At the Top of their Game: New York City Ballet Spring Season Features New Works by Veteran Dancers

Classic Arts Features   At the Top of their Game: New York City Ballet Spring Season Features New Works by Veteran Dancers
For a small coterie of dancers, ballet presents twin callings: to perform and to choreograph. Jiř‹ Buben‹ček and Benjamin Millepied have each added the latter to their repertoires, presenting their new works through May 26.


The two men are European-born principal dancers at the top of their game. Buben‹ček, a Czech citizen, is a member of Dresden's SemperOper Ballet and dances classics like La Bayadère as eloquently as modern pieces that hug the floor. Millepied, born in Bordeaux and a longtime member of New York City Ballet, is well known for his impeccable artistry and immaculate technique in ballets such as Dances at a Gathering, Theme and Variations, Stars and Stripes, and Rubies in the ballet Jewels.

In recent years, each man has added choreography to his repertoire, and on May 13, NYCB audiences had the opportunity to see their work when the Company premiered their new ballets at the Spring Gala.

The two dancer/choreographers share a more notable bond than a listing on the same program. Each is an alum of the New York Choreographic Institute, an NYCB affiliate that serves as a laboratory for choreographers, providing the vital ingredients: dancers, studios and time. Millepied, a three- time veteran, was first invited to the Institute in 2002 after NYCB Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins saw a tape of his earliest effort, Passages, created for his alma mater, the Conservatoire National in Lyon.

Buben‹ček paid his second visit to the Institute last fall and fashioned a six minute piece set to music written by his twin brother Otto, a principal dancer with the Hamburg Ballet. Though Institute choreographers are not required to produce polished pieces, Martins liked what Buben‹ček had begun and invited him to come back and finish it for the spring season.

On a bright winter day, Buben‹ček stood in a light-filled studio in the Rose Building, rehearsing a blazingly fast pas de deux with two members of the NYCB corps. Though plotless, the new ballet, created for seven dancers, probes romantic relationships and their attendant emotions. "What I want to create is not just steps, but feelings between people," he said after the rehearsal. "Movement has a meaning; it's not just decoration."

The color-drenched paintings of Mark Rothko were also an inspiration for the piece. "Though very abstract, those paintings are so full of feeling," he said.

Buben‹ček was born into a family of professional acrobats, but dance won his heart early on. After study at the Prague Dance Conservatory, he won an award at the Prix de Lausanne in 1992 and was invited to join the Hamburg Ballet, where he danced for 13 years. Choreography beckoned a decade ago. "I'd always wanted to try it, but didn't have the guts," he recalled. A friend rehearsing a cabaret act gave him a needed nudge, suggesting Buben‹ček create and perform a solo to accompany the song La Foule. He quickly moved on to more complex pieces for the Hamburg Ballet, Zurich Ballet and Copenhagen International Ballet, among others.

His dance vocabulary flits effortlessly from classical to contemporary, as do his musical choices, which range from Bach and Bartok to Peter Gabriel. But a favorite collaborator is his brother, who created the shimmering Toccata in C at Buben‹ček's request. "What we do is a bit like steps," he says. "Otto creates his music, then I say I need a bit more feeling, and he does it. Then he says, I see it this way, and he pushes me to create something I probably wouldn't have done."

Music is usually the starting point for Millepied, who has set ballets to scores by Chopin and Stravinsky, commissioned works by Nico Muhly and Daniel Ott and a live accompaniment by Philip Glass. "I look for music that touches me in some way, holds my interest, and inspires choreography," he said. Not surprisingly, Henryk Gorecki's Quasi una Fantasia, the score for the new ballet, has these qualities in spades. "It's a piece that needs to be danced," he said. "I've had it in mind for a long time."

Though plotless, the ballet has a scenario "in the same sense Serenade has a scenario," he explained. "The music really sounds like it's telling a story, so I knew I couldn't do something abstract."

The ballet calls for 20 dancers, including two lead couples. Though Millepied's creations include a solo work for Mikhail Baryshnikov, his current passion is choreographing for a large group. Last fall, he used 16 dancers in 3 Movements for Pacific Northwest Ballet. "There's so much you can do with a group, it's inspiring," he said. "And the only way to develop your own sense of movement is by doing more and more work." Still, studying a master can help. Last season he spent hours in the NYCB audience watching Balanchine ballets. "The last movement in Stravinsky Violin Concerto is incredible," he said.

The son of a dance teacher, Millepied plunged into ballet early. "My mother encouraged creativity, and whenever I went on stage, I danced something I'd made up," he said. At 18, he was devising pieces for her company. "I decided I could really do it," he said.

But building a career as a dancer requires single-minded intensity; only after he became a principal dancer in 2001 did he feel he could pursue choreography as well. Since then he has created works for Paris Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Benjamin Millepied and Company, among others.

Indeed, balancing the two disciplines is a tour de force, as both Millepied and Buben‹ček agree. And for now, there is nothing these two men would rather do.


For tickets and information on upcoming performances (thru May 26), visit New York City Ballet.

Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.

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