BAAND Together Dance Festival
Lincoln Center, Damrosch Park
New York, New York
August 17 and 20, 2021
Lazarus (excerpts), Ces noms que nous portons, Let Me Sing Forevermore, Harlem On My Mind (excerpt), 13+1
Tiburones, In The Night, Change, Lazarus (excerpts)
Throughout this summer of 2021, Lincoln Center, considered by many to be the cultural capital of New York and points beyond, has taken steps to welcome post-pandemic visitors back to its campus with a new “open” attitude exemplified by two broad categories of activity: installation of the “green” – an artificial-turf covered expanse in the space between the three primary Lincoln Center (“LC”) buildings (dominated by the well-known Revson Fountain) – which “invites” people to visit the plaza, relax, and camp out for awhile (but which actually is a clever means to camouflage the pervasive reconstruction taking place in LC’s various nooks and crannies); and inauguration of “Restart Stages,” an affiliated (but apparently somewhat independent) organization that is the umbrella for the live outdoor cultural events on the LC campus during this summer.
The BAAND Together Dance Festival was a series of five outdoor programs between August 17 and 21 presented by Restart Stages at LC’s Damrosch Park that included dances performed by dancers from five New York-based dance companies (the first letters of which are combined to form the word BAAND): Alvin Ailey American Dance Company (“AAADC”), American Ballet Theatre (“ABT”), Ballet Hispánico (“BH”), Dance Theatre of Harlem (“DTH”), and New York City Ballet (“NYCB”). Its dual purpose was to promote NYC’s post-pandemic cultural revival, and specifically LC’s component of it, with respect to dance and New York’s “iconic” dance companies, and also to promote dance diversity. I saw the programs on August 17 (opening night of the series), and on Friday, August 20.
Overall, based on the two programs I saw and what I’ve heard about the others, the Festival was highly successful. The dancers from each company were of the highest caliber, and the audiences (tickets were free), numbering somewhere between two and three THOUSAND for EACH program based on my highly unscientific seat count, were as diverse as the programs. And although there were very obvious differences in the reception given to each of the dances I saw, the audiences reacted enthusiastically and respectfully to every one of them. [The differences: in general, the audiences were most audibly enthusiastic after, and certainly during, the dances in which the dancers moved fastest and pounded hardest to the loudest percussion.]
Although I’ll discuss some of the dances at length, whether any failed to meet my critical standards is not really pertinent. This was billed as a “festival,” and a festival it was, with everyone (dancers and the audiences) having a good time. By way of comparison, NYC’s venerable Ninth Avenue Food Festival (may it return post-pandemic) was a celebration of New York’s culinary diversity, offering a sampling of the international food available along Ninth Avenue and beyond. As glorious as that event was, there is no doubt that some of the fare I sampled gave me indigestion. In a similar light, the BAAND Together Dance Festival was glorious, but some of what I saw gave me critical indigestion.
The two programs included eight distinct dances, a couple of which I’d not previously seen, and a couple of which I had previously seen but had long forgotten.
The dance that closed the opening BAAND program, Ballet Hispánico’s presentation of Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s 18+ 1, was new to me. Perhaps because it had no apparent agenda beyond creating wonderful dance to certain iconic Latin music, it was also one the best of the dances that I viewed over both festival nights.
18+1 is a celebration of music. Latin music. Mambo music. As usual I didn’t read about the dance in advance and didn’t know what the accompanying music would be, but shortly after the piece began I recognized the sounds and style of Perez Prado’s recording of “Cherry Pink (and Apple Blossom White),” which was a rare instrumental popular hit back in ancient times when I was a kid. [Yes, Virginia, there was a time when I was a kid.] That particular song wasn’t part of the score that Sansano curated, but the style, the beat, and most of all the brass, were unmistakable. I still am not aware of what songs comprised the dance’s score (I recognized one, but don’t recall its name – perhaps “Patricia”), but they’re all by Pérez Prado (Dámaso Pérez Prado), a Cuban-born bandleader whose band popularized Big Band mambo music throughout the U.S. and beyond.
