Albert Evans’ pas de deux In a Landscape premiered and was performed just once as a piece d’occasion for the Company’s 2005 Opening Night Gala before essentially disappearing from the repertory. Choreographed while Evans was still a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, it was his third commission for the Company, following 2002’s Haiku and Broken Promise, which premiered earlier in 2005. After retiring from performing with NYCB in 2010, Evans became a ballet master and continued choreographic work with other organizations. In 2015, his life was cut short, and with it, the potential for further exploration of the ideas In a Landscape first introduced to the NYCB stage.
“Part of the reason I wanted to program In a Landscape was because Albert was such a force at New York City Ballet—an energetic force, a creative force,” says Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan. As his contemporaries in the studio and onstage attest, Evans left an indelible mark on the Company; but to audiences today, who might not have seen him dance or his choreographic output, making that mark visible presents a challenge. Described most often as “mysterious,” In a Landscape offers a glimpse of Evans’ artistic vision, partial though it may be. To better understand the process of presenting this work, and Evans’ singular impact upon the Company, we spoke with the ballet’s original dancers—Whelan and former Principal Dancer Philip Neal, who is currently Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet and Dance Dean of Patel Conservatory—as well as former Principal Dancer and current Repertory Director Rebecca Krohn, who is restaging the work.
PHILIP NEAL: Albert and I grew up together. I'm from Richmond, Virginia, he's from Atlanta, so we were “southern boy” buddies at [the School of American Ballet]. I was accepted into New York City Ballet one year before he was. I adored him—anybody who ever knew him did. He introduced me to my husband, who I’ve been married to for almost 25 years now. We were very close friends and had a lot of respect for each other.
WENDY WHELAN: Albert, Philip, and I followed the same trajectory through the Company. We were involved in a lot of the same works, we took a lot of the same outside classes, and we had a really excellent friendship. I partnered a lot with both Albert and Philip—Albert, in the more contemporary or neoclassical works, and with Philip, I did mostly more classical works. We really loved to laugh together. Part of the reason we all wanted to work together was because we knew it would also be fun.
NEAL: I was very excited, because I knew that Wendy had a great collaborative process with choreographers. I thought, “What is this process going to be like? Are we going to have to behave and not goof around?” It just worked beautifully. Albert had a vision of what he wanted. He did resource our imaginations, but he had a strong vision. We were able to have a relaxed but professional atmosphere.
He said, “I think I have an idea with the Nutcracker slide, I think we’ll make it work.” At the very beginning, Wendy lays down on the ground, and they use that same system to pull her along the floor; I'm pulling Wendy, but our hands are not attached. It’s like a magic trick. I thought that was really clever, a contemporary take on something that's very classic. So that's how it starts.
We just started doing some really cool movements and experimental partnering, hallmarks of New York City Ballet. As a partner, I went into this gear of, “I'm just going to make everything super smooth. You won't see the transitions in between—how does she even get from being upside down and off the ground, and hanging off one side of my body?”
WHELAN: There are inside jokes, of course, about things that were happening at the time. One of those things was the Tim Burton movie Corpse Bride, which had just come out. There was a lot of talk about this being like a haunted wedding. It has a dark feeling in that way, and sort of a handmade feeling to it. It was like these characters, these skeletons in black, walking to their wedding. We found ways to incorporate our life at the time, and what was going on in 2005 in the world around us, in our neighborhood and in our media. So there's that little time capsule that's built into the piece.
NEAL: This velvety elegance comes through. It’s mysterious. Even today, I think there are some partnering moves that haven't been duplicated that were really, really original. I remember a moment when Wendy’s got one knee hooked around my neck and one leg hanging off of me; it’s very sculptural. While we were doing it, we were saying, “Okay, we're here. How are you gonna get out of this? And what are we going to do next?” And Albert was asking, “Where can we go from there?” I hadn’t had a lot of experiences like that; I was always stepping into so many Balanchine or Robbins ballets with established ballerinas, like Kyra [Nichols] or Darcy [Kistler] or Merrill [Ashley]. I really enjoyed it. That level of trust between the three of us was very productive.
WHELAN: I think he was trying to show us in our different capacities—Philip, myself, and Albert, combined. We were all principal dancers at the time, so we were very established, and Albert was just starting this new aspect of his dance career.
NEAL: He danced like velvet, extremely elegant, in a contemporary way. I felt like that pas de deux was particularly emblematic of how he would move; Albert was very, very charismatic, and I tried to channel some of that. I tend to be more of the classic Prince in Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty, so it was fun to inhabit Albert's world and bring his vision to life. Wendy is such a great vessel to create on; I felt like I was the steady in the play, the straight guy who is just a foil for everyone else.
WHELAN: It feels to me, then and now, very much like a study—a sketch, an exploration, and a lot of questions. “Can we do this? What about this?” I felt like Philip and I were tools for Albert to play with. We felt very instrumental. Albert had a lot of nicknames for me; one of them was paper. In this piece, I always felt a bit like origami. There are a lot of folds and angles.
