Fall for Dance, Week 2
New York City Center
New York, New York

October 11 and 14, 2017
Program D: Streams, Drive, No. 1, Bill
Program E: Solo Echo, Concerto Grosso, Twelve of ‘em, Matria Etnocentra

Jerry Hochman

Fall for Dance closed its annual celebration of the diverse facets of dance, and of ticket prices that would encourage most anyone to see them, with two programs that ran the gamut of dance diversity. While most of the pieces displayed the considerable prowess of the dancers, some were more accomplished and entertaining than others.

Program D, which I saw at the first of its two performances, began auspiciously. Streams, choreographed by Andonis Foniadakis for Gauthier Dance // Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart, initially looked like an example of kitchen sink choreography. Every contemporary dance movement under the sun seemed crammed into this abstract dance. But as it progressed, I began to notice repeated choreographic images and motifs that gave the piece, which premiered six months ago in Stuttgart, a cohesiveness that I initially failed to see, and instead of a movement hodgepodge, it looked highly accomplished.

Gauthier Dance // Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart dancers in Andonis Foniadakis's "Streams" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Gauthier Dance //
Dance Company Theaterhaus Stuttgart
dancers in Andonis Foniadakis’s
“Streams”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

With thirteen dancers, Streams is a relatively “big” dance, but it’s generally divided into integrated choreographed segments that diminish any sense of busy-ness. It’s enhanced by a set of thickly-set metallic-colored strands “streaming” vertically down the backstage wall like a liquid silver (or at times, depending on the light source, liquid gold) curtain. If the dancers were supposed to be representative of choreographed movement streams, which would be a logical deduction, I didn’t see that. But Streams is fun to watch, and served as a rousing opening dance.

Drive, a Fall for Dance commission, is a different matter. Presented by Abraham.In.Motion and choreographed by Kyle Abraham (in collaboration with the company), Drive is visually dominated by its dramatic lighting, designed by Dan Scully. That’s not an advantageous situation, because dominant lighting can tend to minimize the visual quality of the dance, as it does here.

The lighting is initially seen as a thin single straight line of blue light “bulbs” that spanned about half of the back of the stage (accompanied by white light emanating from the bottom of the backstage wall, which, as I recall, is maintained fairly constantly though the piece). The line later moves, changes to a different length or a different color, and at times looks as if some bulbs failed to light. Later, the “single-line” lighting is replaced by what appeared to be mini stadium lighting. Regardless, since in other respects the stage is very dimly lit, the lighting design had the impact of approaching headlights on a dark night – one saw the lights and little else  Moreover, the upstage area is often bathed in different colored dramatic-looking “smoke” to further call attention to everything but the dance itself. The result is an interesting looking muddle. And perhaps that was Abraham’s point – except for the line of blue-lamp lighting and the “smoke,” neither of which fit anything specific beyond being striking decoration, the atmosphere seemed akin to that of a concrete schoolyard where locals might gather in the shelter of relative darkness to do whatever it is they want to do. But whether this was the intent or not, the visual result was an atmosphere of negative energy, which the accompanying music – unidentified compositions by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep (with additional sound editing by Sam Crawford) exacerbated.

Abraham.In.Motion dancers in Kyle Abraham's "Drive" Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Abraham.In.Motion dancers
in Kyle Abraham’s “Drive”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The choreography is equally depressing. That’s not to say that it’s of low quality – on the contrary, the piece, which consists primarily of individual solos preceded by small group dances, presents fine examples of hip-hop executed well by the eight dancer cast. But the overall sense is nothing more than, at most, a night in the life of eight people who gather in the same place at the same time. There’s no direction to it – neither despair at hopelessness, nor happiness at being able to express themselves as they wanted. Even then, what might have been a collection of interesting individual dances instead just blends into societal shadows – dances at a different kind of gathering. If that’s all that Abraham intended to convey, he succeeded

The evening’s curiosity was the pairing of Sara Mearns with Honji Wang of Company Wang Ramirez. Titled No. 1, a Fall for Dance co-commission choreographed by Wang and Sebastien Ramirez, the dance is supposed to illustrate the similarities between the hip-hop of Company Wang Ramirez, and the ballet of Mearns. It did that to an extent, but, except for the comic emphasis provided by Wang, who gave the dance some life, it was just … a curiosity.

