[pending receipt of Program 5 performance photos]
Fall for Dance 2018
New York City Center
New York, New York
October 5, 10, and 13, 2018
Program 3: Reclamation Map (Tayeh Dance with Heather Christian), Balamouk (Dance Theatre of Harlem), Midnight Raga (Nederlands Dans Theater 2), The Crane Calling (excerpt)
Program 4: Rhapsody (excerpts) (Alina Cojocaru and Herman Cornejo), Canto Ostinato (Introdans), Petrushka (Tiler Peck, Lil Buck, and Brooklyn Mack), Rennie Harris Funkedified (excerpt) (Rennie Harris Puremovement – American Street Dance Theater)
Program 5: Con Brazos Abiertos (Ballet Hispanico), Tangos (Junior Cervila & Guadalupe Garcia), El cruce sobre el Niágara (Acosta Danza), Stack-Up (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater)
After the overall excellence of the first three programs (actually the first two and a half), which were the subject of a previous review, with a few noteworthy exceptions the overall quality level of the 2018 Fall for Dance programming diminished during its second week. Most of these dances (except for the piece danced by Ballet Hispanico, which I’ve previously seen and reviewed) were well done, though not exceptional or particularly noteworthy. But there were a few that were either unsatisfying introductions to the appearing company, collections of unconnected scenes that preached to the converted but not much more, or bereft of any reason for being.
I’ll here consider the dances seriatim, initially expanding on my review of Program 3, and then consider programs 4 and 5. In sum, aside from the first two pieces in Program 3 (which I was so excited about I included a brief discussion of them together with my observations of Programs 1 and 2), the remaining programs’ highlights were, in program 4, seeing Alina Cojocaru once again grace a New York stage, and a new interpretation of Petrushka choreographed by Jennifer Weber and featuring Tiler Peck, Lil Buck, and Brooklyn Mack; and in Program 5, a series of tangos danced by Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia, and a sterling performance by two male dancers from Cuba’s Acosta Danza in El cruce sobre el Niágara.
The first piece on Program 3 (a City Center commission receiving its world premiere) was shockingly good – perhaps to an extent because it was totally unexpected, but more than that because of the quality of the music by Heather Christian (performed by her and vocalist colleagues Jo Lampert and Onyie Nwachukwu), Sonya Tayeh’s choreography, and the execution by Tayeh Dance’s four dancers. These three components (as well as the lighting, by Davison Scandrett) feed off each other to create a deep and pervasive ambiance. And although the notion of overcoming darkness and despair through inner strength, perseverance, and a measure of faith is nothing new, Christian’s intense music and Tayeh’s intense choreography illuminate the inner (and outer) bleakness in a different and intellectually challenging way.
Although I did not recognize Tayeh’s name, I realized afterward that I’d seen a prior piece of hers earlier this year: Face the Torrent performed by Cuba’s Malpaso Dance Company. I didn’t enjoy it – not because it was poorly crafted (on the contrary, I found it well-crafted, creating a pervasive mood), but because that mood, that sense of the piece, was non-specific anger about everything, presumably inspiring revolutionary action. Reclamation Map is also as singularly focused, but here the need for some explanation for the atmospheric sense is unnecessary. Emotional disturbance is what it is, regardless of how it got there.
The piece begins largely in darkness, with light eventually focusing solely on the vocalists (and with one performer, who soon will join the other dancers, sprawled on the stage floor downstage from them, sealing the connection between the dance and the vocal performances), as Christian’s rich, deep voice and animated delivery of the first of four songs – more accurately, poetic atmospheres – “Right Here,” signals the torturous but ultimately redemptive road ahead: “Darkness I know your name / I have somehow remained in your cages / Down here, a storm so small / Do you see it at all while it rages?,” which leads a stanza later to alert the audience to where the piece is going: “Here with the final word / I’ve been sitting til stirred or ignited / But I’m not a match to strike / I’m a pilot light // And here / Right here / Right here / I will draw a map with my finger / and will dare to begin.”
