Fall for Dance 2019
New York City Center
New York, New York
October 3,5, and 10, 2019
Program 2: Eleven (Mark Morris Dance Group), Das L’Engrenage (Dyptik), Shadow Lands (The Washington Ballet), Salvaje (Malevo)
Program 3: At the Wrong Time (The Mariinsky Ballet), Dust Duet (English National Ballet), Dare to Wreck (Skånes Dansteater), Lazarus (Act 2) (Alvin Ailey American Dance Company)
Program 4: Beach Birds (CNDC D’Angers), Come Sunday (Alicia Graf Mack), For Us (Madboots Dance), Unveiling (Tayeh Dance)
Fall for Dance, New York City’s annual dance “Event” for the past 15 years, returned for its 16th season with the return of the month of October. I was able to attend three of the five programs this year, and, as usual, the results were a mixed bag, from testosterone-laden machismo to astonishing displays of artistic brilliance; from crude, throwaway brutality to exquisite elaborations on the human condition.
The only way to present my comments logically is to consider the dances sequentially. But logic sometimes isn’t particularly compelling, so I’ll discuss the dances roughly in the order set forth in the introductory overview below.
Of the three FFD programs I saw, Program 4 was the best, Program 3 close to it, and Program 2 the most disappointing. By far the most impressive, original, and brilliantly executed dance was the world premiere of Sonya Tayeh’s Unveiling, danced by former New York City Ballet principal Robbie Fairchild, American Ballet Theatre principal Stella Abrera, and ABT dancer Gabe Stone Shayer. Close behind was Alicia Graf Mack’s solo Come Sunday, choreographed in 1968 by Geoffrey Holder. And Program 4’s opening dance, Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds, was performed so well by CNDC d’Angers that I found myself enjoying Cunningham. The Mariinsky Ballet’s At the Wrong Time, which opened Program 3, was an engaging antidote to Program 2, while Skånes Dansteater’s Dare to Wreck, though somewhat perplexing, was a real dance, a real pas de trois, between a man, a woman unable to move her legs, and her wheelchair. And Akram Khan’s Dust Duet was merely exquisite.
While benefitting from highly capable dancers and at times interesting choreography, Dyptik’s Dans l’Engrenage was the programs’ most disturbing and unenjoyable dance, followed closely by Malevo’s Salvaje, which can’t be faulted for accomplishing what it clearly set out to do or for the capabilities of its performers, but which was so dripping with testosterone that it was an embarrassment. Both were included in Program 2. Everything else in the three programs fell somewhere in between.
A year ago, I saw another Sonya Tayeh piece at a FFD program. Reclamation Map was original and different, with music by an unknown (at least to me) composer / pianist / chanteuse named Heather Christian. It grabbed me from the first minute, never let go, and made my Tops in NYC Dance in 2018 list. Unveiling proves, if proof was needed, that Reclamation Map was no fluke. Unveiling will be on my list for 2019.
It took a bit longer for this one to hit, mostly because, like Reclamation Map, to a large extent Unveiling is a creature of its music, and I initially found the music very difficult to listen to or understand. But after awhile, my ability to understand the music, which was composed and performed live on stage by Moses Sumney, became less important than the nature of the sound he was creating.
Sumney is a vocalist of sorts with a high pitched (“iron falsetto” may be a way to describe it) voice that, together with his presence and stationary position atop a pedestal through much of the dance, made him appear to have been beamed down from outer space. Unlike Christian’s music (at least judged by Reclamation Map), Sumney’s music is neither pleasant nor compelling to listen to. But like Christian’s accompanying music, Sumney’s dominates the piece. The sound he creates (accompanied by an electronic percussion that he controls while standing on his pedestal, as well as other accoutrements that I can’t identify) is consistent throughout – though the timbre and volume vary. And very much like Christian’s music, Sumney’s creates an ambiance. Here, this ambiance is Sumney’s (or, presumably, some every-person’s) inner space. The sound transmitted by his voice, and the emotional agony of an apparently splintered spirit that the sound expresses, create a soundscape that Tayeh uses as the basis for her choreography. That is, she visualizes Sumney’s apparent torment, literally. Together with the lighting landscape created by Davison Scandrett and the dramatically understated costumes by Marion Talan, the images are apocalyptic, albeit on an intimate level.
