When Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses rolled into town for their first highly anticipated West Coast tour, I got to thinking about the music behind ballet. In its best scenarios, the music is everything – it is the basis for the movement choreographed to it. In other examples, the music disappears into the background – in Tudor’s Lilac Garden, I can’t remember the music or the composer of that piece for the life of me. I’ve also found that music can be the stumbling block for me to be able to enjoy certain pieces. The pieces set to undanceable pieces come to mind – such as Mark Morris’ Joyride set to the cacophanous music of John Adams. Wheeldon’s Continuum is another piece, and this piece opened the evening with Morphoses.
The momentum in Wheeldon’s Continuum is derived mostly from the sharply-cornered music by Gyorgy Ligeti. The most challenging piece of a very forward-thinking program, the angular choreography pieced together stark images of geometric angles, alternating flexed and pointed feet, insect-like images, and tension that always seem to result from movements in silence. (The audience seems to start breathing again once the music starts up again.) It’s colored by a bewildering sense of randomness to this piece. Momentum is built up between images from moment to moment, but its logic remains murky and elusive. However through movement, Wheeldon is able to point out the humanity and the dark humor in the music I never would have heard otherwise. Even in tension, an urgency and a driving energy challenges the audience to consider it, most of all. Gorgeous lighting by Natasha Katz (recredited by Mary Louise Geiger) offsets the clean angles and creates different worlds, from an austere world with black and bright white, or a warm glow of red.
The program also features choreography other than Wheeldon’s, which is an advantage in variety not only for its dancers but for the audience as well. Lightfoot Leon’s Softly As I Leave You featured a dramatic duet about loss between dancers Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk. Even entrapped in a box, the dancers struggle with angry intensity, yet an atmosphere of surrender and sadness pervades. Lush earthiness is backed by Bach’s sensuous, drawn out phases, and Jacoby and Pronk dance with a mercurial power that’s breathtaking.
Ratmansky was also featured on the program, with Bolero. Six dancers wearing numbers on their leotards dance to the familiar strains of Ravel’s Bolero in movements that mirror the repetitive motif with imperceptible yet building climax. It starts slowly, with a solo and a background chorus of softly shifting shapes. More people join as the music builds. There is a sense of competition (perhaps because of the numbers on their leotards?) yet a nonchalance and a haughty disregard for each other. Yet it’s always changing, as partners switch and different groups dance with each other. Ratmansky’s choreography emphasizes the complex detail in the music, with offbeats that are given as much attention as the onbeats. The irrepressible shifting and pointed movement slowly casts its spell as does the music, which only broke when an accidental skirt came loose and had to be tossed to the back. It was only at this point when I realized how much I had been emotionally caught up in the piece. The piece soldiers on, skirt or not, with the piece coming to an impressive crashing close.
The evening ended with Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantaisie, which was my favorite for the night. Highlighted with searing red costumes by Francisco Costa, from beginning to end, the piece was all seamless fluidity, seething with power and life. The dancers were like watching animals in the wild – a harnessed invincibility, an expansive confidence to fly.
With Morphoses’ West Coast tour, California audiences were privileged to be exposed to a company with such a cutting-edge sensibility and an amazing repertoire. Yet it was hard not to notice the empty seats that appeared after each of the two intermissions. Perhaps Wheeldon is ahead of his time with audiences not used to change – at the post performance Q&A, a woman admitted she had never seen such sensuality onstage before. I have to remember that this sort of dance is still new to a lot of people. Or perhaps he’s still trying to find a convincing voice with his lofty vision to challenge audiences as well as seek their favor and support. This favor is made more difficult by music like Ligeti’s. Yet Wheeldon is not afraid to take that risk, and everyone benefits as he searches for beauty, even in difficult places.