Sansano’s dance brings the music to life in distinctive segments corresponding to distinctive songs (or parts thereof). Even though the music is recognizable by the similarity of style among the songs, each song is different, and in 13+1, each dance segment is related, but visually quite different from another. Like all good abstract dances, there are senses here and there of emotional gloss, but it’s in passing.
Sansano’s choreography varies significantly from one segment to another (and often within each song), sometimes with toe in cheek. It’s not only evocative of an era, it’s visually interesting to watch. And the BH dancers executed Sansano’s choreography brilliantly.
Another highly successful “new to me” dance in this program was Kyle Abraham’s solo for Taylor Stanley, Ces noms que nous portons (“These names we carry”). Created for the close of last month’s NYC Pride Month, the dance demonstrates a number of things: that Stanley is an incomparable dancer of enormous quiet power; that Abraham is particularly skillful at saying more with less; and, perhaps most importantly, that a dance doesn’t have to beat an audience over the head to make its point.
Ces noms que nous portons is a portrait of inner agony, stoic determination and ultimate serenity, enigmatic on the surface (like the accompanying music, Erik Satie’s recognizable Gnosienne No. 3) but indisputable in its message. And there’s nothing about it that would make anyone of any background flinch; on the contrary, the dance invites viewers to understand and to celebrate with both of them. Much of the movement quality is remindful of the solos for Stanley that Abraham created with his first piece for NYCB, The Runaway, but that’s a good thing. Just as those solos took the viewer into Stanley’s (and Abraham’s) worlds with dignity and compassion, so this solo does here. Ces noms que nous portons is a brief, but memorable, work of art.
I’ve seen and favorably reviewed Jessica Lange’s pas de deux Let Me Sing Forevermore previously. It premiered with ABT dancers Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell executing the choreography to songs sung by Tony Bennett, and they’re the dancers who performed it here.
The piece may not be groundbreaking, but it’s sufficiently evocative and great fun to watch, and it presents two of ABT’s soaring young talents in a dance vehicle that’s appreciable by viewers of any background and any dance preference. Let Me Sing Forevermore makes no demands on its audiences beyond making them smile. It was a perfect piece for ABT to select for the BAAND festival.
DTH was represented on this program by the “It Don’t Mean a Thing” excerpt from Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Harlem On My Mind. Since I haven’t seen it, I can’t comment on the piece as a whole, but this excerpt, performed by Amanda Smith and Anthony Santos, was scintillating, and in an instant captured the jazzy Harlem ambience that percolates within the Duke Ellington music.
Following a lengthy introduction (which I’ll address at the end of this review), this opening program began with excerpts from Rennie Harris’s Lazarus, performed by dancers from AAADT. Since Lazarus is another dance that I’ve not previously seen in its entirety (Lazarus is a two-act, evening-length dance that reportedly is part of a trilogy to honor Ailey) I can’t comment on the complete dance, and won’t extrapolate based on the excerpt(s) I saw, which apparently consists of several segments from the second half of the piece. However, I did see all or some these excerpts from Lazarus previously (at a 2019 City Center Fall for Dance program), and although I didn’t recall having already seen these them when I viewed them in this BAAND program, I found that my observations remain essentially the same.
There is no question that the audience here was whipped into a frenzy of hoots, woops, and cackles by the energy that the highly capable AAADC dancers generated from Harris’s choreography, but all these dancers did was jump up and down and raise and lower their hands and swivel their hips in sync with the score’s pounding beat. It was as if each dancer had plugged his or her finger into his or her own individual electric socket, reacting the same way but never coming in physical contact with another. I’m sure there was more within these excerpts than that (particularly in the opening segment that appears to me to visualize, actually or metaphorically, Lazarus’s rising from the dead and the subsequent gradual euphoria during which Nina Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” provides the cleverly-chosen musical background), but the celebratory ecstasy that dominates these lengthy excerpts is what dominates the memory.