Gradually the lit stage area then spreads to include Tayeh’s dancers (Peiju Chien-Pott, Ida Saki, Austin Goodwin, and Reed Luplau), who visualize the emotional gravity that Christian and her colleagues create and deliver with the urgency of deep south gospel crossed with soulful country. To the second song, “My Legs The Prophets,” the choreography begins with the four dancers divided into couples, dancing emotionally painful duets that are as intense and dark as Christian’s music. Tayeh has her dancers seemingly soaring and crashing at the same time – as if trying to escape but being dragged down. And the partnering, notwithstanding the dance’s dark theme, is complex and moving. I was particularly impressed with the downstage couple – to the best of my powers of observation Chien-Pott (a principal dancer with Martha Graham Company) and Goodwin – who infused their dance with almost unbearable dramatic tension. As I wrote previously, this part of the dance was somewhat remindful of Christopher Wheeldon’s This Bitter Earth.
With the third song, “Psalm 54: (who is gonna make me like the bird),” and while Christian and her vocal colleagues bear witness (in the gospel sense), Goodwin climbs atop the electronic piano that Christian plays while swinging and swaying and recounting. The Psalm itself speaks of abandonment and the desire to be saved, and Christian’s lyrics expand on that with the focus on escape (being saved) from the inner shackles of doubt. With the pulsing vocals and the rhythm provided by the other dancers aligned alongside him acting like a deep south, percussive version of a Greek chorus, Goodwin writhes atop the piano trying to escape, as if, like a bird, to be freed. Finally, to “The Center will Hold,” the image is of the dancers finding the strength within, as the opening introductory prelude indicated. And with the closing lyrics: “I fumble in the dark / I find my hand / I find my hand and hold it / with my other hand” the piece, and the audience along with it, finds its way out of the darkness.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Balamouk is as good as it is not because it’s dramatically different from anything else the way Reclamation Map is, but because it perfectly utilizes the score that Ochoa curated to create a dance that looks and sounds more different than it is.
Balamouk is a contemporary ballet that looks like a ballet but also doesn’t, and which creates an atmosphere that the Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers fit into without appearing either unnecessarily constrained by formal limitations or stridently asserting identity. Augmented by the colorful costumes by Mark Zappone, it’s just good choreography, good dancing, and a good time to watch. Daphne Lee, Crystal Serrano, Ingrid Silva, Amanda Smith, Lindsey Croop, Da’Von Doane, Christopher McDaniel, Anthony Santos, Dylan Santos, and Choong Hoon Lee comprised the cast, and although there was no clear individual lead dancer (there were “leads” in each dancing “scene”), to me Silva and Anthony Santos stood out. The ten DTH dancers fly through Ochoa’s seamless changes of focus as if unleashed, with the multiculturalism of the music (by Paris-based Les Yeux Noirs – one of whose songs is titled Balamouk), French composer Rene Aubry, and Australian singer / songwriter / instrumentalist Lisa Gerrard) reflecting the multiculturalism of the dancers and expanding the horizons of the presentation in the process. It’s an exuberant, vibrant, life-affirming piece that was a joy to watch. And it was perfectly set in the program – after Reclamation Map, it was good to see a piece where the souls of the characters were unburdened.
And then there was the second part of Program 3.
Midnight Raga, choreographed by Marco Goecke and performed by two men from Nederlands Dans Theater 2, is an imposition seemingly designed to irritate, with no apparent reason for being beyond torturing its dancers and its audience.
When I first read the piece’s title, I saw it as “Midnight Rage.” That might have been a more apt title. Despite superb execution by Surimu Fukushi and Adam Russell-Jones, the piece is a bizarre exercise in upper body movement (there’s relatively little leg movement) that brings to mind hyperactive turbo-charged pugilistic insects caught in some sort of unsatisfying non-relationship. The music – two pieces by Ravi Shankar and one by Etta James – has nothing whatsoever to do with the movement except to provide a broad rhythmic context; the piece might have worked – or failed – just as well had it been choreographed to “Jai Ho” (from Slumdog Millionaire) and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” The only thing the piece accomplishes is to show two dancers pushed to the edge of endurance by pumping and pushing and twisting at a rapid pace and in sync. Sound and fury signifying nothing.
