The Year of Sufjan Stevens & Justin Peck @NYCB

The music of Sufjan Stevens lured me to New York City Ballet on Saturday, to see the second performance of Justin Peck’s Year of the Rabbit. (Another is Saturday night, October 13, and it starts again in February).. Thanks to an insider in the music world, I already knew about, and was fascinated by, Sufjan’s eclectic genius, both on his electronically produced albums (he intuits and lays down all the tracks himself) and on his rare tours to small venues (Here, my account of a concert in 2009 scheduled just after he had ‘played in’ with a friend’s band at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Yes, at the seminary chapel.)
Sufjan premiered his orchestral work, BQE, on the big stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Philip Glass is one of his mentors, yet he has also written rock music for dance, so it’s hard to describe his music.His record label, Asthmatic Kitty, bills him as “mixing autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs of grand proportions.” The ballet music is taken from an album of programmatic songs, Enjoy Your Rabbit.Inspired by the zodiac signs on a menu at a Chinese restaurant, the episodes refer to these animals: the ox, the rabbit, the tiger, the dragon, the rooster, and the boar. Michael P. Atkinson brilliantly orchestrated the electronic score for strings and conducted the NYCB orchestra as well.

You can read here about how Peck – who knows his fellow dancers so well —  choreographed to their strengths. You can watch some excerpts here, in a revealing three-way panel of Sufjan (shown left), Peck, and Atkinson. Here is the rave review from the New York Times and one from critic Tobi Tobias. And here’s a promo, although in a beach setting. 
The music feels blissfully like Stravinsky – percussive violins, raspy cellos, shifting meters. It feels comfortingly like Glass, legato phrases repeating and extending. It feels as grounded as Bach, with its plucked counterpoint, and like Bartok with over arching folk-style melodies. Mostly it feels danceable and 25-year-old Justin Peck, a choreographer who is emerging from the ranks of the NYCB corps, mixes just the right combo of whimsy and earnestness for six principals and 12 members of the corps.
For the “Year of the Ox” opener, blue-clad dancers are led by Ashley Bouder. Sometimes, arranged in a three-line design (pictured above), the corps evokes the oxen and carts, sometimes, in a driving march rhythm, the concept of sturdiness, or, in a gesture of wiping the brow, the weariness of work. In “Year of the Rabbit” — the music, the floor plan for the corps, and the limbs of Joaquin de Luz – zig zag unpredictably. In one section – I think it was Year of the Dragon, the dancers get to lie down on the job. They recline half in and out of the wings, rousing themselves to react at various moments. I think they must have been guarding the dragon.
In a world that does not generally accept heart-on-your-sleeve religion, Sufjan is an acknowledged Christian, and he inserts a non-zodiac section, “Year of Our Lord,” near the end. Peck’s evocative pas de deux for Janie Taylor and Craig Hall (the only section without the corps) has an echoey legato Gregorian-chant atmosphere. “Year of the Boar” abruptly blusters the closing contrast.
My overall take – that Sufjan Stevens is lucky to have Justin Peck as a choreographer and vice versa. Sufjan’s music is full of repetitious phrases, but instead of just “sitting there,” they go somewhere. They get longer or louder or change meters or take side trips but they remain in the same groove in your head. Such imaginatively extended phrases allow Peck to wring the last ounce of invention out of each movement theme and it is oh-so-fun to watch.
The matinee opened with a piece that made me think of Brigadoon: Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts to a score by Nico Muhly with an affecting folk song solo by Laura Mulleavy. Muhly and Sufjan Stevens are musically connected and have shared the same stage. The program closed with a forgettable, by contrast, Les Carillons, by Christopher Wheeldon to Bizet’s L’Arlesienne suite. If you go on next Saturday night (October 13), and you loved the Year of the Rabbit, you might want to catch an earlier train home to New Jersey. Though your preferences may be different from mine. The man in back of me, when Les Carillons principals took their last curtain call, pronounced. “Now THAT was a dance.” .  

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