Soon after the sound begins, arms wrap around Sumney’s mountainous body from behind, holding his body close, as if the body and arms are one. Because they are. [The fact that the body is black and the arms are white is here irrelevant.] Eventually, Fairchild emerges from behind Sumney’s body, and dances to the sounds that Sumney and his inner agony create. It’s as difficult to watch as the sound is difficult to hear, not because it’s bad, but because after awhile it becomes disturbingly profound.
After what seems to be an eternity of incomprehensible internal suffering, Abrera emerges (frankly, I don’t recall whether she too emerges from behind Sumney or from the wings, but it doesn’t matter). Her presence at first integrates with Sumney’s / Fairchild’s suffering, but soon calms it – or directs it differently. The emotion she exerts to soothe the savage beast, whether another visualized facet of Sumney’s internal spirit or some external force, is almost too excruciating to bear – but somehow is delivered with the grace befitting a merciful angel. Abrera is a consummate technician, but here the technique is subservient to the inner passion she exudes. Unlike Fairchild’s character, who acts out his demons, Abrera’s reigns hers in, and in the process compels him to do the same. Their dances together (she and Fairchild), simply put, are extraordinary examples of compassionate and passionate choreography and execution, concurrently simple and complex, and always meaningful. To try to describe what the movement looked like would simplify it; suffice it to say the two of them were luminous, and seeing Abrera go beyond any apparent comfort zone she may have was alone worth the price of admission.
I can’t explain Gabe Stone Shayer’s function here. As I recall, he came from the wings – maybe some outside force that stirs the pot, or maybe another facet of Sumney’s soul. Instead of complicating things, however, Shayer’s presence enhances both the emotional turbulence on display, leading perhaps to resolution – if there is one – of the conflicting forces within.
Co-commissioned by FFD and Kaatsbaan, Unveiling is the unveiling of a soul. Not necessarily a revelation – we don’t know much about this soul beyond its sensitivity and its torment. But it’s exposed, raw, and aflame. I’m aware that there may be other ways to interpret what Tayeh was trying to accomplish with Unveiling, focusing more on the torment of different, or at least uncertain, sexual identification than on the torment itself. That might well be the case, and would explain Shayer’s presence more clearly (and could have been more apparent, one way or the other, had I been able to understand any of Sumney’s words, assuming there were actual words to understand rather than sounds). But although that sort of torment is not insignificant, its singular application here would unnecessarily limit the scope of Tayeh’s accomplishment.
Unveiling isn’t your standard dance (neither was Reclamation Map), but, as performed by Sumney, Abrera, Fairchild, and Shayer, it’s a monumental, and riveting, piece of work.
That Alicia Graf Mack was a very special ballerina first with Dance Theatre of Harlem and then with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre is not debatable, and one of my regrets is that I didn’t see more of her performances than I did. The dance that Geoffrey Holder choreographed for his wife Carmen de Lavellade in 1968 on the occasion of the reopening of Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. after 103 years, Come Sunday, is a glorious vehicle for her, and a superb piece on its own, at once bringing to mind the events and issues that prompted the theater to close in the first place (following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination), amplifying this predicate more generally to reflect a peoples’ struggles and accomplishments – focused on a personal level – that the Lincoln presidency signaled, and providing a stunning example of the dancer’s capabilities.
The piece is choreographed to four songs: “Glory, Glory,” which begins with Graf Mack on the stage floor, then rising in apparent prayer and sadness; “Deep River,” in which she visualizes the inner strength to overcome adversity; and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” followed by “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” her faith renewed, and her triumphant overcoming. The piece soars with energy, artistic sensibility, and soul – and it shows that Graf Mack has lost none of her stage presence, and seemingly none of her technical prowess, since her retirement. She’s now Director of the Dance Division at The Juilliard School.
At the dance’s conclusion, Graf Mack invited de Levallade, who had taught the role to her, to join her for curtain calls, and the audience erupted in celebration of them both.
