Fall for Dance 2021
New York City Center
New York, New York

October 13, 16, 19, and 24, 2021

Program I: Molinette, Add / Pole Vault, Air (Streb Extreme Action); Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song (A.I.M by Kyle Abraham); Sweet Gwen Suite (The Verdon Fosse Legacy)

Program 2:American Lanscapes (Stephen Petronio Company); Sons De L’âme (Houston Ballet); ODEON: Redux (Ephrat Asherie Dance)

Program 3: Connection (Philadelphia Ballet); Drift (Micaela Taylor’s the TL Collective); The Movement (Step Afrika!)

Program 5: Fandango (Roman Mejia); Bloom (Tiler Peck and Herman Cornejo); Where We Dwell (Ayodele Casel)

Jerry Hochman

For its first series of post-pandemic live performances, New York City Center presented the five-program, 2021 edition of its vaunted, and extremely popular, Fall for Dance series. As in prior years, the quality of the performances across the scope of the programs I saw (I was unable to see Program 4) varied from the superb to those that, for one reason or another and to varying degree, were less impressive.

At the outset, it must be emphasized that the usual array of international companies and featured dancers that are a component of the Fall for Dance experience was unavailable this year because of pandemic travel restrictions. Consequently, this year’s programming only included companies and artists based in the U.S.

As usual, the programs seemed designed to provide something that would appeal to any member of the audience, either because of the dance’s manifest artistry, a particularly impressive display of technical ability, or that might touch a nerve by its subject matter alone. Also, it bears keeping in mind that, whether a product of low ticket prices or persons naturally attracted to certain companies or dancers on the schedule, the FFD audiences, at least at the performances I saw, although respectful and enthusiastic about every dance presented, by far (measured by the eruptive shouts that peppered certain performances, and on my entirely unofficial post-performance ovation meter) favored those programs that were fastest, that showed the dancers sweat, and, most of all, that made the loudest noise. Being transparently issue-oriented didn’t hurt either.

Each of the four programs I attended contained at least one dance that, by its choreography and/or execution, was exceptional. I’ll consider those first, and the others thereafter roughly in program order.

Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song

By far the finest dance, in terms of choreographic quality and execution, was one with the lowest profile, and it occurred in the first FFD program of the year.

Simply put, Kyle Abraham’s Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song, is a masterpiece, despite (and maybe because of) its relatively small footprint. And it proves that to make a point about the pernicious consequences of racism, it can be done in a form that makes the message recognizable and emotionally appealing to a broad audience universe, and can be accomplished through intelligently restrained choreography and powerful execution.

A.I.M in Kyle Abraham’s “Our Indigo: If We Were A Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

In the past, I’ve had reservations about those few dances I’ve seen that Abraham created for his own company, A.I.M (Abraham In Motion). Then, with his first piece for New York City Ballet, The Runaway, his style and message (even if I got that message wrong), and the packaging in which he presented it, was masterful. I included The Runaway as one of my “Tops in New York Dance” for 2018. His second piece for NYCB’s Taylor Stanley (originally presented virtually by Lincoln Center), Ces noms que nous portons, was more obviously personal, but it was another masterful creation of personal importance delivered in a way that could be understood and appreciated by any viewer.

Abraham is on a roll.

Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song was commissioned by the American Dance Festival and premiered there 6 weeks earlier. This was its New York premiere. The dance’s title provides insight into Abraham’s intent here: to visualize the African-American experience on an intensely personal level. The individual but representative stories he brings to life are explored via a series of songs that might normally be considered “blues,” but that here are much deeper and more profound, and far more difficult to be covered-over or erased: here the blues are indigo.

A.I.M. in Kyle Abraham’s “Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The piece is a series of six dances – the first involving all seven members of the company, the remainder performed as solos, or in one case, as a duet. I can’t possibly fully understand the African-American experience, and I suppose that no one who is not African-American can. But Abraham’s choreography, the songs performed (all sung by Nina Simone, and nearly all relatively unknown to those only familiar with her more “crossover” combination of soul, blues, jazz, and classical music), and the dancers’ execution, place that experience on a personal level that can be profoundly moving to anyone with a heart.