Sara Mearns and Honji Wang in Wang and SeŽbastien Ramirez's "No. 1" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sara Mearns and Honji Wang
in Wang and SeŽbastien Ramirez’s “No. 1”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The dance begins with Wang, in what can be best described, I think, as a disheveled-looking street outfit, observing an empty barre placed somewhat downstage center as if it’s some alien structure. She walks over to it, and plays with it appearing to have no idea what it’s for. It’s very funny. Mearns approaches, in simple leotard and tights (initially covered by a FFD jacket, which she later discards), and with deadpan expression begins to do a ballet barre – abbreviated. Wang attempts to imitate Mearns, but uses hip-hop moves. I didn’t see much of Mearns attempting hip-hop, but perhaps I missed it. In any event, I thought the piece adequately displayed similarities between certain ballet and hip-hop positioning, but otherwise was valuable only for Wang’s hip-hop clownish, trampish hilarity.

Ballet BC dancers in Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's "Bill" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Ballet BC dancers in
Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s “Bill”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

I’ve seen Bill, the concluding piece on the program, previously – it was performed by Ballet BC at the Joyce Theater in June, 2016 as part of the company’ 30th Anniversary program. I liked it then, and perhaps because of the larger City Center stage, I enjoyed it more now. But why Ballet BC would bring a piece they performed in New York relatively recently, as opposed to something not seen here previously, is beyond me. I’m sure the company has other dances that might have displayed the its dancers equally well.

Be that as it may (and acknowledging that many in the FFD audience may not have seen the Joyce program), Bill is an interesting and visually stunning, if somewhat intellectually vacuous, dance.

Ballet BC dancers in Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar's "Bill" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Ballet BC dancers
in Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s “Bill”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Created in 2010 by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar for Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, the dancers are supposed to look relatively indistinguishable from each other except for their heads, and sexually ambiguous, with movement quality being somewhat androgynous. Perhaps the dance’s title is intended to reflect this sense of “equality” – the name “Bill” alone, doesn’t connote anything or anyone specific.

As I observed after its previous performance, as the dance begins one by one, four men, and then one woman dance solos – each significantly different from the other. After the fifth solo, the remaining eleven dancers join the unidentified soloists, each wearing the same white unitard costume. The movement quality is tightly controlled thereafter, with the featured dancers moving their bodies like human white gelatin molds: they shake, shimmy, slink, but largely stay in one area, backed up by the others who rock forward and back and forward and back constantly. The effect isn’t so much mesmerizing as curious, like it’s some extra-terrestrial tribal ritual – although a stage full of dancers in white unitards looks particularly striking, and the requisite body control by the dancers as a group is quite impressive.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers in Crystal Pite's "Solo Echo" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers
in Crystal Pite’s “Solo Echo”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Another repeated dance wasn’t, to my recollection, quite as impressive as I’d observed previously. Solo Echo was also presented by Ballet BC at the same performance referenced above, and I thought then that the piece was quite extraordinary. As performed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago as the opening piece of Program E, it didn’t look quite as brilliant. It’s not the Hubbard Street dancers – I’ve seen the company previously and admired its quality. Perhaps it was my viewing position. More likely, however, it was that a poem that explained choreographer Crystal Pite’s inspiration (Mark Strand’s Lines for Winter) which was included in the Joyce program notes was not included in the FFD program notes. Without that contextual framework, the images on stage appear as beautiful as they did before, but the dance looked somewhat unfocused.

Originally choreographed for Nederlands Dans Theater in 2012, Solo Echo reflects an individual (and by extension all individuals in the group’s) search for identity. Several of the male dancers in the piece take turns as the “lead” individual, each of whom is eventually supported by others, but these “others” are echoes of the featured dancer of the moment: echoes of the solo.

Aside from the accessible theme, what makes Solo Echo work as well as it does, are the images that Pite creates, and that none of the choreography is generic or repetitious. Generally, the piece is filled with dramatic arm gestures, pushing upward and outward (yearning), and inward (self-examination) almost simultaneously. Yet more thrilling to watch unfold are isolated images of profound choreographic intelligence and beauty. One remembers in particular the dancers’ individual and collective silent screams of despair, and the lines of dancers appearing from behind one of them as if out of nowhere. All seven dancers in the cast performed with fervor and clarity.