I usually don’t find much to admire in Merce Cunningham’s pieces. With some noteworthy exceptions, I find most of those I’ve seen academic and ponderous. When Beach Birds began – with posing, limited movement, and frozen images – I thought I was going to see another of those dances in which form, minimal movement, and lack of connection between the dancers and each other, and between what was happening on stage and the audience, made watching them tiresome.
But then, abetted both by the wonderful “black-bird” (at first I thought penguin – and, given the dance’s title, maybe that’s more appropriate) costumes and the execution by the delightful dancers from CNDC d’Angers, Beach Birds grew on me.
If you’ve ever stared at birds arriving at, lining up on, or flying away from, a telephone wire (or penguins making their way along an Antarctic ocean beach), you know that their movement has a distinctive quality, and it’s this quality that Cunningham captures and expands upon. From the opening angled poses (as if having just “landed” and finding their balance, or while maintaining their hierarchical positions while stretching their wings), to depicting their evolving relationship with other members of their atypical avian community, here Cunningham’s movement, while undeniably abstract and minimal, has a raison d’etre. Purists may assert that a “reason” is irrelevant, and perhaps they’re right, but it makes the medicine go down more easily.
And with dancers of the caliber of those from CNDC d’Angers, the piece found an ensemble that could do it justice. Never having seen the piece danced by any other company, I can’t make comparisons. But I found these CNDC d”Angers dancers’ to be engaging rather than sterile vessels, which is the impression I’ve gotten in many (though not all) other Cunningham pieces I’ve previously seen. It may not be orthodox Cunningham, but it’s refreshing.
Program 3 opened with dancers from The Mariinsky Ballet in the U.S. premiere of Alexander Sergeev’s At the Wrong Time. The dance, which premiered last March, is fluff, but it’s fun to watch, and even more enjoyable as performed by these Mariinsky dancers.
Not unlike Jerome Robbins’s In the Night, the dance features three couples in different stages of their relationships. But the emphasis here is far more playful (with the exception of the “more mature” of the three couples), and the overall atmosphere reflects this – from the opening image of pianist Vladimir Rumyanstev standing in front of a piano upstage center, as if ruminating about what the music he’s about to play might look like if visualized, to the closing image of the dance’s ingénue giving her boyfriend an impromptu kiss on the cheek, the dance is passionate, sugary without being saccharine, and delightful. And the title is almost as cute – when it comes to love, even if it’s the wrong time, there’s never a wrong time.
Each of the three couples displayed the same qualities, which were reflected in the accompanying music – three pieces by Heitor Villa-Lobos. As the more mature couple, Nadezhda Batoeva and Konstantin Zverev had the more difficult task of playing off the cuteness and the youthful passion of the other couples, but carried it off. Maria Shirinkina and and Alexei Timofeyev, the more passionate couple, performed Sergeev’s more passionate and complex choreography impeccably. [I recall Shirinkina from previous visits to New York several years ago, and her confidence appears to have grown exponentially since then. She (and her partner) danced superbly – and later that week, following the company engagement in Washington, she was promoted to First Soloist.] Anastasia Nuikina and Xander Parrish were the young couple in deep puppy love, and they were a thoroughly engaging pair. Nuikina (and Parrish) were in New York a year ago during City Center’s Balanchine Festival, performing in George Balanchine’s Apollo, and I remarked then at what a pleasant surprise Nuikina was. Her performing ability is no longer a surprise – it’s something to look forward to. Her role here is calculated to make one smile, and she did, but if there’s an element of artificiality, the dance falls apart. There wasn’t any. She’s quite an engaging young dancer. It should be noted also, based only on a cursory knowledge of recent casting, that The Mariinsky is highlighting the capabilities of its young “new” dancers (particularly the Vaganova Class of 2018) to an unusual extent. Some may consider this to be a gamble, but it’s a gamble that’s paying off.
Akram Khan’s Dust Duet, which followed At the Wrong Time, couldn’t be more different in spirit, but it’s by far the best piece by Khan among the few of his dances that I’ve seen. That it might have been clearer in this presentation, or more clearly understood, was the only deficiency in this FFD performance.