I was not present at its creation, but the word “Eurotrash” has come to mean dances, primarily originating in Europe, that see the world in shades of black with no point to the movement quality beyond angularity, intensity, and nihilism, expressing machine-like rage, which doesn’t travel well across the pond. Midnight Raga gives Eurotrash a bad name.
In a totally different direction, The National Ballet of China closed out the program with an excerpt from The Crane Calling. The engaging cast of 29 (including the unidentified four lead dancers) filled the City Center stage with vibrant color and equally vibrant, lilting beauty, but aside from having the opportunity to see all these Chinese ballet dancers on a stage at one time, there’s nothing to recommend the piece as presented. A story seemed buried somewhere that bore a faint resemblance to The Firebird (perhaps analogous folk sources), but the choreography is pedestrian. The best I can say is that the decision to bring a specially created for FFD excerpt of this ballet was not the best of choices, and perhaps the dance, seen in full, would make for a better presentation. However, if this is a valid example of what ballet now is in China, they have a lot of catching up to do.
Sir Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody (to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini), created ten years after his formal retirement in 1980 to honor the Queen Mother on her birthday, was originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was guesting with the Royal Ballet that summer. The full ballet included Lesley Collier (whose New York performances with the Royal are a cherished memory) as Baryshnikov’s pas de deux partner (although I’ve seen some sources that credit Bryony Brind) and a small corps. I’ve not seen it.
Program 4’s opening offering consisted of excerpts from that piece, and perhaps that was why I found it disappointing. It may be heresy, but what was presented appeared to be a relatively standard pas de deux with an introductory solo by the male dancer that included a series of royal bows, that, out of context, made little sense. Parts of it are undeniably lovely, but what I saw was more form than substance, and fancy footwork that was equally meaningless. No doubt, however, that the Rachmaninoff score soars, and when it does, so does the piece. I’ve seen American Ballet Theatre’s Herman Cornejo look somewhat more energetic, although I had no quibbles about his excellent partnering. But the highlight of the piece, and the night, was seeing Alina Cojocaru once again. She clearly dances with more indicia of experience than she did when I last saw her (guesting with ABT, and performing less than optimally due apparently to a lingering injury), but she still dances with the sweetness of personality and abundance of technique that has endeared her to a legion of fans.
I don’t recall seeing the Dutch company Introdans previously, but judged by the performances of four of its dancers in Lucinda Childs’s Canto Ostinato, I’d like to see the full company.
Childs is known for her minimalist choreography and use of repetitive movement. But of those dances of hers that I’ve seen, particularly those within, say, the past 20 years, “minimalist” may be something of a misnomer. Her dances present not minimalism per se, but a variety of limited movement sequences repeated in various permutations during the course of the piece, and consequently I’ve found her dances to be far more intellectually stimulating and visually interesting than those of other minimalist choreographers.
In Canto Ostinato, the four company dancers (Verine Bouwman, Salvatore Castelli, Kim Van Der Put, and Pascal Schut), move back and forth and forth and back and up and down and sideways across the stage to Simeon Ten Holt’s score, but Childs works a great deal of variety into the movement – increasing and decreasing speed, adding and deleting moves, and changing angles and directions of movement, and even multiple occasions when the dancers actually touch each other) that the result is not just hypnotic, but instructive in terms of the impact of minimal change on visual content. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it, but it was very well done.
The evening’s most intriguing piece, however, was hip-hop choreographer Jennifer Weber’s take on Petrushka. While not nearly as compelling as the original version by Michel Fokine for the Ballets Russes, and not as successful as it might have been, I give Weber credit for attempting to preserve the overall story while stripping the story to its core, a la Balanchine, and modifying the choreography but not making the result some hip-hop version of the original.
The Stravinsky score (or much of it) is retained, but there is no longer a set. Instead, the three characters – unidentified, but the puppets Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor from the original are the characters (there is no Charlatan, and no Shrovetide Fair in St. Petersburg). The three initially share the stage in their own small open spaces spread horizontally downstage, and it quickly becomes clear what the plot is about.
