Review: Remaking the Ballets Russes, With a Queer Spin

Most dancers know the moment they caught the dance bug. For the choreographer Christopher Williams, growing up in Syracuse, it was at a performance of “Les Sylphides,” recognized as the first ballet blanc, or plotless ballet. This Michel Fokine work, originally performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s influential Ballets Russes in 1909, presents a shimmering world in which a young poet meets a group of sylphs, their blindingly white long tutus casting the scene in a ghostly haze.

Over the years, Williams has held firmly onto that experience: It was the first ballet he saw, as he writes in program notes, “that made me want to embody something hauntingly otherworldly.”

Unearthly, ethereal, magical and, yes, otherworldly: These words are synonymous with Williams’s dances, for which he has mined Greek mythology, folklore and the lives of saints. For his debut program at the Joyce Theater, which opened Tuesday, Williams pays homage to his own dance awakening – and to other works from the Ballets Russes – to create a new version of “Les Sylphides.”

Williams’s “Les Sylphides” is overly repetitive, a difficult hurdle to overcome with the spiraling, seemingly ceaseless movement vocabulary. But it builds into something of a gem when the choreography becomes less about making shapes than feeling them. Certainly, this euphoric “Les Sylphides” is the highlight of the evening.

It’s also personal. As with another new Ballets Russes-era reimagining on the program, “The Afternoon of a Faun,” Williams has put a queer twist on the original. Both are closely associated with Vaslav Nijinsky, the sensational dancer who choreographed and starred in the first, highly erotic “Faun”; Williams’s response is to cast Taylor Stanley, a gifted New York City Ballet principal whose soulful, subtle dancing manifests from the inside out. While incredibly precise, Stanley has the ability to be mysterious without seeming to try; here, he is something of a wizard in the way he brings to life the sculptural poses so reminiscent of Nijinsky, yet with his own modern beating heart.

In “Les Sylphides,” set to Chopin, Stanley has an excellent partner in the dancer Mac Twining, who also appears with him in excerpts from “Narcissus.” (More excerpts from “Daphnis & Chloé” only served to slow the program down; the first half, including parts of “Faun,” landed somewhere on the moony side of sluggish.) As the Poet, Twining, who is first seen writing in a journal with a quill while sitting on the edge of the stage – it’s not as horrible as it sounds – encounters the Queen of the Sylphs (Stanley), who rules over a tribe of woodland faeries.

For the Sylphs, Williams takes loose inspiration from the Radical Faeries, a countercultural movement of queer communities who live off the grid; his Sylphs – spiraling and twisting as they spill in and out of formations across the stage – bring to mind earth-tone butterflies, rushing and darting in a dusky night.

Bare-chested and wearing gossamer skirts decorated with cobweb-like veins and delicate wings affixed to their forearms – the costumes are by Andrew Jordan, Williams’s talented, longtime collaborator – these Sylphs, with Stanley as their leader, band together to show the Poet that their way of living is a good reason for him to slip out of his clothes and join their tribe. Exuberant and tender, with an eye toward the erotic, they entice him until he is in step with the group.

After a lilting dance reaches a feverish pitch – the Sylphs’ piqué turns spin faster and faster until they elevate, seemingly hovering in the air – Twining, flushed with freedom, is left alone with Stanley, who spins him out of his clothes. Together, they rush into the wing. It’s adorable.

For “Afternoon of a Faun,” to Debussy, Williams again works with an all-male cast to reinvent the sexually charged tale featuring a Faun (Stanley) and the Chief of the Nymphs (Joshua Harriette). Williams’s version takes a more sinister tone than Nijinsky’s erotic one, sparked by a line in the Mallarmé poem for which the dance is named: the Faun refers to – as Williams writes – a “kiss that quietly gives assurance of treachery.”

Williams’s Nymphs are more barbarous than usual; his Faun, an innocent, doesn’t stand a chance and, in the end, is devoured by them. It’s a little goofy – more comical than shocking, like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie. There was laughter. But the sweep of “Les Sylphides” – with its nod to Nijinsky and, it seemed, to Isadora Duncan – led to a different kind of laughter, one born of delight. It wasn’t just Jordan’s fanciful costumes holding the dance together, it was the dancing. And that was different.

Christopher Williams Dances

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater, joyce.org.

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