The program note indicates that English National Ballet premiered Dust Duet at the Barbican in London on April 2, 2014. Technically, it did. But after briefly researching the piece after the FFD performance, I learned that the premiere that night was Khan’s Dust, one of three premieres to commemorate the beginning of World War I. The piece’s concluding duet, danced at the time by Khan and Tamara Rojo, was a component of it. Knowing that Dust Duet was a part of a whole, and knowing its significance, would likely have made this FFD performance even more impressive than it was.
As it was, on first view and without any knowledge of its background, Dust Duet is a towering achievement in describing emotional agony and loss – actual or impending. We don’t know why Erina Takahashi and James Streeter appear so passionately doomed, but they do – but not knowing does not impact the quality of their performance or the choreography. [We don’t know what caused the death of children the consequences of which Sir Antony Tudor visualized in Dark Elegies, but as troubling as that lack of knowledge may seem, it matters not at all.] We don’t know why they seem to emerge from the depths as the dance begins (apparently an allusion to the trenches of war), or why Streeter’s character disappears (going off to war / death), but we know that she’s trying to hold on to him (I assumed from leaving the relationship – which in a way is what it was), and he’s resolute in doing what he has to do.
Describing it in those terms, however, doesn’t come close to describing the physical connection displayed. There’s nothing sexual about this duet, but it’s one of the most desperately passionate that I can recall. She’s at once glued to him, wrapped around him, stepping all over him, to get him to not do “something.” He bears the weight of his obligation / duty /decision, and her resistance – like (literally) a weight he carries on his back – as inevitable, and immutable. The heartbreak of his leaving is palpable, even though we don’t know why. And in the course of it, Khan makes similar pas de deux about desperation and loss, as good as many of them are, seem almost trivial. The dancers, especially the desperate and inconsolable Takahashi, drained of everything except her sense of hopelessness, delivered a performance of extraordinary depth and commitment.
Another duet, Skånes Dansteater’s Dare to Wreck, followed Dust Duet on this program. Again, besides the obvious, we don’t know why what’s happening is happening. The obvious is that the female dancer cannot walk.
I’ve seen dances performed by persons with disabilities before, and admired these dancers’ courage and accomplishment. But as worthy of appreciation as many of these dances (and definitely the dancers) are, I don’t recall the choreography being particular meaningful beyond displaying that persons with disabilities can move beyond changing their physical positions on a stage. Dare to Wreck is in a different league. Here the choreography (by the Skånes Dansteater dancers – Madeleine Mansson and Peder Nilsson) is not created to accommodate them, though of course it does, but to say something beyond the fact that persons with disabilities can dance.
Dare to Wreck, which premiered in Sweden in 2017, is a relationship / dispute / resolution (maybe) dance. We don’t know the particular issue, but that doesn’t matter – and the issue may indeed be the fact that Mansson’s character must, in Nilsson’s eyes, do something more than spend her life in her wheelchair.
Mansson and Nilsson initially emerge from the wings in silence – this is the first that the audience knows that Mansson is in a wheelchair. He looks at her; she looks at him. In the silent stares, I saw anger, frustration, and determination. She removes the straps from her wheelchair, as the music (by Gert Ostergaard) begins, and soon pushes her body so she hangs off her chair – seemingly both wanting to do more and demonstrating that she can’t. What follows is a very physical dance, as Nilsson repeatedly pulls Mansson off her wheelchair, rolls on the floor with her, carries her, and returns her to her chair. He sits against her chair as he seems to grow more intense, then at one point lifts her, in the wheelchair, over his head – a new dimension to over-the-head lifts.
This is not a love duet – but in a way it is. In the end, there’s a form of resolution, but one that falls short of acceptance. It’s clear to me that the end is only a respite in both dancers’ refusal to accept being handicapped as a disability.
At the bottom of the spectrum in these three programs are two of the pieces in Program 2.
The French word “engrenage” means “gear,” as in gear system, technical gear, machinery. I’m sure there are more nuances that I haven’t found in a brief search, but one alternate meaning that I found was “an inescapable series of events.” That’s the meaning that’s scary.
