At the start of Caroline Shaw’s “Partita for 8 Voices,” fragments of sentences bounce in the air like musical notes. “To the side.” “And around.” And later: “The detail of the pattern is movement.”
In Justin Peck’s “Partita,” which had its premiere on Thursday night at New York City Ballet, the dancers — eight, to mirror the number of voices — follow suit. Concentrated in a group at the center of the stage, some skirt to the side like breezy puffs of smoke, while another lends an obedient spin to “and around.” Shaw’s composition, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a mysterious and densely layered four-movement work, in which spoken word mingles with vocalization and spookier in-between sounds that originate deep in the throat: moans, gasps, exhalations of breath.
This is the world that “Partita,” Peck’s latest ballet in sneakers, inhabits. To listen to Shaw’s score on its own is to fall under the spell of a sonic landscape where the voice becomes a visceral embodiment of shape and texture. When paired with a dance, the piece — the ensemble Roomful of Teeth performed it live — takes on a different dimension as those sounds translate into bodies that weave and undulate, pausing for the briefest of moments before succumbing and swaying, once again, to the wave of voices.
But “Partita,” however much it churns along, has a way of flattening itself out with each subsequent movement. Some of this happens through Peck’s use of repetition, which doesn’t build or create new energy; it only depletes any semblance of choreographic surprise. Increasingly, the opulence of “Partita” becomes ordinary — an expensive object that gradually loses its luster. And it is opulent, thanks to its striking set designed by Eva LeWitt, the daughter of Sol LeWitt, the artist whose “Wall Drawing 305” inspired Shaw in the first place.
The premiere led the first program of City Ballet’s winter season, which was delayed because of the coronavirus. Before the dancing started, Jonathan Stafford, the company’s artistic director, presented India Bradley and Davide Riccardo with the Janice Levin award, given to talented, young members of the corps de ballet. Their speeches were eloquent, charming. “I can’t see you,” Bradley said to the audience, “but I’m sure you all look fan-tastic.”
With her agile limbs and serene gaze — she holds her head, always, like a queen — Bradley often looked that way herself in “Partita.” When the curtain parted, she and the seven other dancers, dressed in simple separates by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, posed as a group underneath LeWitt’s colorful, tubular structures of dangling fabric. The vibrancy of LeWitt’s bright sculptural shapes — gleaming with the help of Brandon Stirling Baker’s handsome lighting — contrasted well with the dusty, earth tones of the costumes, which felt a little like playsuits.
In this dance, Peck focuses on groundedness — the power of what the plié brings as the dancers, in their seemingly just-out-of-the-box white sneakers, navigate the sounds of the score, flickering in and out of shapes that somehow allude to a broken body. There is the extension of a leg with a flexed foot, a torso bending forward over a raised knee, a walk frozen in space.
The arms are busy to the point of being manic. Sometimes they’re reaching, ecstatic and holy; at other times, they propel like windmills on high speed or build shapes with geometric precision. In these moments, “Partita” can start to feel like a college dance — earnest and derivative in its quest to experiment. When Claire Kretzschmar and Bradley bend their arms to frame each other’s faces, brace yourself: It’s so self-conscious.
But there is also an unbuttoned sweep to the dancing. In a later duet, Harrison Coll and Taylor Stanley speed everything up, breezing across the stage in jittery unison as Tiler Peck drifts across in the background. When she is front and center, Peck, with her innate musicality, is breathtaking in her coordination as she locates a beguiling fluidity in her footwork even as her arms go wild.
When the group, also featuring Ashley Hod, Roman Mejia and Chun Wai Chan — a dashing, recently hired soloist — meets again, Peck’s obsession with arm-ography continues with a repeated sequence: The dancers hold their rounded arms to the side; lift them straight and clasp their hands overhead; and, finally, extend them out to either side. There’s a way that such repetition gives the choreography the aura of playtime, which doesn’t always coalesce with its grown-up score.
“Partita” is in a kind of limbo with one foot in the present and another in the past as it strives to find connection with the dances of the 1970s and ’80s. But white sneakers alone can’t bring Peck closer to unlocking the secrets of that time. His influences are on the surface, especially in this instance, dances by Twyla Tharp, whose drive and dynamism he can’t match. His reverence for Jerome Robbins is also clear. What’s less clear is what Peck wants to say for himself.
The program also included Merce Cunningham’s glorious “Summerspace,” which, though created in 1958, was a shoo in for the most invigorating and fresh work on the program. It also takes place in one of the most distinct dance landscapes ever made: Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist backdrop and costumes. The dancers are painted into the scenery, creating an incredible camouflage effect.
Morton Feldman’s score, “Ixion,” an environmental collage of chirping birds and distant thunder, evokes the sluggishness of a warm summer day. But it’s not a lethargic ballet. Even though the dancers’ costumes match the décor, their bodies are on full display, showing every wobble and misstep in timing.
Do they need more stage time? Yes! To dance this on the opening night of a season after weeks off, was a heroic act held together by the commanding Adrian Danchig-Waring, Sara Adams and Emilie Gerrity. But watching the effort is part of the joy, too. Ashley Laracey, in a debut, showed glimpses of real command, offering a sprite-like buoyancy in her balances and arabesques. This is a dance for every season, one that should be programmed on a loop. Even better would be to add more Cunningham dances to the mix.
The closer, Christopher Wheeldon’s “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse,” isn’t such a keeper — and yet it persists. Set to music by Michael Nyman, it was originally created for the Royal Ballet in 2006 to commemorate the birth of the high-speed train in France, known as the TGV. Trains operate on momentum as do ballets. But this hurtling, overstuffed work for 26 dancers is odd — not in an interesting way — and full of tension for all the wrong reasons. The partnering keeps you on the edge of constant worry.
The debuts were plentiful — the daring power of Mira Nadon, opposite Chan, achieved the most success, as did the understated, luminous dancing of Sara Mearns — but “DGV,” for the most part, speeds along on a choreographic track both mind-numbing and treacherous. Why, in this day and age, are men carting inert women across the stage as if they were moving sculptures in a museum? It’s antiquated.
New York City Ballet
Through Feb. 27 at the David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center; nycballet.com.