So much has happened since Jamar Roberts was to have had his choreographic debut at New York City Ballet, in May 2020. Before he had even set foot in the studio with the dancers, the pandemic shut everything down. Then came a national period of soul searching around the issue of race brought on by the killing of George Floyd.
To top it off, in December, at 39, Roberts, retired from performing at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, where he has been the choreographer in residence since 2019. It’s no wonder that his long-deferred ballet, now set to open on Feb. 3, bears little resemblance to the one he had originally planned.
“The first music I had chosen” — by the ambient composer Kyle Preston — “was kind of doom and gloom, and the piece was basically about the world ending. I just thought, I can’t do that,” Roberts said in a Zoom conversation. “We’ve been in this for so long, I wanted to make something that really takes us out of it.”
In a phone interview, Jonathan Stafford, artistic director of City Ballet, said that he was taken with the beauty of Roberts’s movement. “His works are musical and interesting in their structure,” Stafford said, “but they’re just beautiful.”
And Roberts is a much more seasoned choreographer than he was two years ago, one who has learned to adapt to circumstance. As studios and theaters began to close, he shifted to creating works for the camera. His solo “Cooped,” created in isolation and filmed on an iPad for the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim, was widely admired as an evocation of the claustrophobia and alienation caused by the pandemic.
He made virtual solos, dealing with Black identity for Fall for Dance, the Center for Ballet and the Arts and the March on Washington Film Festival, as well as larger, ensemble works for the Vail Dance Festival and Ailey. (One of these, “Holding Space,” was performed live during Ailey’s winter season at City Center, cut short by the Omicron surge.)
So as he approached his project for City Ballet in November, his first ballet for a large company, he came at it in a different, perhaps more pragmatic, state of mind. “I got to thinking about what my strengths are as a choreographer, and what are the things that I generally enjoy,” he said. “And I just felt that music was one of those things.” His new piece, “Emanon — in Two Movements,” is set to two selections, “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound,” from Wayne Shorter’s album “Emanon” (2018).
“I feel like it kind of encompasses all of life,” Roberts said of the music, for jazz quartet and orchestra. (The ballet will be accompanied by the original recording.) “There’s sadness and romance and fierceness and loneliness. The piece is constantly shifting tone through its entire 24 minutes.”
The dance that has emerged matches the music’s sweep and drive. The dancers devour space, gliding, bending and fearlessly tilting off balance. At times they seem to barely touch the ground.
Roberts has not made things easy for his cast of eight (four men and four women), which includes the recently promoted principal dancers Indiana Woodward and Unity Phelan, as well as the corps de ballet members Jonathan Fahoury and Emma Von Enck.
“He picked such a great cast,” Stafford said, “that includes shorter dancers and really tall dancers, but they’re all having to move fast and big. That’s a challenge.”
“Oh my gosh, it’s so hard,” Phelan said in a Zoom interview. “After one rehearsal, we were all lying on the floor, completely exhausted. The thing is, the music just carries you.”
For all its dynamism and drive, the movement is also very balletic, not what one would necessarily expect from Roberts, who danced with Ailey for around 20 years and whose movement style tends toward the grounded, voluminous and fluid. Much of the amplitude in his dances radiates from a powerful back. “I think that a lot of my emotional power resonates out from that space between my rib cage and my pelvis,” he said last year at a talk at the Center for Ballet and the Arts, where he was a director’s fellow in 2021.
But in this piece, he is also making full use of ballet’s vocabulary: arabesques, jumps in which the legs beat together in the air, the patter of pointe shoes skittering across the stage. More specifically, he is tapping into qualities for which City Ballet is known: speed, musical acuity, sharpness of execution.
“It’s very clear and precise, and, actually, very technical,” Phelan said. “In some ways it’s very Balanchine.” She was referring to George Balanchine, the choreographer who established New York City Ballet, molding it around his fleet, clear, unsentimental style.