All this having been said, the excerpts presented are from the concluding part of Harris’s two-part piece, and mass movement conformity is not an unusual way to conclude an ensemble dance. So seeing these excerpts within the context of the full piece might change my critical observations. And again, I must emphasize that I may have been the only one bored by the constant pounding and absence of movement variety – the audience reacted with roaring approval.
The opening piece on the August 20 BAAND program was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Tiburones, danced by Ballet Hispánico. This is another dance that I’d not previously seen, and one I’d looked forward to since I’ve generally admired Lopez Ochoa’s work, including previous work created for BH. And, indeed, Tiburones is very well-choreographed, and was superbly performed by the BH dancers. My concern with it, however, relates to the dance’s theme. Clearly there is one – stereotyping, which certainly is a valid subject. However, within the context of the dance, Tiburones oversteps its bounds and Lopez Ochoa overplays whatever hand she may have had.
I didn’t know until after the BAAND program ended and I checked the word’s meaning, but “tiburones” translates as “sharks.” In hindsight, the word has a dual reference as Lopez Ochoa uses it here – to the “Sharks” Puerto Rican street gang in the musical West Side Story, and to “sharks” in the entertainment (and particularly the film) industry. Indeed, while her thrust appears to be against West Side Story’s depiction of Puerto Ricans in general, her specific target, curiously, is the director of the remake of the iconic 1961 film, which hasn’t even been released yet (and in 2019, when Tiburones premiered, may not have yet completed production).
The piece begins with the ensemble cast dancing in the manner of Jerome Robbins’s choreography for West Side Story, which I took to be a good thing, with the figure of a person who is white (whether the dancer is or isn’t white is not relevant) acting as cameraman / movie director, planting the camera, giving directions, clicking the slate board (aka clapperboard), and generally getting in the way while getting his way. But about halfway into the piece Tiburones switches gears and turns vicious.
The ensemble work yields to a focus on one dancer seated center stage on a chair (surrounded by all or some of the others), and is then presented with “stereotype” clothes to wear (particularly ridiculed are red high-heeled shoes) that are being imposed on her presumably to fit the stereotype image that the now villainous director wants the film to display.
Ultimately this dancer rebels against the imposed stereotyping, and is joined by the rest of the cast which, as an ensemble, then proceeds to dance much as they did earlier, except this time the choreographed images include gender role reversals that to me are just another form of stereotyping (and presumably there’s no red high-heeled shoe to be seen, but by then I didn’t notice). The dance ends with one or more of the strutting dancers (which some viewers might see as a Latin dancer stereotype) triumphantly stepping on and over the white director’s prone body.
During the uprising, various verbal commentaries were added to the accompanying score. Most of it was indecipherable to me, but I thought I discerned an out-of-context mumble by the director of the 2021 film remake, Steven Spielberg, in response to a question about stereotyping that apparently didn’t make sense to him. It was a cheap shot.
Lopez Ochoa, who was born in Belgium and to my knowledge now works out of The Netherlands, is a choreographer of international experience and reputation who knows what she’s doing and usually does it well. But Tiburones misses the mark (assuming there was a “mark” to target here in the first place).
A final observation with respect to Tiburones. Apparently certain types of stereotyping aren’t a concern if they’re presented in contexts other than West Side Story and its film remake [e.g., stereotypical Latin male machismo or stereotypical Latin Carmen-like female seductiveness, both of which percolate through many dances, including at least two that Lopez Ochoa created: Sombrerisimo and Linea Recta (the latter including flaming red costumes that appeared to match the contemptible “stereotype” shoes in Tiburones)]. It’s evident to me that something else may have inspired this focus on West Side Story and Spielberg, but I won’t speculate as to what that might be.
I previously saw, and reviewed, Diane McIntyre’s Change in the context of a 2016 “Black Ballerina Tribute” DTH program at City Center. At the time, I was relatively dismissive of it. On this view (and in this physical context – the Restart Stages stage provides a more intimate connection with the dancers) I see it as more interesting than I previously gave it credit for, but in the end, my overall impression is the same.
