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