It was the second intermission at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre and the suspicion was audible in the second row. “Am I going to like this?” a fur-clad matron asked a younger woman, perhaps a niece. Before the younger woman could respond an usher swooped in and described the next piece as “ballet, but modern,” a description both women politely chose to accept.
The piece in question, Everywhere We Go, was something of a curiosity for some patrons of the New York City Ballet. With a score by folksinger-turned-composer Sufjan Stevens, Everywhere We Go was in its second season by the autumn of 2014. Stevens’s status as a prolific indie musician seems to have attracted a slightly younger crowd to the ballet. One could spot them scattered along the outer rings and upper balcony, or in the far flank near the front where my wife and I sat.
This was not the first time Stevens’s music had been featured at NYCB. In 2012, Justin Peck, NYCB’s resident choreographer and all-around ballet wonder boy, wrote a ballet for Stevens’s 2001 electronic album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, which a Times reviewer admired, referring to it as “a triumph.” Peck, though only 27, has already produced six ballets for NYCB, an accomplishment that one has to Google and cross check before accepting.
If Peck is representative of a youth renaissance onstage at NYCB, the institution is working hard to replicate this in their audience. It is not clear whether the Stevens contingent in the crowd would produce a sustained “youth bump” for NYCB, but like many of its peers in the performing arts, NYCB has a Young Patrons Circle. The program offers various experiential and social perks to attract patrons under 40, which, it must be said, is a pretty low bar for “young.”
At a party I attended last year in a suburb of Philadelphia, a middle-aged couple spent a bit of time telling everyone how unfortunate it is that Millennials don’t attend the symphony, opera, ballet, or support the fine arts in general. They were genuinely worried about the preservation of our most treasured cultural institutions. As the only representatives of our generation, my wife and I chimed in that, actually, we were attending an opera in a couple of weeks—in a box at the Metropolitan Opera, in fact. This really pleased the middle-aged couple, and we were briefly celebrated as the best of our generation, exceptions to the norm, bravo. But then, I clarified that we had won the tickets during a raffle at my work and that we could not have otherwise afforded the experience. This news returned everyone to their drinks and their somber mood over the future of arts patronage. One has to question what would happen if this middle-aged couple arrived at an opera house and found it full of Millennials, milling about, Instagramming the architecture and each other, trying to use their credit cards at the cash-only refreshment stands.
We didn’t win box seats for the ballet, but we were quite near the stage and far enough in the flank so that our seats cost slightly less than a student loan payment. Just one seat to our right, the cost rose by almost $100. Beyond the affordability of our seats, part of the charm of our position in the flank was that it provided a useful angle for peering into the orchestra pit. Throughout the intermission, a harpist sat and practiced a complicated arpeggio, over and over. Soon, her colleagues found their seats and the intermission bell chimed. The orchestra lifted their instruments, tilted toward the maestro, and tuned in crescendo to A.
To describe it in simple terms, Everywhere We Go is a joyful ballet. The music moves gracefully among many moods, from pensive to celebratory to grim. The brass section seemed to have its number called quite often, having the effect of making the music feel more prescient, louder even. A reviewer from the Times bristled at the score’s occasional cinematic, almost soundtrack-y, choruses, referring to them as “Broadway-style manipulative.” Even if one accepts that critique, Stevens should be immediately pardoned. It was hard not to notice that the musicians, whispering to each other when their instruments were at rest, and the dancers, wearing breathless grins in the periphery, were clearly having a lot of fun.
Peck’s choreography matched the score’s mood and energy through its display of athleticism and the sheer number of dancers moving around the stage. An ensemble of 10 dancers might charge across the stage, leaping and lifting each other, and cross the path of another ensemble destined for another part of the stage. A Times reviewer, writing about Peck’s first collaboration with Stevens, described the choreography like this: “What is usually the frame is the picture here, and it keeps moving.” Peck’s ballet all but abandons the traditional pas de deux, a ballet trope in which a male and female dancer do a “step for two” that often serves to provide shape and narrative. Instead of two central dancers, Peck creates a choreographically dense world with many leaping bodies, none with sustained relationships to one another. This isn’t to say that Peck is operating in the avant-garde, but rather that he is widening the lens so that we can see a little more.
In the performance we took in just before Everywhere We Go, that lens was rather fixated on one ballerina. After a brilliant and exceptional thirty-year career, Wendy Whelan had just given her penultimate performance at the ballet. She would retire the following week. In Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, she and partner Craig Hall were alone on the stage. They moved both toward and away from each other, while the orchestra remained silent but for a single violin and the piano playing quietly.
At nearly fifty, Whelan’s body revealed not an ounce of anything extra, only what was necessary to sustain her work. Wearing a small, skin-toned leotard, Whelan’s length and musculature appeared raw and pure, like a grand tree without its leaves. The piece concludes with Whelan perched on the strength of her partner and suspended in the air, her arms prepared for flight.
The chronology of these two ballets, a simple and delicate pas de deux performed by a veteran dancer followed by an energetic ensemble ballet from two younger artists, may encourage a study in contrasts. And yet, what was so inspiring about Whelan’s performance and the career that it helped to celebrate was also evident in the Peck-Stevens collaboration: the artist’s demand for innovation and evolution.
At this point in his career, Stevens’s exploration of ballet is not outside of his musical lexicon, which has grown to include genres as diverse as folk, electronica, pop, hip-hop, and classical—to name a few. Whelan’s pursuit of reinvention within the discipline of her form is perhaps more subtle and biological, exploring the limits of the body’s capabilities and defying assumptions about the arc of a dance career.
The institutions that host our artists evolve too, albeit at a different pace and with wholly different inspirations. But the value of our institutions may be in their stubborn stability as places, with roofs and walls and doors, that act as the organizing principle of art: something for the engine of creativity to push up against and create friction. As victims of the frantic pace set by life via social media, we consume art in great hyperventilating breaths: this band, this exhibit, this book, this film. The novelty of a place with seats arranged to face one stage is that it slows us down and suggests: just this for the next several hours.
What does it mean that the world’s premier ballet commissioned a score from a folksinger? Is ballet suddenly dance for the people? Hardly. And that is probably for the better. Artists of exceptional talent are rare, and seeing them is, and should remain, a privilege, but one hopes that entry is not limited to the privileged.