I must concede that, as was the case with the excerpts from Lazarus, I didn’t recall previously seeing Change while I was watching this August 20 performance, and based on the dance’s beginning, I thought it was headed in an encouraging direction. The opening segment featured three dancers (according to the LC cast listing: Amanda Smith, Lindsey Donnell, and Daphne Lee), each in black dresses (although the specific “style” might have been different for each of them), seemingly wandering or searching for something to a background score of lush, religiously based, choral music. I thought it was beautifully done, and possibly indicative of some attempt to pass through heaven’s gate. This was fortified in my mind by the lightning and thunder sounds that followed the “searching” segment (as I saw it), as if some supreme being was providing instructions.
But the rest of the dance didn’t fit the pigeonhole that my mind had created for it. Instead, the lightning and thunder triggered a visualized reevaluation of purpose; the need for the three dancers to be who they are and not be confined by others’ expectations or demands. That would have been fine, but as presented Change evolved into polemic, with the music changing to incessant percussion and the dancers gradually scuttling their black dresses in favor of dramatic, visually aggressive-looking multi-colored leotards, and with the choreographed movement changing from something resembling serene inner searching to a sense of ferocious determination. Coupled with the bits and pieces of a narrative that I heard as the dance ended, it was clear that Change is intended to celebrate the revolutionary triumph of innate collective and individual power over some concept of an imposed and unnatural status quo.
After I saw the program, I read the LC program note, which indicated that Change was “inspired by women of color – black, brown, and beige – who have refashioned their neighborhood, the country, the world through their vision, courage, and endurance” and that they “could be called warriors for change.” And that’s the essence of the problem I have with it. At the end of my comments about it in 2016, I wrote that Change is less of a dance than a war cry. It still is.
In between these two dances, NYCB presented Robbins’s In The Night. The piece isn’t one of Robbins’s masterpieces, but it’s still a work of significance that deserved better than to follow Lopez Ochoa’s audience-galvanizing vitriol. Unlike Change, however, In The Night didn’t benefit from the Restart Stages environment – here, curiously, the spatial intimacy didn’t illuminate the personal intimacy of the piece: instead, it made it look less natural, and the dance’s rough edges were on clearer display.
The three couples (whose separately depicted relationships are loosely based on youthful infatuation, mature respect and reliance, and tempestuous passion) were danced, respectively, by Sterling Hyltin and Roman Mejia, Sara Mearns and Russell Janzen, and Unity Phelan and Andrew Veyette. All performed well (and particular kudos to Hyltin, who, like many other ballerinas during the pandemic period, delivered offspring rather than dance performances), but the standout to me was Phelan, who seemed to live the role rather than execute it.
As rain descended over the seating area, the evening concluded with another AAADT performance of excerpts from Lazarus.
Even though I was not impressed by all of the dances and can quibble with some of those selected to be performed, as a festival of dance, the BAAND programs were an unqualified success. But one aspect of the festival was not, and was particularly annoying.
Each of the programs I saw was “hosted” by one of the Artistic Directors of the BAAND companies: Robert Battle, A.D. of AAADC on opening night, and Virginia Johnson, A.D. of DTH on the 20th. [I assume that the A.D.s of the other BAAND companies hosted the other three performances.] Johnson still exudes an aura of natural nobility that made her presentation particularly impressive.
Inexplicably, however, the hosts were followed in these programs (and possibly in the other programs as well) by certain local elected officials who appeared at least as interested in retaining the audiences’ votes as they were with the program. The representative on opening night showed how excited he was, and that the audience was expected to be, to see AAADT, DTH, and BH all in one program. To him, apparently, ABT and NYCB didn’t exist. One of the two elected officials on the 20th spoke at length about her intimate connections with AAADT, DTH, and BH. She managed to mention ABT and NYCB, but only in passing toward the conclusion of her lengthy and strident oration. These remarks speak for themselves, but they also speak for Restart Stages and Lincoln Center. If for some reason their appearances can be justified as political support for the significance of dance to New York City and beyond, it would make far more sense for them to make the argument elsewhere, rather than in front of thousands of people who were already there to support the arts. Regardless, someone should at least have educated them as to what the BAAND Together Dance Festival was supposed to be about.