Last Friday’s launch of the New York City Ballet Art Series was a confusing affair. I was not the only person to arrive at Lincoln Center expecting that art collective Faile’s “collaboration” with the New York City Ballet would be more than lobby art.
Let me begin by saying that the four ballets performed that evening were solid performances, though “Herman Scherman (Pas de Deux)” and “Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir” were definitely the tasty filling for a program that began and ended with pieces that felt more technically interesting than visceral. And it is worth mentioning that dancer Maria Kowroski was a pure delight. When she was paired with Daniel Ulbricht in “Variation Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir” it was visually stunning and emotionally rich, even if it was intentionally humorous at times.
But the night was really about “Les Ballets de Failes,” the name of the installation by art team Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller. Unfortunately for most in attendance, the promise of an artistic collaboration with the New York City Ballet didn’t really suggest that the creativity would be limited to an art installation in the lobby of the New York City Ballet Theater. One of my colleagues overheard another guest complaining that this evening was nothing like what he expected. “I came from LA for this?” the man said. An obvious Faile fan, he wasn’t the only one confused by what exactly Faile did to collaborate with the ballet company.
The central aspect of Faile’s installation was quite impressive: the duo concentrated their energy on a large pillar at the center of the upper lobby, which was a smart choice. The resulting sculpture, which felt like a bigger version of a similar installation they have showed in galleries, for example at their 2010 solo show at Perry Rubinstein’s former New York space, was a 40-foot column of approximately 2,000 blocks that shot upwards to the ceiling.
For the occasion, Faile certainly integrated some ballet imagery into their usual pop culture cocktail of Maos, damsels, superheroes, and other comic book fodder, but that was it. Their final contribution amounted to a series of 11 smaller panels composed of their signature blocks and boxes, which were on display in the wings of the lower lobby; the large obelisk-like form in the upper lobby; and the cover for the night’s program. Guests were also gifted a small momento in the way of a handmade block encased in a cardboard box to take home. The idea that the audience could take a small Faile work home was an important part of the promotion for the event, but this fact, it seems, caused more confusion in the end.
The New York City Ballet’s promotional video for the series is filled with grand statements that don’t add up to the reality we witnessed at the event. At one point, Peter Martins, Ballet Master in Chief, coos about the Ballet’s role of being on the edge of innovation and experimentation (though how that qualifies here isn’t exactly clear) and insists that people who attend the performance will get a part of the Faile work. “You actually take a piece of art with you,” he explains. For their contribution to the video, the artists say much of the same. “The audience members will come and be able to walk away from the show with a piece of the show itself,” Patrick Miller says. Maybe as the result of these vaguely interactive messages, many audience members at last Friday’s event brazenly grabbed some of the blocks from the central tower and walked around with them or wrapped them up in their coats to avoid notice. The bravado that guests, many of whom were not young, displayed in grabbing the works suggests that they didn’t see anything wrong with what they were doing — not all of them were hiding the art they appropriated. During the cocktail party that followed the performance, everyone seemed to have a story about seeing someone with a piece of the installation in their hands. It represented the overall mixed messaging of the night.
It’s pretty obvious that the New York City Ballet probably launched this new series in an effort to attract new audiences through contemporary art and a much lower ticket price (tickets were only $29, compared to the usual $65+ ticket price), and while it is a commendable effort, the evening felt incomplete at best. Given that the ballet has a rich tradition of collaborating with visual artists to create sets, costumes, and other features of their performances, it isn’t quite clear why Faile was not allowed to engage in a true collaboration. In 1987, Peter Martins, who was then only co-Ballet Master in Chief, projected Warhol’s drawings onto the curtains for his “Waltz Project” performance at Lincoln Center. “Waltz Project” was one of the pieces performed on Friday, but this time the contemporary artists were not invited in to do something similar.
As an exhibition, Faile’s contribution had one compelling central feature in their large column of blocks, and a number of lesser moments in the way of the lower level panels that felt cramped into hallways. In a different context the smaller works could’ve been much more successful.
A second Faile-related performance is slated to take place on Wednesday, May 29, featuring performances of “Red Angels,” “Sonatas and Interludes,” “In Creases,” and “A Fool For You.” Tickets are sold out, but I can’t help but wonder what the audience will think of the Faile-ness, or Faile-lessness, of the night.
The New York City Ballet Art Series, featuring Faile, was performed Friday, February 1, and will continue on Wednesday, May 29 at Lincoln Center (between West 62nd and 65th Streets and Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, Upper West Side, Manhattan).