Classical ballet is one of the few art forms (along with the symphony and opera) where formality is not only alive but embraced. The performance time-to-intermission ratio is about two-to-one, and the curtain calls stretch well past a quick bow. Many patrons still wear suits and gowns that sparkle and dash off to private lounges in-between pieces for a glass of bubbly, but if someone’s wearing a suit at a Dan Deacon concert, most likely a friend dragged them there, and there’s generally a lot more sweating and dancing to be had in the audience. Intermissions are taken at will on an individual basis, and “the champagne of beers” is likely the drink of choice. Needless to say, there wouldn’t appear to be a lot of overlap between the Baltimore-based electronic musician and the New York City Ballet.
Resident choreographer and soloist Justin Peck disagrees and his stunning ballet, “The Times Are Racing,” which made its world premiere on Thursday night, makes a powerful case for the potential of blissful synergy between disparate art forms. Set to the last four tracks from Deacon’s maximalist epic groove, “America,” Peck takes full advantage of Deacon’s penchant for furious syncopation. He utilizes not just the dancers feet, in moves that range from tap to hip-hop, but their full limbs, creating a sense that the music is pulsing through them. As the curtain rises, a huddle of bodies opens up to reveal a lone dancer as inspirational strings build in a chordal structure reminiscent of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” This is the quiet before the sonic storm hits.
Without warning, a thunderous riff emerges awash in cascading beats. The dancers split apart and their individuality becomes more apparent. They are costumed in modern dress designed with verve by Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony. The men wear light denim jeans or track pants while the women wear cutoff jean shorts or an array of athletic threads. A rainbow of colors in constant motion, moving through the music, not simply to it, creates an abstract catharsis. Principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Tiler Peck emerge center stage. He’s wearing a sleeveless t-shirt with “Defy” scrawled on the back in big block letters, and she’s clad in a skin-tight floral pattern shirt with legs exposed and draped in a light purple bomber jacket. The sexual energy between them is palpable as they move through a crowd that at first feels anonymous and then very specific. Pairs of all gender combinations move around them, each immersed in a unique courtship.
Deacon titled the tracks Peck uses as four parts of a cohesive whole, and they read as a shorthand of our country’s imperialist history: “USA I: Is a Monster,” “USA II: The Great American Desert,” “USA III: Rail,” USA IV: Manifest.” This is not lost on Peck who weaves his own social commentary into the movement and appears as a dancer alongside Robert Fairchild in a dance duet that feels inspired by the sweeping drama of Jerome Robbins’s “West Side Story” choreography.
As a whole, the piece focuses less on where America has been than who we are now and what we can become. Dancers wear hoodies in a nod to the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but the range of couplings across boundaries of race as well as gender signal an optimism for the trajectory of our future. “The Times Are Racing” can be viewed as a comment on the chaotic pace of daily life, but it also brings to mind the Howard Zinn quote, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” Despite its dark periods, the arch of America’s history bends towards progress. From civil rights and gay marriage, it’s hard fought to be sure and not all forward progress, which Peck understands.
The third section of Deacon’s piece features a gradual layering of mallet percusion playing in the rhythmic minimalist style of modern classical composers Steve Reich and Terry Riley. The melodies are short and repetitive; looping through the consciousness in an unrelenting but meditative way. Throughout this section the dancers bend in a line like a human jigsaw spiral. The image is stunning and feels like a visual representation of our brain waves responding to the score. As the fourth and final section comes to a head with fervent beats layered with a rousing chant, Peck brings the choreography full circle as the dancers curl back into a huddle. There’s a moment before the curtain comes down when the circle opens up, and then just as suddenly, it disappears.
Lead image by Erin Baiano; subsequent images by Paul Kolnik