Fall for Dance—Tweaking the Menu

Fall for Dance
New York City Center
October 2 – 14, 2017

Ballet BC in Bill. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Fall for Dance has been evolving since its inception in 2004, for better or worse becoming a somewhat more serious affair and less of a dance rave. Crowds scream and whoop less, and the running times are blessedly an hour to forty-five minutes shorter these days. This year’s five programs feel more curated and less potluck.

By the same token, the festival commissions have taken on import and gravity. One of this year’s commissions, by Troy Schumacher for Miami City Ballet, was to lead off the festival, but was substituted late with Christopher Wheeldon’s 2001 Polyphonia. (Schumacher had, a week earlier, premiered a major new ballet for New York City Ballet.) Polyphonia is one of Wheeldon’s early accomplishments that helped to establish his career. It feels very much influenced by Balanchine—its opening lineup of four pairs, the sculptural, fractured shapes of partnering couples, the simple plum-hued leotards. However, the piece is no longer fresh to New York eyes, and so was an undeserving disappointment.

Michelle Dorrance unveiled Myelination (named after a process that accelerates nerve reactions), a major tap-based work for eleven dancers and a jazz ensemble. Its spirit is perhaps more in keeping with the crowd-pleasing tradition built by FFD. It’s somewhat more traditional in structure than some recent projects by Dorrance, who has been employing tap and human percussion as the music of a piece, rather than being accompanied by musicians. Here she returns to good old jazz, with some swinging tunes, trucking bass, and sparkling guitar. (Some of her dancers take turns playing instruments as well, showing their diverse skills.) The structure is no surprise: group ensemble numbers that create a pleasing cacophony, or demonstrate interesting counter-rhythms, alternate with small groups and solos to show off the amazingly varied company members and their styles. Dorrance herself is often serious, elbows out, body canted well forward, gaze intense and surveying all that’s going on. Standouts include Byron Tittle—clean, accurate, and elegant, with polished lines; and Elizabeth Burke, with a meltingly fluid interpretation and a sly manner.

Two short dances balanced out program one. Vincent Mantsoe of South Africa presented Gula (1993), an impressive imitation of a bird both physically and sonically, with chirps and whistles. He darts, ducks, bobs his head, and navigates the stage with the patience and methodology of a hunting animal. Trisha Brown’s You Can See Us (1995, an offshoot of If You Couldn’t See Me, a solo done with the dancer’s back to the audience) pairs two dancers—one facing us, the other away—moving in arcs around the stage in Brown’s mesmerizing, slinky leg swings and torso ripples. In light of her recent death, it was a tender tribute to her substantial and revolutionary body of work.

Program four was an example of how festival programming can go astray. Of the four dances, three were accompanied by loud music with propulsive beats. Even though the dance styles varied greatly, the overall effect was numbing. Gauthier Dance of Stuttgart, just a decade old, brought Andonis Foniadakis’s Streams, with music by Julien Tarride. The movement style is showy, explosive neo-classical ballet, with the limbs sweeping dramatically to produce maximum visual impact. Foniadakis also designed the set—a shimmering rope curtain upstage through which entrances were made—and the costumes—gold pants for the men and unflattering, ecru tank leotards with barely visible geometric patterns for the women. Even though the piece premiered this past March, it could be twenty years old or more, feeling dated stylistically.

Kyle Abraham of Abraham.In.Motion presented the premiere of Drive, a commission for FFD, with a loud, beat-heavy score by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep. The dominant element in this piece is the lighting (Dan Scully designed both it and the set), which can only be described as blinding. Between the string of footlights, several clusters of amber bulbs, fixtures of larger red and blue bulbs, and pupil-searing white vertical tubes, a fair portion of the budget must have gone to the lights. Obviously this overshadowed the dancing—Abraham’s liquid, pulsing phrases incorporating gestures such as a secret handshake and virtuosic leaps and revolutions. One solo phrase comprised various turns only done to the right side. The dancers’ silhouettes made a striking impression before the lights rose to a blinding wattage. 

Honji Wang and Sara Mearns in No. 1. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

A break from the driving music was provided by a charming duet danced by Sara Mearns and Honji Wang, choreographed by Sebastien Ramirez/Honji Wang. While it followed a fairly predictable route—two very different dancers find common ground—it was certainly entertaining to watch unfold. Mearns, in rehearsal leotards and pointe shoes, began a ballet barre while Wang, in voluminous street clothes, draped over the barre, observing and imitating. They wound up doing a kind of contact improv, mirroring one another or interlocking body parts. This evokes works emanating from the Vail Festival, in which dancers of different genres collaborate.