The dance loses the original’s zip and overtones of magical manipulation as puppets are brought to life: here it just happens. And, except for the ballerina, the other two characters have been modified: the character who was The Moor is now respectable and strong rather than an overstuffed bad boy bully. And Petrushka is portrayed not as a downtrodden puppet suffering from low self-esteem and self-despair that doom him, but more like a loser clown.
But somehow the Balanchine-esque stripping the story down to its essentials, the not uninteresting but not radically in-your-face-different choreography, and the power of the three dancers made this version reasonably compelling. Tiler Peck danced impeccably as the Ballerina, Washington Ballet’s Brooklyn Mack was magnetic and powerful as rock (or hip-hop) star puppet that the Ballerina finds irresistible, and Lil Buck’s sad clown version of Petrushka was surprisingly unaffected (no attempt that I saw was made to imbue his character with his “Memphis Jookin’” style, for example), but this character needed to be the most complex and tortured, and Lil Buck was just a sad loser of a clown, with a gait and presentation – aside from the clown face – that seemed uncomfortably remindful of stepin fetchit. I don’t fault Lil Buck for that – I assume that’s the way the role was to be played, but the characterization as presented lacked the complexity the role – at least as in the original – requires, and there was none of Nijinksy’s suffering or tragedy.
But it seemed as if many in the audience had no idea that there was an “original” Petrushka at all, and to its discredit, the program fails to mention it. Substantially modifying and distilling the story and changing the choreography is not a problem for me, but ignoring the piece’s roots is.
The evening concluded with Rennie Harris Pure Movement – American Street Dance Theater’s Rennie Harris Funkedified (“Funkedified”). It’s fine for what it is – a compilation of street dance – but the piece thinks it’s more than a review, and it’s not.
The program note describes it as a multi-media work set against the landscape of African-American culture and political turmoil in the 1970s. Well, if by multi-media the reference is to snippets of film briefly projected against the upstage wall, the multi-media aspect was perfunctory, non-specific, and without clear connection to anything happening on stage. The thirteen dancer cast performed well, but with exceptions, the emphasis was on styles that relied more on general impression and personal expression than technical rigor. That’s not to say that there was no talent involved – on the contrary, that was abundant, and I found the performances by a few of the dancers particularly well-executed. But it was the appearance of high-energy informality and spontaneity that galvanized the audience. Beyond exhibiting various examples of street dance, the piece doesn’t go anywhere and takes too long to get to wherever it is that it isn’t going, and I doubt that the complete version would remedy that, although in its original form perhaps Funkedified might come across as a purposeful and coherent dance.
Ballet Hispanico kicked off program 5 with Michelle Manzanales’s Con Brazos Abiertos, which I’ve extensively reviewed twice previously and need not elaborate upon here. Although I wish the introductory piping of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” through the theater’s speakers, which occurred at the piece’s premiere at the Joyce Theater two years ago, would be restored because it enhances the dance by placing it in a broader context, Con Brazos Abiertos (With Open Arms) works sufficiently well as it is. The Ballet Hispanico dancers are an excellent and compelling group, and I find things in the piece on multiple views that make me appreciate the choreographic intricacies even more each time.
The program’s next presentation, Tangos, presented by Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia, was a pleasant surprise. The couple (accompanied by a lively nine-person band led by Musical Director Daniel Binelli), took the standard operating Argentine Tango to a different dimension.
Beyond being thoroughly competent tango dancers exhibiting superb technique, Cervila and Garcia placed their tangos in vaguely narrative scenarios and provided characterizations that added context and texture to a dance that I often find rigidly passionate in form, but with no passion in substance. Purists will probably disagree, and the second “Drunken Tango” (my invention; it’s not titled) is certainly politically incorrect, but it appeared to me that with no diminution in tango quality, the dancers here gave it life, and the varied presentation sufficiently toned down the inherent machismo.
Cervila is a large, barrel-chested man who tossed Garcia, a petite woman who appears completely natural (as opposed to the often stiff tango performers) around like a toothpick. My only quibble with the program was a musical interlude (no dancing) that, while well-performed (and obviously inserted to give the dancers time to change costume and breathe), seemed superfluous. But I suppose it’s better than a lengthy pause.
