Fall for Dance 2022 – Part 1
New York City Center
New York, New York
September 21 and 27, 2021
Program I: Boys Don’t Cry (excerpt), Le Corsaire Pas de Deux, Bliss
Program 3: Morani/Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God), In the Night, Tangos & Alegrias
Fall for Dance, the annual autumn dance explosion begun by Arlene Shuler, New York City Center’s President and CEO 19 years ago, to whom this season is dedicated on the occasion of her imminent retirement, opened its 2022 incarnation last week. To date, I’ve been able to attend two of the five-program series, programs 1 and 3; weather permitting, I expect to see program 4 and 5 later this week. This review will focus on the first two programs.
FFD is now a New York institution and has spawned similar annual events nationwide. In return for a nominal sum for tickets ($15 when the series began; $20 per ticket now), audiences are treated to a broad panoply of dance forms, from ballet to modern; from classic to contemporary; and from the extraordinary to the bizarre and points in between – and the performers get to dance in New York City for perhaps the only time in their performing careers, before sold out houses, with audiences enthusiastic about almost everything they see.
How can that be bad?
Well, it’s not, but at times the dances curated cater to the audience it seeks to cultivate: specifically, to the apparent audience preference for speed, acrobatics, ethnic dances that are different, dances catering to social consciousness concerns, and flaming testosterone. Finesse and artistry often seem to take a back seat to short attention spans and what the majority of the audience came to see. Based on what I saw in first two 2022 programs, this trend continues. But it’s not an unreasonable tradeoff: perhaps some audience-members will be sufficiently stimulated to expand beyond their preferences, and outside their comfort zones.
I’ll discuss each of the dances in each program in the order presented.
The opening program was typical of FFD programming, except the usual order of presentation was switched. The lively opener was last on the program; the beefcake, such as it was, came first.
The last time I saw Compagnie Hervé Koubi was at FFD in 2018, in an excerpt from a larger piece titled The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World. I found it very interesting, with talented dancers exploring an average subject in a novel way, and with the inevitable breakdance instances well integrated into the dance’s subject and executed brilliantly. The company later presented the complete version of the dance at a Joyce Theater run (shortly before the pandemic began), and I wasn’t quite as enamored of it en toto as I was with the excerpt. Nevertheless, the piece promised more such efforts in the future.
Here, in another excerpt – this time from a piece titled Boys Don’t Cry (choreographed by Koubi and Faycal Hamlat to an eclectic patched-together score), the presentation began with a similar arousal of interest. The stage was bathed in white, and the costumes for the all-male company were all white. I hadn’t seen a stage so white since Peter Brook’s landmark production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at BAM in 1971.
But this pleasurable aura didn’t last long. As the cast began to roughhouse as if preparing for a game of soccer, and after one of them very deliberately kicks the ball into the upper City Center seating area (which, unless it was targeted and perfectly executed, provided an audience member with either a neat souvenir or potential grounds for a lawsuit), several dancers began removing their shirts, exposing their muscular chests.
Despite apparent good intentions, the piece went downhill after that. Essentially, one man moved to a microphone downstage left, and matter-of-factly became a stand-up tragedian (“I hate soccer,” one begins). One would tell of not being loved by his father and constantly seeking his father’s approval; another talked of his father’s expression of shame at what his son had become; another – several as I recall – would discuss their reaction to being bullied and intimidated by family and/or co-soccer players. It’s all spoken earnestly. When the monologues end, each speaker would return to the group, such as it was, and either danced with them or was too emotionally handicapped to do so. Not surprisingly, the excerpt, which was quite long (or maybe just seemed it), concluded with one declaring “For me, dancing is life.” Cue applause.
Lest any reader begin thinking that this is a French / North African version of A Chorus Line, it’s not. It’s most definitely a dance, from street dance to Brazilian-derivations, and apart from the narratives, most of it is entertaining. But too much of it is acrobatics, abetted by the omnipresent exposed muscle. Not the examples of break dance – as I wrote some time ago, as it takes skill and experience to pirouette unassisted en pointe (e.g. fouettes), skill and experience are required to spin on one’s head with, or often without, propelling arms – the demonstrations of that were superb. But the other stuff … not so much.
Since this was an excerpt, perhaps the piece in its entirety will be more enlightening. But I suspect not.
After a longer than usual pause to remove the white curtains and mop the floor, the next piece began. The Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire is no stranger to New York ballet audiences. It’s often a featured highlight of many programs, and, together with the Don Quixote Pas de Deux, it’s a staple of dance competitions and galas. Indeed, the first time I saw one of the dancers here was at a YAGP Finals competition at Lincoln Center.
The dancers performing this pas were two Portuguese-born dancers, now Soloists with the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich. Antonio Casalinho is the one whose name, and accomplished execution, I recall from the YAGP New York Finals in 2016 – where, at age 12, he won the Grand Prix (top award) in his age division, dancing the male variation from … Le Corsaire. Now he’s all of 19 years old – and senior to his partner, Margarita Fernandes, who is 17.
Their execution wasn’t bad; Casalinho demonstrated that he’s a rising star, and his partner did what she needed to do well, especially taking into account normal opening-night-in-NYC jitters. But that quality of possessing a character, much less inhabiting one, was missing. Granted that characterization isn’t essential for a pas de deux excerpt, but it makes a difference. I gathered from neither whether they knew who their characters were supposed to be. Since their talent is undeniable, it’s likely that as each grows in experience those qualities will emerge as well.
Tuesday evening’s program closed with New York’s Gibney Dance performing the North American premiere of Swedish choreographer Johan Inger’s Bliss. It’s a strange piece – including because I found little “bliss” in it.
Bliss begins with a man slowly walking from the audience-left wings across the stage to the audience-right wings. He’s followed by another, and then a woman – each moving the same way, although the angle begins to slightly differ. Following that, another man crosses the stage, after which certain members of the audience began to impatiently giggle.
Another man then crosses the stage, but at this point stops and examines the sky (which prompted audience mocking applause), followed by another emerging from audience right, and then, my notes indicate, starts moving his body extremities and upper torso. Only then does the dance’s score, unidentified music by Keith Jarrett, begin. Eventually, more dancers traverse the stage, and the pace quickens to include vigorous movement and running. But aside from generalized expressions of urban angst, and occasional pairing (at least one of which was quite good), the choreography is slinky kitchen sink, and the dance ends – emptily. I liked the way Inger pulls everything and every dancer together in the penultimate scene, and the humorous way the dance concludes, but ultimately, Bliss wasn’t bliss.
And since there appears to have been nothing else, maybe this was Inger’s point. Perhaps he titled the piece as he did sarcastically, to emphasize that routine haphazard and temporary urban couplings bear little resemblance to “bliss.” The characters may be following their bliss, to quote Joseph Campbell’s famous book, but the bliss they’re following is illusory.
But even if that’s the case, it doesn’t help the dance.
Jamar Roberts, a former member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, choreographed a laudable piece last year for New York City Ballet. Two thirds of his Morani/Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God), which premiered virtually last year, reveals another fine piece of work, with one of those segments being particularly impressive. But it was almost done in by the kind of self-importance that makes me squirm.
Excellently performed here by James Gilmer, a recent addition to AAADT, Morani/Mungu comes with program notes prepared by Roberts. Roberts there contends that his dance illustrates the duality of being black: being a constant warrior for equality, justice, and peace; but at the heart of it is the omnipotent hope, faith, and love of God. A little hyperbole is ok, particularly if the dance supports it. It’s not when it doesn’t.
Morani/Mungu is divided into three parts, corresponding to the distinct accompaniments for each.
The first, to “Black Is,” by The Last Poets, talks little about the lofty assertions in the first part of the program note, but rather is a staccato verbal recitation of black suffering and black pride. The dance Roberts choreographs to these words is nebulous, limited, and unfocused, as if the dancer, Gilmer, is reacting while not seeing.
After that segment, the dance improves enormously. The second section, to a composition by legendary saxophonist, composer, and bandleader John Coltrane, accomplishes what the first section did not. I don’t pretend to be able to fully appreciate the ‘black experience,” a point I’ve stated many times before, but it appears to me that Coltrane’s music, “The Drum Thing” (the final track from the 1964 album “Crescent”), coupled with Roberts’s choreography and Gilmer’s execution, encapsulates it all – from feeling societal slings and arrows to being blasted incessantly and without cause by musical bullets (rapid-fire drumbeats, to my knowledge generated by Elvin Jones), to appearing to give up when the urge to resist is overwhelmed. It’s brilliantly done, anger-provoking, and heartbreaking.
The final segment relates to the hope and faith section of the program note. To a moving and genuine instrumental version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” noted as performed by Nina Simone (with no credit reference to the composer, Richard Rodgers), Roberts’s choreography is somewhat simplistic (worshipfulness and surrender to prayer), but Gilmer makes it looks quietly impassioned. [Photos from Morani/Mungu will be added upon receipt.]
Second on the program was Jerome Robbins’s In the Night. Familiar though it may be, it was given a thoroughly credible execution by three pairs of dancers from San Francisco Ballet. Elizabeth Powell and Joseph Walsh delivered the youthful passion imbedded in the Robbins choreography; Sasha Mukhamedov and Tiit Helemets did the same for the more mature passion in the dance’s second segment, and Doris Andre and Luke Ingham equaled them with the tempestuous third segment. While I’m accustomed to performances that inject somewhat more characterization into each segment, overall this doesn’t matter as much as the polished choreographic execution the SFB dancers provided. To my eye the standouts here were Walsh and Mukhamedov, all merit praise.
Program 3 ended with one of FFD’s more unusual, and more rewarding, exhibitions. FFD has presented Flamenco before, but not, to my knowledge, performed solely by women, abetted by four mostly seated musicians on drums, clapped hands, and constant verbal encouragement. If you’ve ever played in the infield of a baseball game, it’s analogous, I think, to the continuous encouragement infielders give to the pitcher, except it’s in Spanish, and there’s a sensual overtone to it that’s absent in baseball (at least in the ancient Little League).
The piece is titled Tangos & Alegrias (alegrias translates as “joy”), and was performed in large part by Maria Moreno, who choreographed it together with Manuel Linan. It’s an extraordinary-looking solo dance, high on sensual passion and with every body part moving furiously within specified parameters. There’s a vague similarity here to Indian classical dance, but vague is the operative word. It’s as vibrant as the Flamenco exhibitions audiences usually see, and it has a patina of undeniable authenticity. Moreno’s compact body movement was exceptionally clear and perfectly timed: at times she resembled a coiled snake with predatory exclamations (snapping fingers and castanets; pounding feet; screaming vocals) – even when, in one of the collection of dances, she looks like she’s chasing her tail (the train of her dress).
Moreno was aided in two of the dances by “special guest” Maria Terremoto, also a Flamenco expert who also excels vocally. Terremoto joined Moreno for the initial dance, and danced a solo herself for the second. Terremoto doesn’t have the pinpoint expertise that Moreno does, but she has a voice that could be heard back in Spain. Indeed, her vocalism was so strongly and powerfully performed that I question whether she should have been miked – it was overkill, and at times Terremoto’s voice came across as shrill.
Overall, this was a superb presentation, and was wildly well-received by the highly enthusiastic audience.
FFD Programs 4 and 5 will be the subject of the next review.