Bill by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar performed by Ballet BC of Vancouver was the final work in program four. The movement by Eyal, an ex Batsheva dancer, and Behar draws from the Gaga school (if that can be said to exist), with more balletic technique and literal gesture thrown in. The essential animalistic threads of, alternately, muscularity and non-virtuosity are present. Whole sections of repetitive robotic movement were visually riveting. Omar Sheizaf designed the precise lighting; at one moment, the foreground dancer was yellow, the next group pink, and the most-upstage group blue-white. The choreographers also designed the pale unitards that made the dancers appear nude much of the time. This work’s thumping music is by Ori Lichtik; it’s unfortunate that it came at the end of an evening with similarly percussive scores.

Colin Fowler and David Hallberg in Twelve of 'em. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Program five was better balanced. The highlight was Mark Morris’s Twelve of ‘Em, a solo for David Hallberg, to Britten piano miniatures (played by Colin Fowler). Who knew what to expect from this collaboration between the sassy modernist and the prototypical Apollo? Costumer Isaac Mizrahi had fun, putting Hallberg in a short toga over a grey rehearsal t-shirt, and Fowler in a long white skirt with a grey hoodie over it. Morris, being Morris, had great fun playing with the music in surprising ways. He had Hallberg stand in a fifth position, head down, for the entirety of the first movement, but on the last note, he tendus and opens his palms to us in a perfect “présentation.” Over the next eleven movements, he displayed his gifts of line and ballon, but also stomped and slumped in ways we’ve never seen him before. (No doubt Morris had a good deal of “untraining” to do with Hallberg, who is preternaturally disposed to being beautiful, as his ads for Tiffany and Nike, in addition to his ballet career, might remind us). He interacted with Fowler, leaning on him and the piano and pitching himself at the pianist’s feet. It was engrossing, great fun, and the type of one-offs to anticipate from FFD (as with the Mearns/Wang duet).

The program began with Solo Echo (2012), a war-themed dance by Crystal Pite, danced by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. It casts the dancers as soldiers, with movement poetically evoking conflict, compassion, death, and remembrance, but it’s never sentimental or garish. The elegiac atmosphere is augmented by Brahms’s pensive music and projected video of snow falling. It was a reminder of how talented the Canadian Pite is and how we don’t get to see enough of her work in New York. The next piece, Concerto Grosso (2003) by Helgi Tomasson, danced by five men from San Francisco Ballet, is a rather formulaic showcase filled with leaps, spins, and your garden variety male virtuoso moves—fun to watch, but not breaking any ground.

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in Matria Etnocentra. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The night came to an electrifying close with Matria Etnocentra (2015), by George Céspedes for Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. The twenty-four dancers wearing cargo pants and t-shirts with a single star cluster centerstage and burst apart to leave one man standing alone. Solo and pairs of dancers run on, stay briefly, and dash off, conveying the anticipation of some event. The ensemble unites once again, packed tightly together, and does an extensive section of what feel like military exercises—spinning arms, stamping feet, shoulder shimmies. The arms held in front, parallel to the ground, hands in fists, become a kind of neutral position for dancers taking turns as “observers” of featured solos and small groupings of dancers—the men now shirtless, the women in cropped camisoles. The driving music takes on a Mission Impossible desperation, followed by a crooning pop song. With this shift in atmosphere from rebellious to peaceable, the costumes change to colorful dresses and tops. Yet the ensemble’s militaristic formations and precision remain in group passages, which have the intensity of Irish step dancing or the Rockettes. The takeaway feels like a revolution has been planned, executed, and given way to peace.

Presumably the target audience for Fall for Dance remains people who are not frequent dance-goers and who want to sample many types of dance in order to figure out what appeals to them—to pick and choose from a big buffet. But in its current iteration, with each program an extravagant, balanced menu, it seems to appeal as much to connoisseurs as novices, even if the programs can vary. But with all tickets at $15, and with an ambitious level of artistry and performance, there is still no better bargain in dance. Can’t quarrel with that.

Contributor

Susan Yung

SUSAN YUNG is a New York-based culture writer.

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