The opening piece, to Simone’s soulful and targeted rendition of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” is introductory, and establishes the mood and the character of those more focused dances that will follow it. Nearly all the action takes place within a confined (segregated?) area upstage left – as are the subsequent individual dances. The movement quality is generally slow, like humid summer air (matching the music), filled with slinky, twisty, rotating, stretching and swaying bodies, and often seen with the dancers’ backs to the audience, or in shadow. The effect here, and continued throughout, is like looking through a window to observe the lives on the other side.

Just because the choreography is most often delivered at a slow pace does not mean that it’s simple. It’s not. Limiting the scope of choreographed movement may be tougher to pull off than more fast-paced dances. But the movement rightly isn’t this dance’s focus; it’s the inwardly directed power and intensity that the movement creates and enables, far more than fancy footwork or didactic stage action, that make this piece resonate.

(l-r) Donovan Reed and Jae Neal
in Kyle Abraham’s
“Our Indigo: If We Were A Love Song”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The five dances that follow the introduction all focus on aspects, and consequences, of being African-American on a personal but universal level. Each one – “Keeper of the Flame,” (danced by Donovan Reed), “Little Girl Blue” – one of the more familiar Simone songs (performed by Gianna Theodore), “Don’t Explain” (by Jae Neal and Reed), “Wild is the Wind” (by Claude “CJ” Johnson), and “Images” (by Catherine Kirk) – was impeccably executed. Of them all, the final dance ended the piece on a high (meaning low) note. The words of “Images,” illuminated by Kirk’s performance, speak of a black woman who can see no image of herself in her mind, or even in a mirror, because her skin color and the outer society’s reaction to it prevent her from seeing, knowing, and recognizing who she is. The song, Abraham’s choreography, and Kirk’s performance, are shattering. And the dance as a whole (the other dances received similarly eloquent and quietly explosive performances) is unforgettable.

If I decide to compile a list of Tops in New York Dance in 2021, Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song will be in it.

Another candidate, and a huge surprise to me, was the final piece in Program 2. I remember Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie from her association with Dorrance Dance, where, at least in the 2016 program I saw, her contribution was limited to her skill as a b-girl.  Of Asherie, I wrote at the time: “Here she was used primarily for her breakdancing ability. She moved with phenomenal skill, and came close to stealing the entire performance.”

Manon Bal and Matthew West
in Ephrat Asherie’s “ODEON: Redux”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Asherie subsequently left Dorrance Dance and created her own company, winning accolades along the way. But I suspected that her own company would be limited to breakdancing.

I was so wrong.

Ephrat Asherie Dance in “ODEON: Redux”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

ODEON: Redux is a multifaceted cornucopia of dance, and I can think of no more accurate or comprehensive way to describe it. I suppose most of what was presented can be broadly categorized as “street dance,” but for me that term is far too limiting a description. With all its movement variety, however, the piece never looks like a jumble. There’s breakdance, but it’s only a small part of the whole (and, like everything else in the piece, it was executed brilliantly).

Ephrat Asherie in “ODEON: Redux”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

The dance, which premiered in 2018 at Jacobs Pillow, was assembled with obvious intelligence and care. It’s loosely separated into component parts, but is staged so skillfully that the seams, to the extent there are any, don’t show. And each of the six dancers (Manon Bal, Teena Marie Custer, Valerie ”Ms. Vee” Ho, Matthew West, Omari Wiles, and Asherie herself) executed whatever they danced with exceptional clarity and energy, without any semblance of technical overkill or any subterranean message. On the contrary, ODEON: Redux overflows with the kind of non-stop energy that’s infectious: no matter what one’s level of mobility, anyone watching the piece had to have been moved to want to want to join the fun.

The accompanying music (attributed to Ernesto Nazarreth) was as infectious as the dance. The musicians were Ehud Asherie (who was also the Musical Director), Eduardo Belo, Angel Lau, and Jeremy Smith.

The opening dance in the closing program of the series (Program 5), Fandango, is a showstopper originally created by Alexei Ratmansky for Wendy Whelan in 2010 for that year’s Vail Dance Festival. I didn’t see Whelan’s performance, but I did see a restaging of it in 2016, performed by NYCB’s Sara Mearns, at City Center’s Vail Dance Festival – a promising and valuable series that, unfortunately, has not been repeated. The piece, and Mearns’s execution of it, was sensational: I subsequently described it as one of Mearns’s most memorable performances.

Roman Mejia in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Fandango”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

In 2019, Fandango was restaged again, this time for NYCB’s Roman Mejia. I don’t recall much of the 2016 incarnation beyond my memorialized evaluation of it. Whatever it was, this version is necessarily different. First, it uses either additional music, or the same music arranged differently – the music is credited to Luigi Boccherini, as was the previous iteration I saw (played here by the Brooklyn Rider string quartet), but the musicians listed now also include a guitarist and percussionist (Alberta Khoury and Dario Natarelli, respectively), Second, it was danced by Mejia, and Ratmansky here has re-choreographed some or all of the prior versions to take advantage of Mejia’s individual talents.

Mejia became a member of NYCB’s corps in November, 2017, and was promoted to Soloist earlier this month. During this relatively brief period – indeed, from the first time he appeared – he’s made a significant impression: For example, in his role debut as Mercutio in Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet, less than four months after joining the company, and subsequently as Puck in Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mejia was electrifying and magnetic: an energy force with an engaging stage presence. If there’s any concern about his future progress, it’s that he may not have the gravitas to pull off leading danseur roles in full length ballets – but I wouldn’t bet against him. What’s undeniable now is the fun of watching him artistically grow.

The usual definition of “fandango” is a Spanish dance by a man and a woman to guitar and castanets. But since its origin in Spain and Portugal in the 17th Century it has evolved into something far more generic than those Spanish dances to which it may be related but that are more constrained by form and tradition (e.g., flamenco). It’s not a free-for-all, but in a sense it’s more carefree and spontaneous, albeit with a distinctive Spanish accent. Indeed, as used in Mexico (and probably via emigration to the U.S.), it has become almost synonymous with a fiesta, or a party, with more flair than rigid requirements, and something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Roman Mejia in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Fandango”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

All these characteristics mark the dance that Ratmansky has re-choreographed for Mejia. Fandango, at least this revision, caters to Mejia’s strengths: including among them what appears to be an innate sense of humor, and an airiness that makes him appear to float above the stage floor even when he punctuates into it.

The dance took awhile to get moving as Mejia, intentionally, surveyed the premises, seemingly deciding what to do first. But when he got moving – usually in bursts of energy that were complex but time-limited, the result was glorious. In the course of the piece Mejia interacted directly with the guitarist, percussionist, and the string quartet, individually and collectively, being inspired by and responding to the music. He’d stop, survey the premises again (often while walking upstage, around and behind the musicians), slowly simmering, and then explode like unleashed liquid air (think “Old Faithful” at Yellowstone) but smooth as silk and at times with a knowing, impish grin that in this case was perfectly appropriate (Mejia already knows how to milk an audience without looking in any way like he’s milking an audience), ultimately culminating in a sequence of turns that elicited justifiable roars from all corners of the house. My only criticism: it ended far too soon.

So Jung Shin and Russell Ducker
in Juliano Nunes’s “Connection”
Photo by Arian Molina Soca

Program 3 opened with Juliano Nunes’s Connection, performed by dancers from Philadelphia Ballet (the company formerly known as Pennsylvania Ballet). Nunes first came to my attention at the 2019 YAGP “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala,” with Nothing Left, a duet he choreographed and in which he appeared with Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn. I found it exhilarating, touching and tragic, and that Nunes’s ability to merge finely wrought choreography with equally expressive (but not intrusive) emotion was revelatory. His second piece (that I saw during The Joyce Theater’s 2019 Dance Festival), Two Sides Now, proved to be an interesting and intelligently conceived and choreographed two-part duet, and it cemented my opinion of Nunes’s choreographic capability. Since then, I’ve monitored Nunes’s evolving choreographic skill via social media, watching him create interesting, unusual, and highly complex choreography on an international array of companies.

Philadelphia Ballet in Juliano Nunes’s “Connection”
Photo by Arian Molina Soca

I don’t know where in the Nunes spectrum Connection fits (it premiered in Philadelphia in November, 2019), but it’s another very fine piece of work. It looks more “tame” than the other Nunes pieces I’ve seen, but that’s relative and likely a consequence of the number of dancers in the piece; it still displays an activity and intensity level greater than, and different from, whatever the norm might be.

Connection explores emotional “connections.” It’s very much a body-to-body piece, with dancers in close physical contact with each other (which is a hallmark of his choreography) – and with a pervasive and aggressive sensuality (including simulated sexual activity), augmented by body hugging, nearly-not-there costumes, though nothing that hasn’t been seen before. In the end, however, Connection is a somewhat ascetic compilation of individual (or small group) episodes, and the sexuality is taken as a given and unexceptional rather than anything prurient.

Thays Golz (here with Paul Pujol) in Juliano Nunes’s “Connection”
Photo by Arian Molina Soca

The PB dancers are a strong group, and this piece provides them with the opportunity to display their long-limbed fluidity and flexibility. Those who stood out to me were those I’ve seen before (Naraya Lopez and Arian Molina Soca), but all handled Nunes’s feverish and highly physical choreography well. The others were Thays Golz, Ashton Roxander, Zecheng Liang, YukaIseda, Lucia Erickson, Jack Thomas, So Jung Shin, and Russell Ducker.

The remaining group of dances scattered throughout all the programs I saw were entertaining, some more than others. A few missed the mark or overplayed their hands.

Program 1’s final piece, Sweet Gwen Suite, is series of related snapshots that exemplify the genius of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. The piece was produced by The Verdon Fosse Legacy, which was created in 2013 by Verdon and Fosse’s daughter, Nicole Fosse, to preserve and license their work and to carry on their collaborative ethic. The piece was commissioned by City Center, and this was its world premiere performance.

(l-r) Tyler Eisenreich, Georgina Pazcoguin, and Zachary Downer
in “Sweet Gwen Suite”
with choreography by Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon
Photo by Stephanie Berger

As presented here, Sweet Gwen Suite is primarily a vehicle for Georgina Pazcoguin, an outstanding and distinctive NYCB Soloist, to execute Fosse’s choreography and inhabit Verdon’s stage persona. She (Pazcoguin – well, by extension, Verdon also) was terrific. She was accompanied by dancers Zachary Downer and Tyler Eisenreich (whose mission was to competently frame Pazcoguin, which they succeeded in doing), a cigarette, and a sombrero (or charro).

The brief choreographed skits have a Mexican theme, and are danced to songs that have a Mexican ambiance. But the Mexican connection doesn’t hide the fact that the suite of dances is far more Broadway (or TV) than Mexico. Here that’s a good thing. The skits are quick, cute, jazzy, enormously likeable, and consistently entertaining.

STREB Extreme Action, the company that opened the FFD 2021 series, is annoyingly good. I still question whether it’s “dance,” unless any kind of programmed (or spontaneous) movement is considered dance. [I’m aware that many think it is, or accept whatever label its creator (if there is one) uses to identify it.] It’s certainly choreographed, within boundaries, but so is a circus acrobatics act. And the performers are trained and superb at what they do, as is the case in a circus. And there’s no doubt that the pieces presented (and others I’ve seen previously) are highly entertaining – but so is a circus act. And that’s my problem.

But that’s a semantic quibble. The larger problem I have with it is that it consistently panders to those who are thrilled by the sound of performers (aka dancers) hitting the “ground” – the stage floor, or a mattress – and making the loudest noise.

It takes skill to hit a floor or mattress and not injure oneself. Dancers are trained how to hit the floor when the choreography calls for it, and not only survive intact, but get up for more. Indeed, hitting the floor, hard, is a significant component of many contemporary dances: perhaps the finest example is Paul Taylor’s Esplanade. But that (and similar dances) are not the same as this. Here the goal appears to be to provide the greatest bang, literally, for the buck.

All three of the brief dances that STREB presented, as well as a demonstration “fall” sampling to keep the audience energized while the stage set was changed, were performed very well. Molinette, which premiered in Paris in 2019, was, to me, the most interesting one on the program. Three dancers, costumed like members of an aerial militia (complete with helmets, as I recall), are first seen perched, standing upright, on a horizontal bar (connected to support “beams”) high above the stage floor. Then the dancers begin to move… down and around and up again, while their feet remained planted on that horizontal bar. At some point early on in becomes clear that the dancers feet are connected to boots, which in turn in some way are attached to the bar, but the potential danger still seems real (what if their feet fall out of the boots?). They’re daring young performers on a stationary trapeze.

More significantly in terms of choreography, the three performers circle the bar concurrently, but then sequentially, and then with their arms outstretched, and … the programmed permutations seem to continue indefinitely. And it’s not all regimented: they’re not robots. At certain points one or two will have a harder time returning to the original standing position than another, or be slightly out of sync in a combined (uniform or sequential) rotation.

I enjoyed watching Molinette a great deal because of the obvious skill (and daring) required, and because the movement was so obviously choreographed to look the way it looked. Mostly, however, there was no unnecessary “thud.” That, unfortunately, was remedied by Air, which concluded STREB’s program.

STREB Extreme Action in Elizabeth Streb’s “Air”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Air features a phalanx of dancers standing atop of piece of acrobatic machinery, and flying off it onto a mattress or similar construction below. There’s a sequence to it, but essentially it’s all the same: the dancer sky dives off a platform, hits the mattress hard (intentionally like a “belly-wop” dive into a pool), and then jumps up and bounces back to the diving platform. As the first diver hits the mattress, another dives off (from the other side of the platform), and when he or she hits the mattress, another dives off from the other side of the platform. And so it continues until it stops.

All this undoubtedly takes considerable skill and athletic ability. But there’s that thud. That’s what’s really the star here. Every time one of the performers hit the mattress creating the mic-enhanced thud (I’m not certain that the mattress was mic’d, like a tap dance floor, but the sound somehow had to have been amplified), the audience cheered. The louder the thud, the louder the cheer. There’s artistry in the fall; in the sequencing of it; in the recovery from it – regardless of whether the super-heroes’ uniforms were skillfully padded. But there’s no artistry in an enhanced thud.

Program 2’s middle piece, Sons De L’âme (“Sounds of the Soul”), is a series of connected duets choreographed by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch AM [the “AM” refers to an honorary title: “Member of the Order of Australia”] to music by Chopin, and was performed here by two Principal Dancers from Houston Ballet, Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh. It initially was a collaboration with pianist Lang Lang that premiered during a Houston Ballet visit to Paris in 2013. This performance was its New York premiere.

The choreography, like Chopin’s music, is lean and crisp, and, also like Chopin’s music, is filled with emotional nuance. But, once again like the music, the choreography is non-specific. Clearly the relationship between Gonzalez and Walsh as expressed on stage is close and soulful, and refined so that every movement (and only the movement) has a purpose. Exactly what that relationship is, and what that “purpose” is, isn’t explored: probably they’re lovers, but that’s not at all clear (particularly with respect to the more distant-looking and rather passionless, albeit crystalline, Gonzalez). It appeared to me that Gonzalez’s character was trying to pull away, and Walsh’s character was trying to pull her in, and that, and the relationship’s manifest depth, is all that’s known. This ambiguity is not fatal to the piece, but it isn’t helpful. Be that as it may, both dancers executed brilliantly, as did Vladimir Rumyatasev, who provided the live piano accompaniment.

The opening dance in Program 2, American Landscapes, choreographed by Stephen Petronio and performed by members of his company, was a disappointment. The dance, which premiered in 2019, is a commentary on the disintegration of American values and environmental heritage over time.

That’s certainly a worthy subject. But Petronio accomplishes this by having images projected onto an upstage screen, with dancers in front of it executing Petronio’s choreography. The dance’s point is delivered by the projected imagery; I saw nothing to connect what was being performed on stage to the images. Giving the broadest possible latitude, some dancers appeared, at times, to twist their bodies, and maybe others at times looked somewhat dazed. Maybe this was the choreographic response to the deterioration projected, but at most this was the equivalent of a non-verbal Greek Chorus. Further, the idea of constantly changing projected images is distracting. Because they’re at least potentially (and hopefully) significant, attention must be paid to them. This detracts for paying close attention to what’s happening in front of the projections – and I’ll concede that it’s certainly possible that I missed some critical part of the choreography because I was looking at the projection. But that’s a serious conceptual flaw.

I’m at a loss as to what Micaela Taylor’s intention is in Drift, the middle dance in Program 3. Drift premiered in Los Angeles in 2019, and this was its New York premiere. To say it’s weird-looking is an understatement, but that’s not what makes Drift confusing, nor does the highly idiosyncratic choreography and the accompanying “music” (“by various artists”). But the absence of any clear meaning (the dance doesn’t need one; but this one has one) almost is. I say “almost,” because the difficulty may be a product of its movement quality, which might just take some getting used to, and a mind that sees and expresses things differently.

As it evolves, to repeated prerecorded words or sentences containing or relating to the word “drift,” the five dancers (including Taylor) interact – without exactly interacting. I initially thought that the piece was just another reflection of urban anomie and purposelessness, with the dancers “drifting” from one pointless outward (or inward) stimulus to another. Then at some point, too close to the end, the piece became interesting. The “drift” segued into a sort of reluctant and highly unsatisfying bitter acceptance of life’s insults, particularly with respect to cultural (read racial, if you get my drift) differences. I’m not sure at all of this observation, but I’ll accept that there may be more here than I initially understood. Regardless, all of the company’s dancers (Jennifer Lacy, Kaia Makihara, Jessie Lee Thorne, and Gianna Todisco, in addition to Taylor) did what they were directed to do painfully well – and Taylor is a putty-faced marvel. Watching her and the rest of the dancers, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry – and maybe that’s the point.

There program’s description of Step Africa! makes it appear not only worthwhile to see, but somewhat essential. The company was formed in 1994, and is dedicated to the tradition of stepping (the stepping that, as the company is described, “blends percussive dance styles practiced by historically African-American fraternities and sororities, traditional West and Southern African dances, and an array of contemporary dance and art forms…focusing on teamwork, academic achievement and cross-cultural understanding.” All that is certainly commendable, but little of that was presented in The Movement, choreographed by Conrad Kelly, which had its world premiere as the closing piece in Program 2.

Stepping is a form of percussive movement that uses the body to produce sound and rhythms, primarily through leg-stomping and hand-clapping. There is no music by instruments – reportedly because slaves were not allowed to use musical instruments because they allegedly were used to coordinate rebellion (a modern day equivalent might be governmental suppression of social media to prevent protest communication). It frequently has a militaristic form, derived from military drills. What I’ve described is very much what was presented in The Movement. Stepping also reportedly draws from the dance routines of groups such as The Four Tops and The Temptations. If that’s true, The Movement showed no kinship to that. The piece skillfully exhibits foot stomping and hand clapping in rhythmic unison; subtlety and soft-landings were decidedly not a component.

The Movement was clearly intended to visualize protest. But to my eye, it overstepped its boundaries. It didn’t just visualize or reflect a movement, it copied it. As the piece progressed, sounds were incorporated into the militaristic stomping and clapping. But the words incorporated (augmented by projected images) were the words of a protest march. Indeed, but for the stomping and hand-clapping (which concededly is a large “but”), the piece was indistinguishable from a “real” protest march. I could have seen and heard the same had I watched a news broadcast that captured an actual protest.

I can’t complain about a dance that does what it intends to do, or that effectively is a call to arms – or that is preaching to the choir. But along the way The Movement lost its significance as a dance, becoming a protest itself, with the highly coordinated complexity of the stomping and hand-clapping (occasionally incorporating group sequencing similar to “waves” at a football game) becoming overwhelmed, and being drowned out, by the subject matter.

Tiler Peck and Herman Cornejo in Justin Peck’s “Bloom”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Bloom, a co-commission by City Center and the Vail Dance Festival, was the middle dance in Program 5. This was its New York premiere. I found nothing particularly to be critical of here – the piece certainly was skillfully choreographed by Justin Peck and executed by Tiler Peck and Herman Cornejo, and the music by Caroline Shaw is evocative and certainly danceable, but I found little to be excited about either.

There really isn’t time in this pas de deux to develop characterizations beyond the two doing what they do best, and if there is any meaning in the dance’s (and, presumably, the music’s) title, it escaped me. Peck’s final series of highly complex combinations was thrilling to watch; Cornejo did what he always does (but he didn’t benefit by following Mejia’s youthful enthusiasm and younger legs on the program), and both were more into themselves than each other. Perhaps it’ll look better in a different context.

Ayodele Casel in “Where We Dwell”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

The world premiere of Ayodele Casel’s Where We Dwell, a City Center commission, closed Program 5 and the series. Casel and the other dancers in her company are all super tap dancers. But this program showed little imagination. The specific tap segments were executed well, but, though arranged differently between one and another, all did the same thing: a dancing subgroup is isolated and individual dancers do their bravura turns, and the pattern is thereafter repeated in a somewhat different form. That’s fine as a tap dance exhibition of talent, but it doesn’t raise the bar. What you thought was tap still is tap. By contrast, the imagination and creativity in programs by, for example, Dorrance Dance took tap in new and innovative directions while preserving and acknowledging its roots. Be that as it may, the tapping here was certainly entertaining and executed skillfully.

Then there was the music by Crystal Monee Hall, who appeared live, presumably to sing her own music, with a percussionist and a pianist. Hall has a huge vocal presence – I suspect she could be heard in every corner of City Center even without a microphone. And as the dance began, the music was wonderful and enhancing. Even when she belted “I Got Rhythm,” it was a glorious accompaniment – although the failure to credit the song to its creators, George and Ira Gershwin, was a serious and curious (and apparently intentional) omission. It was her arrangement, but it was their song. Later, she appropriated another popular song: Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” again without any reference in the program to it’s author. But here she changed the lyrics and the song’s emphasis considerably. After initially repeating the original lyrics, she repeated over and over one of the two phrases (“my land”) that Guthrie compiled to protest against a dominating oligarchy by emphasizing unity and universality. I understand the motivation, but twisting the original intent of the song isn’t the way to do it. And Hall’s emphatic and aggressive delivery had no connection with the tap that was being performed beside it, other than maintaining its tempo.

Crystal Monee Hall and Ayodele Casel in “Where We Dwell”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

Where We Dwell was enjoyable and decidedly entertaining – until it succumbed to superfluous ideology, however valid that ideology might be.

Unless, there’s a significant Covid or Covid-variant resurgence, I’m sure that Fall for Dance, by now a New York Institution, will return next year. I’ll look forward to that – and to be unexpectedly surprised by another set of dances.