“I was thinking about Balanchine a lot,” said Roberts, who studied ballet growing up in Miami, at Southwood Middle School, an arts magnet school, and at the New World School of the Arts, before gravitating more toward modern and contemporary dance. A teacher at Southwood encouraged students to borrow VHS tapes, and Roberts was particularly drawn to recordings of ballets by Balanchine. “I mean, right now, I could probably dance all of ‘Agon,’” he said about Balanchine’s famously pared-down, modernist ballet, “that’s how obsessed I was.”
Though most of his dancing at Ailey was grounded in modern dance, Roberts has performed some ballet professionally too, in a short stint with Complexions Contemporary Ballet (where he danced in a piece by William Forsythe), as well as in works by Alonzo King and in Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma” while at Ailey. In 2016, he was one of the dancers selected to perform “Chroma” in London in a cast that included dancers from Ailey and the Royal Ballet.
When Roberts arrived to choreograph on the City Ballet dancers, his familiarity with the company’s style helped to create a common language, and a sense of recognition. But both Roberts and the dancers had to expand beyond what they knew.
For the dancers, it was about using the body in a looser, more three-dimensional way, which meant letting go, to some extent, of their perfectionism. “I would ask Jamar, are my knees straight, are my legs crossed, am I pulled up in the right place,” Phelan said, “and he would say, ‘All I care about is that your body is in the music and that it looks comfortable and fun.’”
For Roberts, the challenge lay in exploring the dynamics of pointe work, not a skill he encounters in his everyday work. (A lot of his experience involves dancing barefoot, and choreographing for barefoot dancers.) Dancing on pointe not only changes the reach and range of motion of the body, but also requires a different sense of timing.
“I thought it would be easier,” Roberts said, “but there is actually a time of execution that I had never had to consider before. It takes a certain amount of time for somebody to go from plié,” in which the body goes down onto bent legs, “to passé relevé,” in which the body rises up onto one pointe with the other foot raised to the knee. For someone as musically inclined as Roberts, such tiny adjustments matter.
Once he had accounted for those shifts, he said, what he was most interested in was encouraging the dancers to allow themselves more freedom and individuality in their response to Shorter’s music. As he put it, his own choreographic signature was “very much in the background.” He was more interested in seeing what they were capable of than in imposing his own movement vocabulary.
But one section of the dance is unmistakably his, a solo set to a saxophone melody for Shorter that is reminiscent of the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” It could almost be an excerpt from one of the pieces Roberts created for himself over the past two years.
In the solo, Fahoury curves deeply from the waist, allowing the melody to glide from the crown of his head to his fingers and back up, then down through his legs, causing him to change direction or levitate momentarily off the floor.
It is easy to imagine Taylor Stanley, City Ballet’s most shape-shifting dancer, in this solo. Roberts had hoped to cast him in the work, but Stanley was injured at the time he was making it. Instead, Roberts tapped something in Fahoury that other choreographers had missed. “I could tell he had a secret movement quality I could use in the piece.”
The result is a solo both otherworldly and strange that fits into the larger work like an oddly-shaped piece in a puzzle. It is like a sighting of the ballet’s creator, almost as if Roberts had quietly placed himself inside the ballet alongside the other dancers.
“The ballet goes from this beautiful, spinning, ballet world, to this glimpse into something else,” Phelan said. “It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of the different sides of Jamar.”
With its contrasting moods and fluid palette of colors by the set and lighting designer Brandon Stirling Baker and the costume designer Jermaine Terry, the ballet reflects the shifting moods in Shorter’s music. As Roberts put it, he was aiming to take the audience, and the dancers, to a different and deeper place. “Art has this way of really changing your life for the 20 or 15 or 10 minutes that you’re watching it,” he said. “And right now, that’s really important to me.”
The other thing that mattered to him, he said, was very simple: to honor the dancers. Having just retired from performing, he knows exactly how they feel at this time of uncertainty, after months of rehearsing in their kitchens, then returning to the studio, only to be sent home again because of the rise of yet another surge.
“With everything they’ve been through” he said, “just watching the dancers push through feels really triumphant.”