On a cold Saturday night in January, an eclectic group clustered around the David H. Koch Theater, the august home of the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Young women in sculptural platform heels, leopard-print Kenzo skirts, and embroidered Opening Ceremony bomber jackets brushed up against silver-haired ladies wrapped in furs and velvet, arm-in-arm with their suit-and-tie-clad dates. In the midst of the crowd was someone who might seem like an interloper on first glance, the Baltimore-based electronic musician Dan Deacon, sporting his trademark wide-lensed glasses and a button that read “Education Not Immigration” pinned to his red raincoat. He descended the marble stairs of the theater after completing a sound check — he would DJ the after party later that night — and exited the revolving doors into the brisk winter air.
Deacon, neither fashion insider nor ballet connoisseur, had arrived in New York for the premiere of the company's “The Times Are Racing,” a new choreography by Justin Peck set to Deacon’s 2012 opus America, with costumes by Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony. And, though the critically acclaimed musician, a much-beloved fixture of the Pitchfork set and the founder of the Baltimore arts collective Wham City, wasn’t quite of the world he now found himself immersed in, he was perfectly at home.
“I kind of like living in this weird middle,” he said. “I always feel like that everywhere I go, so I feel perfectly normal.”
Just over a year ago, Peck, the ballet’s resident choreographer, emailed Deacon with an unconventional request: to use the four-part “America” cycle—“Is A Monster,” “The Great American Desert,” “Rail,” and “Manifest”—to score a contemporary ballet, which would eventually become “The Times Are Racing.” (The title comes from a line in “Manifest”—“Things that I love fade out past my view,” Deacon wails through distortion. “The times are racing, now, I’m just glad I spent them with you.”)
“I immediately Googled him and was like, 'Oh, this seems legit,'” Deacon recalled, deadpan. “New York City Ballet? I think I’ve heard of them. Lincoln Center? They’ve got a decent PA.”
Though Deacon and Peck discussed the logistics of presenting the score in the year since the choreographer's out-of-the-blue, the composer, who was classically trained at the music conservatory and SUNY Purchase and has performed at Carnegie Hall, he mainly relinquished sound design to NYCB’s Abe Jacob, who opted to play the original recording through speakers, a radical proposition for an institution accustomed to live orchestras. It was only at Thursday night’s premiere that Deacon saw the whole thing come together, surrounded by an audience who was, like the composer himself, witnessing the work for the first time.
“The Times Are Racing” stars Peck and Robert Fairchild, the Broadway actor and principal dancer, and features Tiler Peck (no relation) and Amar Ramasar among a large corps—20 dancers total swarm the stage, all clad in Leon’s bright, streetwear-inspired costumes. (The costumes, in turn, also inspired Opening Ceremony’s Spring 2017 collection, which debuted online Sunday.) It follows “The Shimmering Asphalt,” a new work by Pontus Lindberg, in the ballet’s program; while, aesthetically, they bear few similarities, both are joyously iconoclastic pieces. Lindberg’s ballet toys with gender roles, featuring pas de deux between male dancers or female dancers, with the women occasionally supporting the men as they extend into positions. Peck and his dancers whirl across the stage in white-soled sneakers with a palpable kinetic energy, channeling all of the urgency and frustration of the contemporary American political climate into a thrilling dance. They wear t-shirts bearing words of action: “Defy,” “Protest,” “Change,” and “Shout." The collection itself is Opening Ceremony’s second in celebration of immigrants, of a piece with the ballet’s celebration of movement—across borders, across political chasms, or across the stage.
Deacon’s score provides the impetus for the ballet, with its sequences of leaps and, at one moment, a tap-dance battle between Peck and Fairchild. “The Times Are Racing” is a ballet of frenetic movement, but it’s also a kind of acoustic ballet; the tiny drumbeats of sneakers hitting the stage might not resonate quite in the manner of tap shoes, but they add a layer to the already maximalist score. Just one thing: If it were up to Deacon, it might be louder still.
Released five years ago, America was the product of the musician’s “frustrations with the American state of affairs,” he said as we made our way along the courtyard outside the theater. He was referring to 2012, the height of the Occupy movement. “Now," he said, "they’ve only gotten horrifically worse."
“I’m really glad that this piece is happening when it is, because art needs to be a voice,” he continued later. Peck began choreographing “The Times Are Racing” when the presidential race was just gaining momentum, and the Trump victory has only made its meditation on the physical and emotional energy of protest all the more poignant, and its score all the more relevant again. “You can’t just be in opulent halls — most of the people who come here are very, very wealthy, and to have a time in our country where this is going down, you have to speak directly to them and be like, get f--king real.”
Deacon paused. “I’m cussing a little too much,” he said. “I get fired up.”
We completed our lap of the block, passing those opulent halls—the Metropolitan Opera House, the Philharmonic, and Alice Tully Hall, home of the Chamber Music Society. It was just minutes before showtime, and Deacon dissolved into the crowd as we took our seats. He surfaced again upstairs, the site of the new Santtu Mustonen installation, playing a rotation of Whitney Houston, Grimes, Destiny’s Child, and George Michael (“I’m not here to show anyone how deep my cuts are,” he told me of his approach to DJing). He flashed me a peace sign as a dance circle formed in front of him, a few members of the ballet corps performing improbable feats in high heels.
“After party is at Trump Tower — burn it all down,” Deacon called out from his makeshift DJ booth as he queued up his finale, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” A cheer went up from the dwindling crowd. “Hope I don’t go to jail for that.”
And with that, the party was over.
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