But the program’s third piece was by far the highlight of the evening, and certainly one of the highlights of FFD 2018. El cruce sobre el Niágara, choreographed by Marianela Boán, is inspired by the 1969 play of the same name by Peruvian playwright Alonso Alegria. The dance premiered in 1987 in Havana, but it managed to escape my attention until now. Thanks to Carlos Acosta’s Acosta Danza and its two fascinating dancers, Carlos Luis Blanco and Alejandro Silva, it is now embedded in my memory.
Alegria’s play tells the story of Jean François Gravelet (1824 – 97), a/k/a ‘Blondin’, the most famous tightrope walker of the nineteenth century, who crossed Niagara Falls on many occasions – including while (among many other outrageously impossible exploits) blindfolded, on stilts, stopping midway to crack eggs make an omelet and eat it, and carrying his manager on his back – and his relationship with a fictional sceptic / disciple named Carlos who challenges him, but then agrees to allow himself to be carried across the Falls on Blondin’s back. If the story were that straightforward, it would certainly be interesting, but not much more. I haven’t read or seen the play, but necessarily there’s more to it than that – issues relating to mutual trust at least, and Boán’s choreography addresses that and more.
As presented, the dance is as much about developing an interpersonal relationship, self-reliance and mutual- reliance, overcoming fear, and conquering some seemingly insurmountable divide, as it is about a death-defying stunt. And there are overtones of religious spiritualism (it’s not accidental that the aerialist pose struck by the Blondin character has his arms extended sideways – appropriate for a tightrope walker but also suggesting a cross, giving the story a dual meaning (and maybe a triple meaning if that pose is also considered as a preparation for flight) as well as sexual arousal (exacerbated by the costumes, which consist of the skimpiest of male thongs) that cannot be ignored. Indeed, before I learned the play’s underlying story (which is not referenced in the program) I thought that this pas de deux visualized a complex religio-sexual journey and relationship.
Regardless of the depth and breadth of dance’s thematic considerations, El cruce sobre el Niágara is a riveting and intense work of dance art. And Blanco and Silva are astonishing. I suppose that some might find the dances’ slow pace to be tedious, but watching these two dancers move in slow motion, controlling every muscle of their body seemingly beyond physical endurance while navigating this emotional tightrope, was mesmerizing. Everything had to be executed to perfection, and it was.
The closing piece on FFD’s closing program, however, was considerably less successful notwithstanding its movement variety and staging and doing exactly what it said it would do.
Talley Beatty’s Stack-Up premiered in 1982, and was recently refurbished with a new production. According to the brief program note, the piece was “inspired by the lives of Los Angeles’s disparate inhabitants,” and “depicts emotional ‘traffic’ in a community that is stacked on top of each other.” Fair enough. The program also indicates that the scenery design was adapted from a painting. Also fair enough – many dances are inspired by other immobile works of art or inanimate objects that have an innate movement quality. But little happens here beyond the different character stereotypes parading in and out of scenes – no character or choreographic evolution in a piece where that might be expected.
This is a vibrant, colorful dance, but to me it was all show and little substance. Even the audience didn’t appear particularly excited about it – although several in the audience were having a difficult time restraining themselves from jumping out of their seats to dance to the music (by “Various Artists”) as the piece evolved. Snapshots in time are fine, and many are classics despite being bound to a time or place. But there’s nothing transcendent about this, and although the dancers were top notch, more than energy and vitality are needed for a dance to be memorable. and timeless. Stack-up isn’t.
In future years, and as I’ve mentioned previously, I hope FFD will reconsider its emphasis on presenting excerpts from larger pieces. Doing so allows for more programming variety, but doesn’t always give an accurate flavor of the dance being excerpted or of the dancers performing it. That being said, all in all, Fall for Dance 2018 was a huge success, even if it has evolved into a cheap way to get audiences to see dance styles they already want to see, and an energizing way to begin City Center’s 75th Anniversary Year.