Dans L’Engrenage is a dance that seemingly makes no sense. Initially, there’s this large table center stage, around which the dancers eventually gather. At one point or another, the dancers dance individually, then as a group, around the table, and one of them might dance on the table, followed by another.
At some point thereafter, the table disappears, and the seven Dyptik dancers proceed to move as groups or individuals, in a style that might be described as distinctive expressions of hip-hop, break dance, or angular-based contemporary dance. There’s nothing wrong with that – and the dancers individually and as a group are quite good. Even though I wasn’t particularly enamored of what it was they were doing, this was quality execution, and the talent required to execute such movement qualities, as I’ve recognized previously with other groups (most recently at last year’s FFD) is genuine and significant.
Somewhere along the way, however, the energy and direction of Dans L’Engrenage changed, and the sense communicated was anger. It wasn’t clear what the impetus for the anger was – it didn’t seem connected to anything; it just was. And then from where I was sitting, and seemingly out of nowhere, I could see upstage almost blocked by other dancers one man pull one of the women toward the upstage “wall” (she’d either been part of the group or at the perimeter of the group watching) and violently (and undeniably) assault her sexually, after which he left her lifeless body and rejoined the group. Wait, what??
Putting two and two together, the sense I got was that society, French society, French culture, the French majority, whatever it was – may have been represented by that table at the dance’s outset, surrounded by immigrant dancers – a very unfortunate image that brings to mind not so much a desire for acceptance as a promise to overwhelm. It’s the introduction to what follows, when the dance then devolves into a protest and an explicit statement as to what will happen if “you” continue to marginalize “us” – the outcome, violence – and not just violence, but criminality and mindless assaults against innocents. I must emphasize that this is my evaluation from the dance, not anything explicitly indicated on stage – except in the rape scene, which is all too real, and all too gratuitous.
I couldn’t believe that the company and the dance’s choreographers (Mehdi Meghari and Souhail Marchiche) would create a dance that’s so obviously threatening, and so obviously demeaning to whatever cause they were advocating. So I checked the company’s web site, and indeed that seems to be what the choreographers intended. Included in the dance’s manifesto was the following: “Finding your place, precarious as it may be. You fight for it. Fight to keep it. Beyond the inner workings of society. Beyond conventions. Beyond the common good. Beyond individual liberties. You play around the rules to keep going. Even to the point of transgression. Even if it means doing wrong. Even if those put upon rise up. They believe in something better. They are committed. In the face of all opposition. Against all odds. Single-handedly. They fight. At strength’s end, still they build. Something different. Differently. A foundation for the new. For their sake. To exist. Caught in the gears, they combine. Blend in with the crowd. Again. For how long?”
I make no judgment against the choreographers’ sincerity. That’s for others to evaluate in a different venue. But as a dance, the violent, gratuitous rape scene inserted to make a political point, and the threat that ‘that’s what’s inevitably going to happen’ if…, does nothing to advance the cause.
I remember seeing Malevo during one of the recent seasons of TV’s America’s Got Talent. The group’s intensity and capability was exceptional then, and remains at that level. But even though the dances presented under the umbrella title Salvaje are superbly executed, for all the generated heat the piece left me cold.
Salvaje means “wild,” or “savage,” or “feral.” All those meanings apply to this dance. Allegedly based on an Argentine folk dance known as Malambo, the dance, always performed by men, is a display in dance of virility, and appears to have a kinship to Flamenco and the male side of the Argentine Tango. The thirteen men are superb artists at what they do, and I cannot deny that the different dances, all choreographed by company Director Matias Jaime, are exciting to watch and were reasonably distinctive. It’d make (if it hasn’t already) a great Vegas act.
But what happens in Vegas should stay there. There’s a limit – and to me the preening and pounding of heels, the strutting and the sense of self-importance, was too much testosterone. I must emphasize, however, that at this performance (and I suspect at the other Program 2 performance as well) the audience ate it up, reveling in the percussion, the attack, and … the testosterone. At one point, when the dancers returned to the stage between Salvaje’s sub-dances carrying props that looked similar to coiled whips, the “ooohhs” of glee from the audience were pervasive.
