Four Principal Dancers on New Work and the Here/Now Festival
By Terry Trucco
When asked what it means to be tapped by a choreographer to originate a featured role in a new ballet, New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Amar Ramasar answers without missing a beat. “It’s one of the biggest honors we can have as dancers. Your own artistry is part of the collaboration, and you’re helping to realize what the choreographer envisions.”
NYCB’s illustrious history of producing new ballets dates from its origins in 1948. But the Company’s commitment to the choreography of its time is in sharp focus this spring as the much awaited Here/Now Festival unfurls from April 25 to May 21. For four weeks, the Company dances 43 ballets by 22 choreographers created expressly for NYCB from 1988 to the present. Underscoring the emphasis on the new, the festival includes world premieres by Alexei Ratmansky at the May 4 Spring Gala and by NYCB Resident Choreographer Justin Peck on May 12.
The Here/Now Festival invites audiences to sample the breathtaking inventiveness, quality, and range of work produced over the last three decades. Some of these works have not been seen in quite a few years, though many of these ballets are found in New York City Ballet’s active repertory, as well as the repertories of numerous ballet companies around the world.
The Festival is also an opportunity for dancers to look back on what they’ve helped create and how new ballets influence what they do. Observing that last winter she went from performing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty to rehearsing the Festival’s revival of Angelin Preljocaj’s avant-garde Spectral Evidence (2013), Principal Dancer Tiler Peck says, “And then we put on sneakers and dance [Justin Peck’s] The Times Are Racing . That’s exciting. Here are all the same dancers and look at the range of what we can do.”
For most dancers, a new ballet usually starts when they see their name on the rehearsal schedule. At that point, the piece is enveloped in mystery. “You never know what someone is going to ask you to do,” says Principal Dancer Tyler Angle, who practices a series of proactive exercises to warm up his back and spine before starting a new ballet.
Given the unprecedented number of choreographers who have made ballets for NYCB over the last three decades, dancers are accustomed to varied working processes and diverse styles of dancing. As Tiler Peck explains, “Some choreographers come into the room, and say ‘Let’s explore.’ Others know exactly what steps they want.”
Home-grown dance makers, including current and former NYCB dancers like Jean-Pierre Frohlich, Lauren Lovette, and Troy Schumacher, usually work quickly. Not only do they speak the same aesthetic language as the dancers, but knowing their strengths and weaknesses can shape the choreography. Justin Peck created different versions of the same role in Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes  to suit the particular talents of Principal Dancers Sara Mearns and Tiler Peck. “He likes to makes his dancers look good,” says Tiler Peck.
Justin Peck is also known for his willingness to try out ideas suggested by the dancers when he makes a new piece. Says Ramasar, “If it’s terrible, he’ll say so. But if he likes it, he’ll go with it.”
When Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins choreographs, the dancers expect to be challenged with complex pas de deux. “I really learned about partnering by rehearsing The Infernal Machine,” says Ramasar, who recalls being “excited but terrified” as a first-year corps member understudy when Martins was making the ballet on Janie Taylor and Jock Soto in 2002. “Peter demonstrated literally every step we did and was extremely patient.”
The familiarity of working with colleagues is not only fun, but often ignites creativity, as Angle and Principal Dancer Sterling Hyltin discovered making Neverwhere (2013), with former NYCB dancer Benjamin Millepied. Says Angle, “Benjamin worked with the lighting and the extended notes of the piano and viola and had us sort of mimicking each other in shadow, moving closer and closer. As we were making the pas de deux we could feel that it was going to look new and very different.”
Surprises are to be expected from choreographers who hail from the worlds of contemporary dance, international ballet, and beyond, but so, too, is the stimulation that comes from exposure to differing dancing and working styles. Pontus Lindberg, creator of The Shimmering Asphalt (2017), had Hyltin repeatedly practice the unballerina-like move of falling to the floor after a jump. Preljocaj began by teaching dance phrases; some of them wound up in Spectral Evidence, others didn’t. And for his energetic Slice to Sharp (2006), Jorma Elo choreographed in silence, introducing his baroque musical score only when each section was set. “I really feel I’ve learned more as a dancer and been challenged in different ways working with the choreographers who aren’t in the City Ballet vein,” says Hyltin.
For a Company steeped in the steps of the Balanchine/Robbins canons, an advantage to working with living choreographers is being able to adjust existing choreography so it looks and feels good on current casts. Angle recalls how former NYCB Resident Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon altered some shapes of the lifts and the timing of steps to suit Angle and Tiler Peck when Mercurial Manoeuvres, created on Miranda Weese and Soto in 2000, returned to the repertory. “There’s negotiation when you’re in the studio,” says Hyltin, who expects to see subtly new versions of familiar ballets in Here/Now “because it’s allowed.”
For dancers, there’s nothing quite like the artistic growth that a piece of new choreography can offer. Recalling the making of Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Angle says, “We knew from the beginning he was going to a really different place with this ballet. When the person in the front of the room is asking you to change your entire aesthetic, it really wakes up your perceptions.”
This story originally appeared in New York City Ballet’s Spring 2017 Playbill.
Photos © Paul Kolnik