San Francisco Ballet dancers in Helgi Tomasson's "Concerto Grosso" Photo by Stephanie Berger

San Francisco Ballet dancers
in Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

San Francisco Ballet’s Concerto Grosso, like Bill, is also a recently repeated piece to NYC audiences, having been danced by Royal Ballet School graduates on a program with American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company last February. Not surprisingly, it looks considerably stronger with SFB’s contingent of five male dancers. Choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to music by Francesco Geminiani (Concerto Grosso, Op.3, La Follia), this is a powerful, athletic piece that gives each dancer a chance to shine. The five were Max Cauthorn, Diego Cruz, Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang, and Lonnie Weeks.

David Hallberg in Mark Morris's "Twelve of ‘em" Photo by Stephanie Berger

David Hallberg
in Mark Morris’s “Twelve of ‘em”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The less said about the evening’s curiosity – a solo appearance by ABT’s David Hallberg in another FFD Commission, choreographed by Mark Morris to Twelve Variations for Piano by Benjamin Britten – the better. The title, Twelve of ’em, gives away that the dance is not to be taken seriously, despite the obvious effort involved.

Costumed in an off-white post medieval page-boy/tunic outfit by Isaac Mizrahi, Hallberg looks uncomfortably frivolous. Making Hallberg look anything other than supremely noble is a difficult feat, so presenting him as some sort of visual non sequitur must have been intentional. Also intentional is the prissy, picky, minimal choreography, which doesn’t so much amplify Britten’s music as reflects and makes fun of it. Twelve variations for piano may be fine even if some of the variations are limited to seconds, but as a dance, distinct segments of movement that lasts only seconds, with the dancer unceremoniously moving back to initial position in silence afterward (akin, sort of, to the dead space preceding certain classical Petipa bravura male solos) is just silly-looking. And having a live piano on stage (neatly played by Colin Fowler) which Hallberg occasionally approaches and silently interacts with, comes off less like a ‘solo concertant’ (quoting from Balanchine’s Duo Concertant) and more like inanity. Hallberg danced with his usual impeccable control and panache, but his execution wasn’t the problem with Twelve of ’em.

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancers in George Céspedes's "Matria Etnocentra" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancers
in George Céspedes’s
“Matria Etnocentra”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

This final FFD program concluded with Matria Etnocentra, a solemnly executed piece performed by Danza Contemporanea de Cuba. While the company has a commendable international reputation, this dance doesn’t exemplify what the company apparently is capable of. Matria Etnocentra is a celebration of Cuba to be sure, but the Cuba of the Revolution. Translated, it’s a celebration of victory, the inevitable choreographic triumph of popular will.

The music, by Nacional Electronica, is relentlessly percussive, and the dance is similarly relentless, with the determined citizens / soldiers / dancers marching against tyrannical oppression, or in commemoration of the Struggle. Only after victory is, presumably, achieved do the dancers abandon their martial demeanor, break their rigid lines and thumping foot sounds, remove their shirts, and demonstrate the Cuban culture that the People have been fighting for. But even here, the choreography, though no longer rigidly militaristic and with somewhat more irregular stage positioning, is still prescribed into controlled forms that don’t match the joy, and none of the sensuality, seen in typical Cuban movement (assuming for the sake of argument that there are “typical” Cuban styles of movement).

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancers in George Céspedes's "Matria Etnocentra" Photo by Stephanie Berger

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba dancers
in George Céspedes’s
“Matria Etnocentra”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

It’s tempting, with a stage crammed with 24 dancers strutting in sync and subdividing into marching-band-like formation changes as being somewhat akin to the opening segments of Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes or Union Jack. But that’s at best a superficial comparison. Aside from the heterogeneity (apparent multiple ethnicity) of the dancers, Matria Etnocentra is humorless, nationalistic, and monolithic.

Trying to focus on individual company dancers during this Matria Etnocentra performance is a hopeless effort – although they’re physically distinguishable from each other in appearance, in terms of movement they’re all part of the mass. But it appears that many have considerable talent, which I’d like to see displayed sometime in a different piece of choreography.

Clearly, to me at least, this FFD season wasn’t as successful an artistic endeavor as in prior seasons – although I must acknowledge that the audiences were almost rapturous for each dance presented (though not for the ballet selections, which as I mentioned previously might have been chosen with an eye toward providing more entertainment / excitement value). But at $15 a ticket, rapture is perfectly appropriate. Long may FFD continue.