New ballets are an intrinsic part of New York City Ballet’s DNA. They’re anticipated eagerly by dancers and audiences hungering for fresh combinations, unexpected ideas, and a sense of where ballet is heading in a rapidly changing dance world.
This year’s Fall Fashion Gala on September 27 delivers the world premieres of three pieces that double down on the new. Two are by choreographers who are working with NYCB for the first time. Indeed, Kyle Abraham, founder of the acclaimed dance company A.I.M (formerly Abraham.In.Motion), is creating his first-ever piece for a ballet company. Matthew Neenan is Choreographer in Residence at the Pennsylvania Ballet, a co-founder of Philadelphia’s BalletX, and has choreographed for numerous ballet companies including The Washington Ballet and Ballet West.
As for the third ballet maker, Gianna Reisen made her choreographic debut with NYCB at last year’s Fall Gala at age 18 (the Company’s youngest choreographer ever), and she returns with a second commission this year.
Marking NYCB’s seventh annual Fall Fashion Gala, the costumes for the premieres will be designed by Giles Deacon (for Abraham), Gareth Pugh (for Neenan), and Alberta Ferretti (for Reisen).
What can audiences expect when the curtain unveils these new works at the David H. Koch Theater?
In a spacious rehearsal studio, Kyle Abraham looked on as NYCB Principal Dancer Taylor Stanley delivered an exhilarating solo in the genre-blending style its creator calls “postmodern gumbo,” a Cunningham curve here, a Graham spiral there, with flashes of hip hop, Skinner Release Technique, and, yes, ballet.
Since 2006, when Abraham started his company, his distinctive style has become the conduit for dances that explore politically and emotionally charged subject matter, win awards (Abraham was a 2013 MacArthur fellow), and reel in commissions from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and former NYCB Principal Dancer Wendy Whelan, among others. His company A.I.M tours around the world; A.I.M will perform his work Dearest Home at The Joyce Theater September 29-October 1. A ballet company may be “a different world,” as Abraham puts it, but it’s not that different. “A lot of things I’m interested in are things City Ballet dancers do naturally. I’d love to figure out that fast footwork that’s so ingrained in the technique,” he says.
Abraham’s piece for NYCB began with a playlist he created after watching Company class. A classically trained musician, he selected “music that would shake things up,” including jazz standards, hip hop, contemporary compositions, and obscure electronica. In the studio, his pulsating playlist often served as a mood backdrop as he choreographed. He didn’t finalize his score until he could see how different pieces spoke to the way the dancers were moving.
His playlist is something he creates for every dance he makes, a carryover from working part-time jobs in record stores during high school and college. “I think the choreography, ironically enough, is its own embodied mix tape because I’m drawing from all these different dance forms in a juxtaposed world,” he says.
For Matthew Neenan, creating a ballet for NYCB was his dream from his earliest days as a choreographer. A New York native who attended the School of American Ballet and a former dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, he was steeped in the choreography of George Balanchine.
Neenan was drawn to choreography early on, making his first pieces for Pennsylvania Ballet as a young member of the company’s corps de ballet. At 33, he quit dancing to choreograph full time, and in the prolific decade that followed, he developed a singular aesthetic, spontaneous, poetic, and emotionally affecting, that makes his dancers appear natural, big-hearted, and free. “It’s important to me that the dancers really relate to each other, that there’s a strong community even if they’re not all in unison,” he says.
Comfortable using diverse types of music, Neenan wanted something “on the classical side” for his NYCB debut. His choice, Antonin Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, offers “a richness and mystery I can’t even explain,” he says. “There’s a quickness and sharpness that will allow for some interesting phrasing these dancers do so well.”
For each piece he makes, Neenan strives to develop a fresh vocabulary for himself and the dancers. “There’s a step we do throughout the piece, but it’s a little different each time. That’s kind of what Balanchine was doing.”
Though she was surprised to be asked back just a year after her NYCB choreographic debut, Gianna Reisen was thrilled to put to good use what she learned the first time around. The lessons included how to command the room, how to work with the dancers to create steps they’ll enjoy performing, and how to manage unforeseeable stress. “One of my dancers went out the day before the premiere, and I had to reteach a new dancer the whole ballet. But I learned that in the end it always works out,” she says.
For her second ballet, Reisen has upped her game. Using 18 dancers (“there are so many possibilities when you use a lot of people”), she cast principals and soloists in addition to corps de ballet members. Her music, John’s Book of Alleged Dances, is an intricate John Adams score from 1994 played by a live string quartet together with a recording of a prepared piano outfitted with rubber bands and bouncy balls. A long-time fan of the work, Reisen considered choreographing to it last fall but decided it was too overwhelming for her freshman effort. Now she’s ready. “It’s challenging, but I love the use of instruments and the odd sounds. It’s an exciting piece,” she says.
A newly minted member of L.A. Dance Project, Reisen will return to dancing after her ballet is staged, in part because she still loves it, in part to grow her choreographic vocabulary. “I think one informs the other,” she says. “Ultimately, choreography is what I want to do, but continuing to dance is only going to help.”