25 January 2016 at 3.00pm | 6 Comments
The pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 ballet After the Rain opens with a man and a woman, standing side by side. They rock slightly, and their silence is broken by a gentle, repeating piano triad. This haunting start begins a masterful piece of abstract dance, which has gone on to resonate far beyond its steps.
Set to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, the duet was performed at its premiere by New York City Ballet dancers Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto, for whom Wheeldon described it as a ‘love letter, this poem to both of them as artists’. The pas de deux had a profound impact at its premiere and has continued to captivate dancers and audiences alike – not only as the second movement of the complete ballet but also as a standalone piece. In this form it has been performed in galas, festivals and – perhaps most poignantly – on 12 September 2013 as dawn broke over the 57th floor of 4WTC, the skyscraper that stands on one corner of Ground Zero in New York City.
One of the pas de deux’s most remarkable features is its simplicity. The dancers wear flat ballet slippers and practice clothes, the lines and entwinings of their bodies exposed without embellishment. Wheeldon’s choreography likewise inhabits the serene, minimal world of Pärt’s score – flowing in a tranquil adage, each movement growing organically out of the last. The dancers’ rocking at the opening slowly develops into lingering steps and expansive port de bras. They come together and the woman leans into the man’s body, then counterbalances against his weight, rising onto demi-pointe three times to build to a high developpé and then falling back into his arms as its energy subsides.
This calm stream of movement incorporates a series of beautiful, unusual images. There are some that evoke a sense of weightless freedom – the man holding the woman in an arabesque croisé as she stands on his leg, her arms reaching outwards like the spread wings of a bird; later he lifts her high above his head and spins her around the stage. At other moments, Wheeldon works with the pull of gravity – when the woman allows her weight to yield towards the ground as the man drags her across the stage in a second position split, before he pulls her up into an embrace.
Rather than building to any sense of climax, images like these ebb and flow with the music, sometimes recurring – perhaps a reflection of the score’s title, which translates as ‘mirror in mirror’. Whelan explains the need for simplicity and restraint when performing the pas de deux – ‘I forget that it’s a ballet… it has to lose the balletic energy and become something way different’.
Though the duet does not consciously built a narrative, the combination of its abstract choreography and Pärt’s score produces a mysterious poetry – and often has very personal emotional resonances for those who dance or watch it. Wheeldon explains: ‘it wasn't until after having an audience see it that I realized people were very moved by it… Some people think that they see this idea of loss, or some of love. That’s the wonderful thing about making abstract dance – that you all get to decide the story that you see’.