When Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway” had its debut at New York City Ballet nearly five years ago, it made a strong impression. His first work for a ballet company, it infused new sounds (tracks by Kanye West and Jay-Z, among others), outré costumes and ways of moving that were bold and contemporary while still drawing on the dancers’ classical technique. It wasn’t flawless. But it was fresh and exciting, and it was an immediate hit.
Keerati Jinakunwiphat, a young dancer in Abraham’s company, A.I.M, assisted him on that work. On Wednesday, she got a chance to make her own mark, when City Ballet presented the debut of “Fortuitous Ash,” her first work for a ballet company. The impression it made wasn’t so strong. It was more spectral — in the sense of ghostly but also of insubstantial.
Much of the spectral effect comes from the music, two pieces by Du Yun: “Run in a Graveyard” and “Air Glow.” The first, for bass flute and electronics, establishes a crepuscular atmosphere with spare, breathy gestures that grow more ragged, as if on the run.
The second, for trumpets and electric guitar, starts out sounding like a fanfare from a Miles Davis and Gil Evans album. Later, it gets cacophonous, with the trumpets all shouting over one another or briefly banding together in door-knocking, ricocheting phrases, as if the reverb has been turned way up. While this certainly isn’t dance music, it has some drama, and even occasional drive.
The choreography doesn’t have much of either. It’s pleasant enough. Nine dancers come and go, exploring the space in slow-quick rhythms and a fairly generic contemporary ballet style. They make fleeting connections, sometimes lining up or supporting one another in balances. They end in a handsome pose, one aloft on another’s shoulders in a slight suggestion of the phoenix imagery implied in the work’s title.
The primary point of interest is the relationship between the always striking Chun Wai Chan, who last year became the company’s first principal dancer from China, and the standout corps member K.J. Takahashi. Both costumed in red (by Karen Young), they’re like siblings with a doppelgänger vibe. They do some of the same steps, usually separated by large swaths of stage and other dancers. Over and over, they make eye contact.
What do they see in each other? Another man of Asian descent in a company that hasn’t fielded many of those? The choreography doesn’t make the point sharply political, or poignant, or comic. It’s just there, drawing focus in a ballet that supplies little else to focus on.
You can connect it with another fact about the work: Yun, a Chinese-born composer whose career in America has taken off, and Jinakunwiphat, a Thai American from Chicago, are the first Asian women to have their music or choreography enter the City Ballet repertory. Such firsts are long overdue.
But Jinakunwiphat is also part of another trend at the company — seeking newness (and diversity) by commissioning choreographers from contemporary dance with little experience in ballet. New voices and new perspectives are necessary, but that doesn’t mean that inexperience is a requirement, as City Ballet’s recent choices have implied. It wasn’t Abraham’s inexperience that made “The Runaway” work. It was his ideas about the overlap between the company’s style and his own.
Experience, of course, is no guarantee, either. It’s not just newness that’s needed. It’s a new use of the particular talents and traditions of City Ballet. Flanked on Wednesday by more distinctive works by Alexei Ratmansky (”Voices”) and Justin Peck (“Everywhere We Go”), Jinakunwiphat’s “Fortuitous Ash” was a quiet achievement. But it wasn’t a boldly quiet one. And for this company, bold ballets are the standard and goal.