NEAL: He did a good job of bringing all the ideas to fruition, knowing when to edit, knowing how to build. I felt like it was going to be well received, but it was actually even better received than I’d imagined. I think people appreciated the subtlety of it. He encapsulated his vision in a short amount of time. He had much success at the Gala with that, and I really enjoyed being a part of it. I was just happy for my friend’s victory.
WHELAN: Albert was a burgeoning choreographer. He was just getting opportunities to make works, and he was still a dancer. Peter Martins was giving him some chances to do little things. Albert was exploring his own vocabulary.
Rebecca and I have spoken about the piece a little bit—what she thought of the piece and who she thought would be good for it. I'm very excited about her ideas and vision for it as well.
REBECCA KROHN: Albert and I overlapped, when I was dancing with the Company. I got to do [Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra] with him, which I always cherish. I hadn't seen In a Landscape since it went years ago, so when Wendy said, “I want you to stage this ballet,” I really didn't have any information about it. All I have is one dark, grainy tape where the music is a little too quiet.
Rehearsing In a Landscape
KROHN: I usually focus on the music first, because I feel like I can't really learn a piece until I know the music well. So I started getting into that, listening to it on my own, mapping out the counts and what I thought were good phrases for the steps that Albert made. But there were still lots of spaces in the music where I didn't really understand what I was hearing, and I couldn't find the rhythm in certain sections. So I got together with Alan Moverman, who's the pianist that will be playing it. We went through the score; I told him what I had mapped out and he double-checked it to make sure it was okay. And then he explained how to count other sections and taught me how to hear the trickier moments. It was so helpful working with him; I finally had the first piece of the puzzle. He played it originally, when it premiered, so he has a great history with it.
And then, it was just a matter of getting into the studio with the dancers. The first couple of rehearsals, it was a lot of teamwork. The piece has a real tranquility and attention to it. Philip partnered Wendy so smoothly; he makes it look so easy. As we're learning it, it's really, really hard. We're using this dark tape, you can’t always see where his hands are and how he's executing these intricate lifts, so we all worked together. The dancers that I'm rehearsing were wonderful. We got through that, and now we're at the point where we're piecing it together. For the dancers, it's a combination of them learning the music, while also trying to learn the steps and how to execute them. We’re right in the middle of the meat of the piece, I'd say.
WHELAN: It's a young group of dancers who are going to be bringing this piece to life. I know that Albert would be so excited to be in the studio with these artists. These are people that I feel he would connect with, be excited about their futures, and want to bring forward in this work.
KROHN: They’re so committed to putting everything into this. It's a huge opportunity. And, it’s exciting to see what you can pull out of them, to see what’s hidden. They haven't had a chance to express a lot of this kind of movement before in their corps roles. And for me, it's a wonderful opportunity to get to know them, both as dancers and as people. It's a lot of time in the studio together.
WHELAN: The young cast is an ode to Albert's youthful, playful energy. He wasn't a finished choreographer, and these aren't finished dancers, but they're asking the questions and exploring the ideas of how to develop.
KROHN: You can see Albert’s relationship with Wendy and Philip through the piece. Wendy was able to command a stage with so little movement, sometimes just a look or a step. Not a lot of people can pull that off. But he showcased that. Especially in the beginning of the piece, that really shows. It's beautiful to see what he made for these two people that he danced with for many, many years. They just made it look so effortless.
The biggest hurdle was learning what the piece was from so little information. The hardest part is over for me. Now, the hard part is for the dancers. It's up to them to put it all together and make it their own. Neither of the casts is going to look like Wendy and Philip, which is great. But they need to find their own way to look their best within Albert’s work.
NEAL: Whoever does it will make it their own and make it special—to honor the steps, and to do them precisely. But it's going to be a negotiation between the two dancers to make it look as effortless and smooth as it possibly can be. I think it's going to be very well received.
KROHN: It feels like a little jewel that's been unearthed. I hope people see that in the piece. It’ll be a new discovery for everyone.
NEAL: I remember Albert saying to me at one point that he was hopeful that he could expand on this piece. I was very excited when he mentioned that to me. I think that there's more there. We were sad because we love Albert, he was such a precious person to anyone he interacted with—to know him is to love him. But I do think that there was potential for him to expand upon his choreographic chops. When I teach, I say to my students, “In my world of Balanchine and Robbins, you’re basically an extension of yourself, you're not playing a character per se. You're often just yourself, but heightened.” Albert had a very good grip on that from a very young age, whereas it took me a little bit longer to figure that out. I'm sad to not be able to see where his career would have gone. I'm also so grateful for everything he was able to give while he was here.
WHELAN: He was just getting started. And he was such a force that he needed to be a part of the 75th. Right now, if he was around, he would still be creating work. I just know that.
KROHN: It feels good to be able to celebrate him in this way. He's someone that we still talk about a lot, because he was such a huge presence. He had such a positive impact on all of us. I think about him a lot, watching this piece every day. I just hope to do it justice. And I hope he’d be happy with it. We all miss him dearly.
Performance photos © Paul Kolnik. Rehearsal photos by Malik Winslow © New York City Ballet.