New York City Ballet placed Jamar Roberts’s premiere, Emanon – In Two Movements, on a program with works by Pam Tanowitz and Kyle Abraham. The context signifies the prominence that Roberts’s choreography has assumed of late, sharing the marquee with two dance makers who are deservedly busy with external commissions and their own stellar companies. And while such contemporary programs are becoming more the norm at NYCB, it’s a very high-profile ballet company debut for Roberts—a star with the Ailey Company for many years and its current resident choreographer.
You might expect choreography by Roberts to reflect his own penchant for elegant, long lines, which we particularly see in passages by Unity Phelan, Harrison Ball (newly named a principal), and Jonathan Fahoury, in a stirring solo. The surprise turns out to be Roberts’s focus on concentrated, tightly-spaced allegro steps done largely within a small circumference, center stage. Music by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, whose album shares its name (“no name,” backwards) with this dance, lends a jazzy languidness at times, seen in rolling shoulders and off-axis lines. But ballet is undoubtedly the medium of Emanon—albeit in fairly straightforward, organic phrases that comfort more than challenge.
Anthony Huxley emerges as a kind of pole star, distinguishing himself in a solo performed with his usual polish and verve. Indiana Woodward, whose electricity often seems to charge the air through which she moves, dances a passage of contained movement to a relatively quiet musical section; she is paired at times with the taller Emily Kikta, whose frequency is more bass-like compared to Woodward’s violin swiftness. The men dance more freely and broadly; at moments, the women almost feel like afterthoughts. Perhaps this reflects Roberts’s own comfort level (or lack thereof) with pointe shoes.
Brandon Stirling Baker designed the dusk-to-dawn lighting, accentuating a central radius. Jermaine Terry (an Ailey dancer) created the purple-hued costumes—flattering pieced tunics, pants, and knife-pleated skirts. Shorter’s music, at times improv-driven, gains in stridency and power toward the end of Emanon, to the point of near distraction.
Placing Emanon in context with Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet (2019) and Abraham’s The Runaway (2018) makes sense as a group of contemporary creators. On the other hand, these two have consistently shown brilliant invention in making new steps while weaving in the history of dance. Tanowitz’s Bartók Ballet fascinates by its interrogation of classical ballet combined with everyday gestures; casual palm slaps elicit delighted giggles from viewers. Abraham’s breathtaking Runaway hinges on Taylor Stanley’s lucidity and magical shape-shifting between virtuosic poses and street-inspired fillips.
Roberts, in other works, has shown a deftness with dramatic stage composition and theatricality (notably, Members Don’t Get Weary for Ailey in 2017) missing in Emanon. He may grow more comfortable writing in the language of ballet, but at the moment, he seems to lack the confident fluency to move beyond safe confines. All in due time.