When the choreographer Crystal Pite was a child, her father and uncle talked to her about the cosmos. “Sometimes I would experience a dizzying thrill in brief moments of embodied comprehension,” she writes in reference to her piece “Angels’ Atlas” on the National Ballet of Canada’s website. “It felt like I was falling within the vastness of it all.”
There were similar sensations at play when the company, led by its new artistic director, Hope Muir, performed the dance at New York City Center. Sadly, though, it wasn’t nearly as mystical. Pite’s choreography rides on flow — a willowy stream of energy that sends the body bending and curving through space. Can viewers feel as if they’re floating in the cosmos? Staring into the void? Vaguely. More often, they’re earthbound, the stage a landscape of churning sameness.
“Angels’ Atlas,” which had its premiere just before the coronavirus closed theaters in 2020, opens with dancers lying on their backs. Eventually, they arch their chests as one; their heads stretch back as their eyes gaze out. In the distance, at the back of the stage, a wall glows with wisps and slivers of light in formations evoking icicles or feathery cobwebs. As the work progresses, the backdrop grows taller like the way a wave shoots up sheetlike from the ocean to pause for a glistening instant.
The lighting, not the dance, is the star — specifically that reflective backdrop, designed by Jay Gower Taylor and Tom Visser. The dancers, whether writhing or thriving in Pite’s throbbing ecosystem, sweep along, at times crouching like rocks, at others twisting away like ringlets of water.
Set to original music by Owen Belton, which evokes sounds of the natural world, along with choral selections by Tchaikovsky and Morten Lauridsen, “Angels’ Atlas” is ominous and somber with bare-chested men and women in buff-colored leotards pulsating in earthy unison. (The costumes, by Nancy Bryant, feature striking pants with a slit just above the knee.) Death is in the air; after one dancer collapses, another starts to sway and quiver, holding her hands, fingers splayed, in front of her face and chest as they pulsate in and out. Soon, in this sizable company work, others join in like a twitchy choir.
“Angels’ Atlas” is full of simulated angst. There are forlorn duets juxtaposed against groups of bodies that brush across the stage like a plague overtaking a village. It ends with one dancer rocking another, presumably dead, on an empty stage. What a strange closer! Pite is a much sought-out choreographer. But “Angels’ Atlas” is another reminder that despite its underpinnings — sometimes social, sometimes metaphysical — her large-scale, forceful group work is simply conventional.
David Dawson’s “Anima Animus,” a New York premiere created for San Francisco Ballet in 2018 and set to Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1, opened the program with a stage awash in black and white. Both the scenery by John Otto and the costumes by Yumiko Takeshima adhered to that palette, though the unitards and leotards — with contrasting fronts and buff-colored backs — sometimes made the dancers look as if their bodies were sawed in half.
Calley Skalnik and Genevieve Penn Nabity, a pair of blonde doppelgängers, added some needed verve, but “Anima” dragged on, especially in its partnering. Over and over, the men lifted the women into the air or dragged them along as their pointe shoes skimmed the floor. It was more tedious than crass; the dancers seemed intent on always stretching, always growing with ever-expanding arms, as if the passion in their splayed fingers might stir up some heat, but it matched the design. Its emotion was colorless, too.
The program’s oldest ballet, “Concerto” (1966), by Kenneth MacMillan, was dedicated to the Canadian-born Lynn Seymour, a radiant, dramatic Royal Ballet dancer who died in March. She was in the original cast and much praised for her part in the hypnotic, meditative pas de deux in the second movement. She wrote that MacMillan was inspired by watching her one night as she worked alone on pointe. “He transported curving movements of concentrated simplicity — an arm slowly dropping, a leg stretching sensuously — into a joyous pas de deux.”
It’s a lovely ballet that has aged well. Set to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 — which Alexei Ratmansky used for his “Concerto DSCH,” a hit for New York City Ballet — “Concerto” had moments of playfulness and lushness. Yet the performance was choppy and the dancers’ musicality was uneven, full of starts and stops.
While “Concerto” seemed underrehearsed and too big a ballet for the stage — perhaps the performers were too new to this stage — there was still a jaunty courtliness as dancers in vibrant yellow swarmed from one side of the stage to another. To see the skeleton of a ballet isn’t ideal — and the memory of Ratmansky’s vibrant “DSCH” didn’t help — but “Concerto” still glowed.
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