Ten years ago, New York City Ballet held its first fashion gala, and with it came one of the most off-putting dances I’ve ever seen. “Bal de Couture,” with choreography by Peter Martins and designs by Valentino, is still wedged in my memory bank for all the wrong reasons. Most egregious? The pointe shoes in shocking red and hot pink. Suddenly, the legs of dancers, usually so sleek and muscular, were transformed into balloon art.
It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten: When it comes to dance and fashion, fashion — with its resources, its stars, its seasonal newness — has the upper hand. For the past 10 years, City Ballet has continued its annual fashion gala, relegating choreographers and dancers to second-tier collaborators. Beyond fundraising, how do these events serve ballet? And how do they hope to make smart viewers out of people new to the art form?
There are exceptions, but fashion gala ballets, and their costumes, rarely survive to become repertory; instead, the event’s tenure has shown a slow erosion of dance — of steps, of musicality, of theatrical momentum. The clothes always get in the way. But fashion and dance should get along; ballet, like fashion, is part flesh and part fantasy. The glory comes when they are on equal terms, when one doesn’t wear the other.
City Ballet’s push into the fashion world is the brainchild of Sarah Jessica Parker, who is a vice chair on City Ballet’s board; on Wednesday night, she was honored at the gala, though she was not in attendance. In a speech, her colleague and friend, the writer, director and producer Michael Patrick King said that Parker “had a sudden and devastating situation that required her to be with her family.”
More than a few were looking forward to her dress. I wanted to hear what she would have said as a former dancer who loves fashion.
Of course, the show went on without her. Leading off its program at the David H. Koch Theater, City Ballet played it safe with the fourth movement and finale of George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.” It was a case of putting a showstopper at the beginning instead of the end. The evening featured premieres by Kyle Abraham and Gianna Reisen, and the first live performance of Justin Peck’s “Solo,” originally choreographed for the company’s virtual spring gala film, directed by Sofia Coppola, last year.
Without the angles and artistry of Coppola, “Solo” lost its luster, flattened out by the predictable patterns of the choreography and Anthony Huxley’s wistful stares into what is known as the modern dance corner. Even with this superlative dancer’s presence, it felt a little melodramatic and a little aimless. And, no, fashion didn’t elevate matters.
Instead of practice clothes, Huxley wore a new costume by Raf Simons — polka-dot tights, a red top, shorts and a roomy blazer (well, part of one). Alone onstage, he looked like a relic from a forgotten ballet — a jester who had lost his sleeves.
Sometimes I wish City Ballet would just hire Rei Kawakubo and be done with it. She’s done most everything the fashion gala has attempted, only better. When she designed costumes for Merce Cunningham’s “Scenario” back in 1997, there was no posturing. Wearing designs from her collection — garments enhanced with unsightly lumps and bumps — the performers, moving with precision and abandon, changed the way a dancer’s body (or any body) could be seen.
But beyond the costumes, the other curiosity at the gala came in the form of a composer: Solange Knowles, who, in curtain calls, was impossibly cool — wearing a double-breasted black suit among gowns, she won best dressed hands down. For “Play Time,” Reisen’s third work for City Ballet, Knowles offered her first ballet score.
In this lively, jazzy composition, a repetitive and dreamy concoction featuring a persistent back-and-forth between piano and horns, the dancers were continually propelled through space and then pulled back into stillness. Legs struck the air in sync with the sounds of cymbals. The title wasn’t off the mark.
But in the end, there wasn’t much for Reisen, constrained by the structure of the score and her ballet’s costumes, to do. Her designer, Alejandro Gómez Palomo for Palomo Spain, created his version of ’80s power suits with flamboyant, geometric silhouettes — sharp shoulders, parachute pants — and then caked them with crystals. Thousands and thousands of Swarovski crystals. What would Liza wear to brunch after jazz class? Maybe something like this.
It was flashy, and at times, cute as the dancers spun around the stage like pixies — Indiana Woodward, with her winning vibrancy, burst into the air with refined radiance — or drifted across it like sad clowns. Swooping out to greet and leap among their sparkly friends, the dancers mirrored the ebb and flow of the score by positioning themselves in family portrait formations.
But they were less living in a dance than existing inside a holiday display. Perhaps weighed down by their costumes and fearful of flying crystals, they spent more time separate than together; closing in on one another they would turn in profile and undulate their arms — a signal, it seemed, to keep a safe distance. This ballet had a puerile side — an expensive game of dress-up. What do I wish for Reisen? That City Ballet would just let her make a dance with her own collaborators on a regular program. Her recent work for the City Ballet-affiliated School of American Ballet — which she attended — was a delight. She doesn’t need a gimmick.
For the evening’s final ballet, Abraham presented a follow-up to “The Runaway,” his hit from the 2018 fashion gala. In “Love Letter (on shuffle),” he chose to work, again, with the designer Giles Deacon and set the dance to music by James Blake. It was a lot of melancholy.
“Love Letter” started off promisingly with a solo for Jonathan Fahoury, a talented dancer of subtle physical articulation, from his quietly shuddering shoulders to his hips and buckling thighs. The looseness comes with a buttery precision. Here and throughout, Fahoury melded into Abraham’s classical and everyday positions; he both envelops them and lets them envelop him. If the ghost of “Runaway,” notable for the performance by Taylor Stanley, hung over “Love Letter,” it was now Fahoury who commanded the stage.
But “Love Letter,” overly long and with excessively moody lighting by Dan Scully — it made it difficult to grasp more than basic outlines of Deacon’s costumes, which highlighted Renaissance silhouettes and modern prints — became exhausting. The cast was an exciting range of personalities and body types, but they started to blend into one another. The combination of the darkened stage and the costumes played tricks on the eye: Suddenly the dancers looked like characters from “Cats,” stripped of fur.
Tiler Peck, always excellent in contemporary work with her prickly attack and daring speed, soared across the stage with an equally deft way of inserting air and spirit into the more winding moments of the music. Ruby Lister, in brief solos and duets, graced the stage with a stylish, old-school elegance that evokes dancers from the 1970s. Christopher Grant and Peter Walker — aligned in one section by their feathered headdresses — made it to the end of their duet and slapped their hands together, a rare instance in a ballet of giving skin. And there was a delightful homage to the “little swans” in “Swan Lake.”
But as the sections and songs wore on, there was increasingly little hope that the fragmented “Love Letter” would produce a greater whole. The appeal of the darkness and remote somberness, so arresting at first, dissipated — as did the varnish on the relationships, fractured and not, that Abraham created onstage. In the end, a romance, between Fahoury and Harrison Ball, was allowed to blossom, not in a cheesy, passionate embrace, but in the way that they simply walked into each other’s arms. In an evening consumed by make-believe, it was a rare moment of movement not just imitating life, but illuminating it.