Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 7:37 am | Fair 42º


Liam Burke: The Athletes of God Were Here with the New York City Ballet

UCSB Arts & Lectures performance kept The Granada audience riveted

When the news that New York City Ballet Moves was coming to Santa Barbara, excitement flickered in ballet lovers throughout the area, but little did the rest of the townsfolk know that the greatest ballet company in the world is much more than a flurry of tutus and men in tights.

Tiler Peck
Tiler Peck

Last month at The Granada, the company delicately stepped and then ferociously pistoled out multiple dance forms in a multitude of choreographies in a performance brought to Santa Barbara by UCSB Arts & Lectures. To add to it, the mist cleared for one of the great new stars in dance, Bakersfield-born Tiler Peck.

It’s important to mention from the get-go that there were no sets for the entire performance. There was some lighting, and the dancers were appropriately costumed, proving that great dance and dancers can stand alone without any other hoopla and shamozzle. Certainly no technical effects were needed here.

When presenting a mixed bill, it is a tradition that ballet companies present a classical work, followed by a modern or character ballet, and end with something “just for fun.” City Ballet did more than just that, opening with Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering,” which has something of an old country flavor to it. At times it bordered a Hungarian dance in poses and in attitude, all the while set to music by Frédéric Chopin. Bit in full it was so classical and modern all mixed in together that one can see why it has become such a preciously preserved piece in the company’s repertoire. It was created in the late 1960s, reason alone to remember that Robbins was a genius.

At this “Gathering,” the first of the five couples flirted and cajoled effortlessly, showing themselves as playful lovers with classical ballet turns that had a modern feel. Then came Peck and the towering Jonathan Stafford, whose partnering and dancing was next to perfect. But Peck created a new catchphrase to live by — quirky is beautiful — as she whipped out five turns on pointe, and ended the turn abruptly by wedging her flexed foot back in toward herself. See what I mean by classical and yet modern? Then the exit for this pas de deux, with Peck carried off upside down, built our intrigue as to what could possibly happen next.

The dances kept coming, the feline beauty of Sara Mearns taking our breath away, and a men’s duet in which the sublime Antonio Carmena, who opened the ballet masterfully, and Stafford danced a dueling tour de force of sportsmanship that furthered the argument that dancers are the greatest athletes in the world. Both the men and the women of this company reminded me of the words of that Santa Barbara High School girl (circa 1900s), Martha Graham, when she said, “Dancers are the athletes of God.”

The pace quickened with Mearns at the helm once again and the ballet ended in a thoughtful stillness from the whole cast, and, as they gazed into the heavens, we could almost see the stars they were standing below and watching. The gathering ended and the dancers went their contented ways, coupled and smiling, they left the stage.

After the intermission, an excerpt from the Christopher Wheeldon ballet, “After The Rain,” took us on an altogether different journey, when the incomparable and legendary dancer Wendy Whelan and partner Ask la Cour from Denmark moved us from elated, to on the edge of our seats.

This pas de deux has a “bares-all” quality to it. A couple, who appear to be in a bedroom at times, express a recovery from some mortal loss. The unusual movements where la Cour lifts Whelan’s pin-straight body up from the floor through a diagonal angle are pure feats of strength. It’s not an obvious story ballet, but one can tell there is a mourning going on as la Cour scoops his forearm under Whelan’s thigh and lifts her to a sitting position, then carries her across the stage. The effect had repercussions on us, though. It was like an intimate moment between father and newborn baby, cradling the child in one arm. There was a grieving to the whole dance, and in Whelan’s flexed feet and bent-knee lifts we could see that a part of her had hardened whereas a part of him had softened and released, and he was there solely to take care of her. When would the mastery end?

It didn’t. Because in “A Fool For You,” the last ballet, we were back with Peck, the Bakersfield girl, and the audience completely understood how this one “got away” from California; she turns like lightening. With music by Ray Charles, Peck and the ultra-smooth Taylor Stanley opened with some sassy Broadway-style dancing that lifted us into yet another dimension. No surprise to learn that not only did Peck debut on Broadway at the age of 11, before training at the School of American Ballet, but she recently workshopped a starring role in a new Lincoln Center Broadway musical with Susan Stroman of Contact and The Producers fame. Peck is Robbins, Fosse, Stroman, a great actress and many more things — all rolled into one.

There were many stars in this iconic fun ballet, even if taped music didn’t quite live up to when Charles himself, and his eight-man orchestra (and back up singers The Raelettes), first performed this with the dancers at NYCB’s American Music Festival in 1988. The artistic director of the company and choreographer of this piece, Peter Martins, really showed us who is the boss of dance when he had the men execute sky-high fan kicks to trumpet bleats, creating a kind-of visual musical odometer of the human kind.

The choreography turned traditional swing dance into a balletic form of masterpiece, as the dancers turned fast swing throws and catches into slow pendulum swings, maintaining the original silhouettes of the dance form. With the exceptional talent of Joaquin De Luz from Spain, who flipped and jumped and jeté-ed and almost flew over a chair, and did the all-time winning version of the Caterpillar — that’s right, flat on his stomach on the floor but not just rolling through the body, propelling his whole body horizontally three feet into the air and landing with an exaggerated ripple through his whole trunk, the audience was whipped into a frenzy. De Luz and his equally brilliant buddy, Daniel Ulbricht, powered together through a series of dozens of turns, with leg to the side, and they pulled in like ice skaters do with eight or nine turns to boot.

These are the masters of dance and there are just too many to mention them all in this company. Between them, and their choreographers/creators/directors, their coaches, the composers and the musicians, all the disciples of dance across the world should aspire to move with such perfection. Hats off and bravo to UCSB Arts & Lectures for this veritable kick-off to an amazing dance season.

Click here for more information on UCSB Arts & Lectures. Connect with UCSB Arts & Lectures on Facebook. Follow Arts & Lectures on Twitter: @ArtsandLectures.

Noozhawk contributing writer Liam Burke covers dance and has been published in Dance Magazine, Dance Australia and The James White Review. He can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click here to get started >

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >