Justin Peck and Nico Muhly chart new territory in ‘Rotunda’

Justin Peck and Nico Muhly chart new territory in ‘Rotunda’

Justin Peck’s new ballet “Rotunda” carves fresh territory for the choreographer. From spiraling, intricate staging to quiet moments of solitude, the piece moves through a landscape of playful experimentation, aided by a pulsing score by composer Nico Muhly. Featuring a cast of 12 dancers, “Rotunda” made its world premiere at the David H. Koch Theater Wednesday as part of the New York City Ballet’s winter season.

Cyclical in its structure, the ballet begins as it ends: with a single dancer who becomes enveloped by a company of 11 others. The group work, charming and humorous, sweeps across the stage as if propelled by some sort of biological response. Like cells on a petri dish, the dancers move around each other in reactive passes — turning in circles, breaking apart only to be drawn back together like elastic snaps.

New York City Ballet dancers in "Rotunda." Choreography by Justin Peck. Music by Nico Muhly. Photo: Erin Baiano.
New York City Ballet dancers in “Rotunda.” Choreography by Justin Peck. Music by Nico Muhly. Photo: Erin Baiano.

The relentless energy of the full cast radiates what audiences have grown accustomed to in Peck’s work, though there is an undercurrent of something softer. In the middle of the action, there are moments when a dancer seems to stop, as if contemplating a step. One such instance occurs when principal Sara Mearns, who dances the main female role, pulls away while the crowd continues to undulate through quick-stepped phrases. For a second, Mearns seems as if she might be in a studio running over choreographed steps in her mind. There is a pause, and then just as abruptly, she returns, ebullient.

This feeling of a brain in thought stretches through the solo work, executed with vigor by Mearns and principal dancer Gonzalo Garcia. On their own, the two dancers run through choreography in such a way that brings to mind surreptitiously watching a rehearsal from just outside the studio door. The costumes, designed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung, reinforce this, taking the form of what a dancer might wear in class — tights pulled casually over leotards, bare legs, muted colors, simple lines.

Justin Peck rehearsing Miriam Miller and Adrian Danchig-Waring in "Rotunda." Photo: Erin Baiano.
Justin Peck rehearsing Miriam Miller and Adrian Danchig-Waring in “Rotunda.” Photo: Erin Baiano.
From left: Gonzalo Garcia, Unity Phelan, Sara Adams, Brittany Pollack, Miriam Miller and Claire Kretzschmar in "Rotunda." Choreography by Justin Peck. Music by Nico Muhly. Photo: Erin Baiano.
From left: Gonzalo Garcia, Unity Phelan, Sara Adams, Brittany Pollack, Miriam Miller and Claire Kretzschmar in “Rotunda.” Choreography by Justin Peck. Music by Nico Muhly. Photo: Erin Baiano.

In contrast to the group movements, the solo work is calm and grounded, with bursts of turns and steps that seem to come from nowhere. When Mearns dances a pas de deux with Gilbert Bolden III, the choreography feels as if one dancer is studying the other. Gestures (a straight, swinging leg, for example) repeat through time in a way that emulates cinematic logic. Though brief, a language of understanding emerges, hinting at the powerful reaction that occurs when two bodies come in contact with one another.

Through the moments of solitary study, the feeling of the group is never lost. Instead, the full cast runs on stage to transition scenes; the dancers check in on one another, making deliberate eye contact. What results is a feeling of community and a sense of ease. This connection makes it so that despite the knottiness of the choreography, the piece feels relaxed, mature and, above all else, fun.

Justin Peck and Nico Muhly in rehearsal for "Rotunda." Photo: Erin Baiano.
Justin Peck and Nico Muhly in rehearsal for “Rotunda.” Photo: Erin Baiano.

Adding to an already-prolific slate of choreographic works, “Rotunda” represents the 19th piece created by Peck for New York City Ballet. It also marks the first time that the company’s resident choreographer has collaborated with Muhly — though the composer is no stranger to the City Ballet stage. In 2018, Kyle Abraham fused Muhly’s compositions with music from Kanye West, Jay-Z and James Blake to create the dynamic sonic landscape of “The Runaway.” His work also appeared in ballets by Benjamin Millepied. When asked to create “Rotunda” with Peck, Muhly set a goal to create a piece that was done in a “weird and different way.”

The music that backdrops the choreography proceeds in ripples and repetitions, punctuated by sporadic pauses. In sections, chimes blanket the swell of the orchestra. The sinuous musical turns proceed in dialogue with the layering of Peck’s choreography to create a challenging and surprising experience that feels like the start of something new.

The ballet, presented alongside “In G Major” by Jerome Robbins and “DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse” by Christopher Wheeldon, will continue its run this week, with performances slated to run through March 1.

Top Image: Sara Merans and Gilbert Bolden III in “Rotund." Choreography by Justin Peck. Music by Nico Muhly. Photo: Erin Baiano.