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Left: Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns in From Here On Out. (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor) Right: Composer Nico Muhly with Bunny Harvey. (Photo: Dawn Chan)

With all their chatter about Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, and the virtues of selling out and “performing” the system, art-world insiders would be remiss not to consider the variegated projects of young composer Nico Muhly. Muhly’s Juilliard pedigree, and his studies with composition straight men John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse, put him in pole position to inherit contemporary music’s small audiences and sparse venues. But Muhly won’t have it. A formidable intellect who speaks excitedly—and at an art auctioneer's pace—about everything from Paul Smith (one of his favorite designers) to the Pentecost (his favorite liturgical holiday), at twenty-six, the Philip Glass protÚgÚ has prepared and conducted Bj÷rk’s score for Matthew Barney’s Drawing Restraint 9. He premiered an entire program at his Carnegie Hall debut this past spring. He was responsible for the sound-track orchestration for the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate and has written arrangements for Antony and the Johnsons. He even created “interstitial music” for a program on Black Entertainment Television. What’s left? A Louis Vuitton handbag commission?

All this meant there was a decent amount of fanfare surrounding last Friday’s world premiere of Muhly’s most recent project, From Here On Out, a collaboration between him and choreographer Benjamin Millepied, performed by the American Ballet Theater at City Center. Most of Muhly’s friends planned to descend on the Sunday showing, though a few showed up to support him on opening night, doing their best to blend in with the usual balletomanes, dignified former dancers, and brooch-bedecked patrons. To the dismay of Muhly acolytes, the program opened with two other ballets, each followed by an intermission. The first, Ballo della Regina, was a Balanchine confection in which mere shades of pastel differentiated the costumes of the leads, demi-soloists, and corps de ballet. Despite the danseur’s impressive entrechats, one scruffy indie rocker remarked, “Oh my God, I’d forgotten how much I hate ballet.” The second piece, set to Dvorßk and full of jetÚs and traditional male-female pairings, prompted a filmmaker and Muhly fan to lament, “I couldn’t figure out the logic behind when everyone would clap. Was it for the size of the nut sacks?” Intermission found Muhly in a Paul Smith suit (naturally), not hobnobbing with patrons and underwriters, but wiggling his eyebrows with a preschooler. A friend approached him and said, “Look at that! You’re not the youngest one here!”

Left: From Here On Out. Right: Sarawanee Tanatanit and Blaine Hoven in From Here On Out. (Photos: Rosalie O'Connor)

Finally, balletgoers filed back into the theater with hushed excitement for From Here On Out. The prelude commenced with repeated eighth notes, piano doing double time, Ó la Glass. The curtain then lifted to reveal, on a dark stage, the silhouettes of dancers clustered together and swaying, like a knobby Louise Bourgeois work come to life. As the stage lights rose, one could begin to make out the dancer’s costumes—designed by Millepied—which had rectangular holes cut out of their skintight, eggplant-colored fabric. It was all very fitting for the angular yet elastic choreography, in which dancers pulled and braced one another as if struggling against gravity and across ice. Throughout the piece, one could see how both Glass and Bj÷rk had figured in Muhly’s education, the score combining Glass’s relentless yet pleasurable lines with Bj÷rk’s easy willingness to flit promiscuously between dissonance, folksy modes, and major and minor keys.

The piece worked up to a breathtaking pas de deux (danced by Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes) that ended with an understated, perfectly executed flourish: Gomes lifted Herrera and exited the stage. The audience gasped. The final section of the piece was even more incandescent and ended with a fake-out, as the dancers reconvened in the original Bourgeois-like configuration, only to rush offstage to a triumphantly dystopian brass cacophony. As the audience applauded during curtain call, the dancers coaxed Millepied from the wings; he then, with a lean leftward, tugged a reluctant Muhly onstage. It was perhaps a less artful pas de deux than Gomes and Herrera’s, but one that foretold many compelling collaborations to come.