Over the years, FFD has included all male companies that perform different examples of the same type of thing, to audience’s delight. I suppose I’m out of touch – and I recognize that there are many shades of grey. But to me, after awhile, it all blended together and became, shudder, boring.
The remaining dances I saw will be discussed briefly, seriatim.
Program 2 opened with Mark Morris’s Eleven. I saw this dance previously, on a Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart program in 2016, and feel about it now as I did then. If nothing else, Eleven illustrates why choreographing to Mozart (here Piano Concerto No. 11 in F Major) is so difficult, and why successful choreography to Mozart is so rare. While Mozart’s sense of classical balance is timeless and beautiful, the same qualities faithfully rendered visually can look uninteresting unless, like Balanchine, the choreographer frees the dance from the music’s structural skeleton and lets it breathe. Eleven is just, well, balanced, with movement that repeats until Morris seemingly gets tired of it, when he moves on to another section that then repeats. And except for the dance’s lead (now, as in 2016, Lauren Grant), there’s not much visually to latch onto here.
I wanted to like Washington Ballet’s Shadow Lands, the third piece on Program 2, because I root for Julie Kent’s success in D.C. Instead, the best I can say is that I didn’t dislike it. Choreographed by Dana Genshaft, a former San Francisco Ballet soloist, the piece features ten company dancers, super-sleek costumes (by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) and superb other-worldly lighting (by Joseph R. Walls), both of which enrich the presentation, and music by Mason Bates, which serves to both frame and fracture it.
And the “fracture” of it is part of the dance, and part of the problem.While there are moments in Shadow Lands that are enjoyable, most of the dance looks it’s comprised of different component forms that are meshed together artificially. Some of the movement quality is quite good, some of it seemingly by rote. My understanding is that Genshaft is relatively new to choreographing, and if nothing else, Shadow Lands shows promise. And it included a promising group of dancers as well: Victoria Arrea, Gilles Delellio, Kateryna Derechyna, Corey Landolt, Javier Morera, Maki Onuki, Gian Carlos Perez, Daniel Roberge, Alexa Torres, and most impressively, Katherine Barkman.
Program 3 concluded with Act II of Rennie Harris’s Lazarus, danced by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. According to the program note, Lazarus was inspired by the life and times of Alvin Ailey. That may be the case, but it’s hard to tell from Act II alone. It’s also hard to tell exactly what’s going on beyond an ultimate triumph and choreographically (and visually) colorful celebration. The seeming cast of thousands (16 dancers) are an accomplished group, and Harris’s choreography moves them around interestingly, but I’m unable to discern more of the piece as a whole than that.
Finally, the third piece on Program 4, For Us, performed by two dancers from Madboots Dance, which defines itself as a queer contemporary dance company, has its heart in the right place, but has little substance beyond the vividly-described connection between the two male dancers.
Choreographed by company Artistic Directors Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz, and performed here by David Maurice and Austin Tyson, the dance is a heartfelt response to the 2016 shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, except you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t seen the reference in the program notes. It’s personal, without any sense of universality.
The tone the dance takes is wistful and yearning, rather than anger. To songs (“Somewhere,” sung by Shirley Bassey, and Judy Garland’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) and a poem by Allen Ginsberg, the two men share an initially covert attraction, which develops into a relationship, which evolves into heartbreak. But the pervasive sadness, a counterpoint to the dance’s considerable sexuality, while appropriate, leaves one expecting more. I concede, though, that I don’t know what “more” Campbell and Diaz could have done to have made For Us, as conceived, more than the personal remembrance that it appears to be.
But, in general, I can’t be sad about what I saw in FFD 2019. Several brilliant dances, many exceptional performance, and other dances that are undeniably memorable more than compensate for the disappointments, as they always seem to do with FFD. At the very least, the eclectic five program repertory will satisfy someone, and engage anyone – and provide an introduction to dancers, dance companies, and dance forms that may not have been previously seen. That alone remains a laudable accomplishment.