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

— by 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 pieces 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 Gautier 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.

Streams, which had its US premiere at this performance, is a “Big Dance,” with thirteen dancers, but is 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.

To my recollection, the lighting began as a thin single straight line of blue light “bulbs” that spanned about half of the back of the stage. The “line” later moved, changed to a different length or different color, and at times looked as if some bulbs failed to light. Later, the “single-line” lighting was replaced by what appeared to be mini stadium lighting. Regardless, since in other respects the stage was very dimly lit, the lighting design had the effect of approaching headlights – it was difficult to pay attention to anything else. And perhaps that was Abraham’s point – except for the line of blue-lamp lighting, which didn’t fit anything specific beyond being striking decoration, the atmosphere seemed akin to that of a concrete schoolyard where locals gathered 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.

The choreography was equally depressing. That’s not to say that it was of low quality – on the contrary, the dance, which consisted primarily of individual solos, presented fine examples of hip-hop executed well by the eight dancer cast. But the overall sense was nothing more than, at most, a night in the life of eight people who gathered in the same place at the same time. There was no direction to it – neither despair at hopelessness, or happiness at being able to express themselves as they wanted. Even then, what might have been a collection of interesting individual dances just blended 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.

The dance begins by Wang, in what can be best described, I think, as a disheveled 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, and with deadpan expression (which she maintains throughout the dance, until the post-performance bows), 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. It 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.

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’s 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 company’s dances 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.

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.

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 Company 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 unfocussed.

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’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 looked considerably stronger with SFB’s contingent of five male dancers. Choreographed by Helgi Tomasson to music by Francesco Geminiani (Concerto Groso, 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.

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 like outfit by Isaac Mizrahi, Hallberg looked uncomfortably frivolous – and 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 was the prissy, picky, choreography, which didn’t so much amplify Britten’s music as reflect and make fun of it. Twelve variations for piano may be fine even if some of the variations are limited to seconds, but as a dance, minimal movement lasting seconds, with the dancer unceremoniously moving back to initial position in silence (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 approached and silently interacted with, came off less like a ‘solo concertante’ (quoting from Balanchine’s Duo Concertante) and more like inanity. Hallberg danced with his usual panache, but his execution wasn’t the problem with Twelve of ‘em.

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 does the dance abandon its martial demeanor and demonstrate the Cuban culture that the People have been fighting for. But even here, the choreography, though no longer rigidly militaristic, 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). It’s still defiant, but less so.

It’s tempting, with a stage crammed with 24 dancers marching (pounding their feet) 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 would be superficial. Aside from the heterogeneity (apparent multiple ethnicity) of the dancers, Matria Etnocentra is humorless and nationalistic. And trying to focus on individual dancers is a hopeless effort – 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, which as I mentioned previously could 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.