James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)
Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.
Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.
Season 2 of “city.ballet.”—the AOL On series that gives an insider’s look at New York City Ballet—is live now! We’re recapping one episode per week. Watch all 12 at dancemagazine.com.
It's pretty darn hard to make it as a choreographer. It's even harder to do so while you're dancing full-time. In the second episode of "city.ballet." Season 2, we meet Troy Schumacher, a member of New York City Ballet's corps, and follow him as he creates his first work for NYCB. Here are five things we learned from this particularly fascinating ep.
Schumacher at work in the studio ("city.ballet." still courtesy New York City Ballet)
1) If you want to choreograph a great dance, choose a piece of music you're obsessed with. Schumacher's ballet is set to "Clearing, Dawn, Dance," by Judd Greenstein—which he's been listening to for three years. And I thought I couldn't get "Shake It Off" out of my head.
2) Casting a ballet at NYCB is like being a kid in a candy store. Or, to use Schumacher's better food-related simile: "It's like going to a buffet when you're really hungry. Everyone is excellent!" And Schumacher knows all of these dancers super well—he's in the studio with them every day, after all—which makes the decision process even harder.
Schumacher rehearsing his chosen ones (Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB)
3) Ballet dancers call aerobically intense ballets "puffy." As in, you'll be huffing and puffing. Cute!
4) Choreographers' notes are so cool. We get a peek at Schumacher's notebook (5:17), and while I'm not exactly sure how his system works, his elaborate doodlings are a little language all their own.
5) Georgina Pazcoguin is hilarious. The costumes for Schumacher's ballet, dreamed up by designer Thom Browne, are basically school uniforms, complete with pleated miniskirts for the ladies. Soloist Pazcoguin's reaction? "Ooh, Sister Marie Clarence is giving detention for this!" Hee hee.
For the past few years, New York City Ballet galas have been alllll about fashion, showcasing not only dance premieres but also custom-made costumes by some of the world's top designers. Last night's fall gala was no exception: We got three premieres (by Troy Schumacher, Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck) and four sets of new designer costumes (by Carolina Herrera, Thom Browne, Sarah Burton and Mary Katrantzou).
We also got the one and only SJP in this AMAZING gown by Katrantzou—let us take a moment to soak in its gorgeousness:
Photo Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
These galas raise interesting questions about the relationship between dance and dance costuming. While costumes can make or break a ballet (more on that in our November costume issue!), normally, the choreography comes first, and the clothing later on. At these galas, though, it seems like the costumes are frequently the starting point, with choreographers shaping their visions around the designers'. And I think sometimes that can make things trickier than usual.
Case in point: Corps dancer Schumacher's premiere, Clearing Dawn. Schumacher has his own company, BalletCollective, which has been getting kind of fantastic reviews, so I was excited to see this piece, his first for NYCB. And the opening moment didn't disappoint: The five dancers shuffled onstage in hugely oversized overcoats—which, in a beautifully surreal twist, rose from their shoulders and ascended to the rafters, where they hovered for the rest of the ballet. Their disappearance revealed Browne's schoolgirl-chic costumes—classically Browne-esque shrunken jackets and pleated skirts and knee shorts—and the contrast was kind of delightful: Immediately, we saw the dancers as children, free from the weight of adult responsibilities...or, you know, something along those lines. The problem was that the schoolkids theme seemed to bog Schumacher down. While there were some spectacular daredevil passages for Ashley Bouder (goodness, that girl is ALWAYS on fire) and Andrew Veyette, things got real literal, real quick: We saw playground fights and anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better showdowns straight out of Matilda. I think Schumacher has a good choreographic mind—it just might be the kind of mind that works better when left to its own devices. (I can't wait to see what he's cooking up for his own company, which has a performance in NYC at the end of October.)
Claire Kretzschmar in costume for Clearing Dawn (photo Erin Baiano/style.com)
Liam Scarlett's Funérailles—a pas de deux for my favorite ballet couple, Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild—also took a lot of cues from its Burton costumes. But Scarlett was able to mesh the choreography and the design in a way that allowed both to shine. Maybe that's because Burton gave him truly gorgeous costumes to work with: a strapless brocaded ballgown with a huge ombré skirt for Peck, and a matching coat for Fairchild. Immediately things felt very bodice-rippy, very Interview with the Vampire, and Scarlett crafted a dark, seductive pas de deux that amplified the gothic mood. Unsurprisingly, Peck and Fairchild danced the heck out of it, and their natural chemistry made the whole thing delicious.
Tiler Peck in costume for Funérailles (photo Erin Baiano/style.com)
Justin Peck hasn't made a bad ballet yet—and that's saying a lot of a 27-year-old who's choreographed more than 20 ballets. This is a guy who's established a distinct choreographic language, but that language seems to take on a different accent in each piece. We've seen him as a playful experimenter in Year of the Rabbit, a dry analytic in In Creases, an epic poet in the 40-minute Everywhere We Go. Last night's premiere, Belles-Lettres, showed him as a swooning romantic—who knew? Katrantzou's appliquéd costumes made the women into 1920s nymphs and the men into harlequins, and Peck responded with a parade of pas de deux that swung from soft and tender to violently passionate. Anthony Huxley, the only man not coupled up, became a kind of court jester, or maybe a narrator—a vaguely tragic outsider, in any case, wishing for a love of his own. And framing all that romance was Peck's signature geometry—abstract daisy chains and kaleidoscopic patterns that lent a bit of coolness to a piece that could easily have overheated. It was an enchanting ending to a mixed-bag of a night.
Lauren Lovette in costume for Belles-Letres (photo Erin Baiano/style.com)
Successful or not, partnerships between choreographers and fashion designers are always fascinating to see in action—and NYCB's on-it media department made a lovely video documenting the collaborative process for this gala. Take a look!