Fall for Dance 2022 – Part 2
New York City Center
New York, New York

September 30 and October 1, 2021

Program 4: Indestructible, The Two of Us, Excerpt from Thought, Men of Ukraine

Program 5: Poornarati, Variations for two couples, Cave

Jerry Hochman

Fall for Dance concluded its 2022 season with a pair of memorable programs that included a new (to the stage) pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon, a contemporary ballet for two couples that featured the first New York appearance of former Bolshoi Ballet Principal Olga Smirnova since she joined the Dutch National Ballet, and two pieces presented by the Kyiv City Ballet.

I’ll address the dances in each of these programs in order of significance. [Note that FFD 2022 Programs 1 and 3 were considered in a previous review.]

The closing presentation of Program 4 was particularly special. Kyiv City Ballet (Kyiv CB) was fortunate enough to have just arrived in Paris when Russia invaded Ukraine. They were welcomed there, both as refugees and as artists, and, after touring in Europe, now have begun performing across the pond. Their performance tour, which began on September 16, is a grueling one (e.g., the night before their first FFD appearance they danced in Chicago, and immediately following their second FFD performance, the one I saw, they were to travel to Texas), but they looked unperturbed by the stress, and accustomed to the adulation.

Kyiv City Ballet in Vladislav Dobshynskyi’s
“Excerpts from Thoughts”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

That this company of 28 dancers (based on the cast listing for the two dances performed at FFD; the company in full may contain more dancers than that) is far more accomplished than some may have expected, particularly in a company so relatively young – it was founded in 2012, and its current Artistic Director, Ivan Kozlov, assumed his position in 2014 – shouldn’t be a surprise. Many years ago when the Mikhailovsky Ballet visited Lincoln Center (an event not likely to happen again any time soon), I observed that it was far better than anticipated for several reasons: ballet is highly popular there, there’s a world of performing opportunities in theaters across that country, and highly trained and accomplished dancers have to go somewhere beyond the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi. I’ve made the same comments with respect to ballet companies in the U.S. (except as to ballet’s nationwide popularity) – well-trained and highly competent dancers have to perform somewhere beyond American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet (to which many would add San Francisco Ballet, and maybe Pacific Northwest Ballet and Houston Ballet as well). Consequently, the quality of smaller local companies has grown exponentially in the past 10-15 years, and rivals that of their more well-known relatives with greater accumulated prestige and bigger budgets.

The same logic that applies to less well-known Russian and U.S. companies applies to companies in Ukraine, so the fact that a company from Ukraine is of a high caliber should surprise no one. And as tragic as the circumstances surrounding its de facto exile are, it’s also evolved into a fortunate development for company dancers suddenly given the opportunity to present themselves in a wider range of venues, and for international audiences who now have an opportunity to see them.

Kyiv CB’s FFD program consisted of two dances, although the second was more demonstration than dance.

Maryna Apanasenko and Kyiv City Ballet
in Vladislav Dobshynskyi’s
“Excerpts from Thoughts”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

The first, Thoughts, was billed as an excerpt (it was titled Excerpts from Thoughts) – though I have difficulty visualizing a longer version, since this excerpt was a substantial length and appeared to adequately reflect the parameters of its subject. Regardless, it’s an unusually fine-looking contemporary dance just the way this excerpt presents it.

The choreography, by Kyiv CB dancer Vladyslav Dobshynskyi, fills the stage, and obviously is intended to have a theme, even if that theme is as nebulous as a visualization of thoughts that pepper Dobshynskyi’s character’s mind. But, at least based on this excerpt, they’re not just any thoughts. After somewhat of an introduction to the subject (the corps perhaps being a landscape of brain waves), Dobshynskyi’s character visualizes a woman (Maryna Apanesenko) who dominates his thoughts. Whether she’s his dream, or the vision of one with whom he has (or had) a relationship isn’t clear, but this doesn’t really matter. Thoughts / visions of her torture him, evolving into an obsession that grows as he continues to think (reflected in “whispering” sounds that plague his mind) – eventually, perhaps, overwhelming him. She, on the other hand, is emotionally flat: it’s not her dream, or her thoughts. As the lead dancer, Dobshynskyi does superb work here, communicating the pain of ceaseless memory as an affliction without apparent end.

Maryna Apanasenko
and Vladyslav Dobshynskyi
in “Excerpts from Thoughts”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Under the unusual circumstances here, one might have expected imperfect performances from the primarily female corps, but these dancers executed without flaw, and looked thoroughly engaged while doing so. Their quality of movement displays gentle lyricism, musicality, and sensitivity within the choreographic limits, emphasizing pin-point sequencing that creates a lovely visual panorama.

The company’s second dance, Men of Kyiv, not surprisingly was performed by Kyiv CB’s men (the ten male dancers who had performed in Thoughts). The piece, choreographed by Pavlo Virsky to “traditional Ukranian folk music,” is a stunning demonstration of Ukraine folk dance prowess, as each member of two “teams” (one wearing blue shirts, the other yellow) tries to outdo the other in executing the “tricks” that are a staple of Russian folk dance (e.g., the famous Moiseyev Dance Company), but that this demonstration shows is rooted in Ukraine. [Indeed, my research indicates that many of the Russian folk dances popularized by the Moiseyev weren’t so much Russian as an agglomeration of folk dances from various regions that at that time were part of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, in an effort to popularize and cement the notion that all this was multiculturally “Russian.”]  The solos were astonishingly well-executed, each drawing audible gasps.

Kyiv City Ballet in Pavlo Virsky’s “Men of Kyiv”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

After its conclusion, all the Kyiv CB dancers reappeared on stage, and glowed as the full-house audience saluted them with a standing ovation.

As fine as the Kyiv CB performance was, there was one dance on the same program that exceeded it in choreographic quality and execution, though comparing it to the Kyiv CB presentation is like comparing ketchup and mayonnaise.

The second piece in program 4, The Two of Us, was choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for FFD 2020. But with the pandemic in full swing, that year’s incarnation was cancelled, and the piece was presented virtually. The performance here, by NYCB Principal Sara Mearns, and former NYCB Principal and now theater and film star Robbie Fairchild, was its live stage premiere.

Saying that this “little” pas de deux was fabulous is a serious understatement. Although its scale is small, together with the performances by Mearns and Fairchild, The Two of Us is a stunning work of dance art.

Sara Mearns and Robbie Fairchild
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Two of Us”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

It’s a simple dance, with a narrative of sorts that’s been seen in dozens of dances: a couple is together, they have individual needs or whatever that complicate the relationship, and then for reasons that are unclear they separate. But only the finest of choreographers can craft such an ordinary subject in such an extraordinary way, and only the finest of dancers can carry it off. The subject has never been presented better than this.

The Two of Us is built around several songs by singer / songwriter Joni Mitchell – “I Don’t Know Where I Stand,” “Urge for Going,” “You Turn Me On,” and “I’m a Radio”; culminating with the familiar “Both Sides Now.” But if you’ve only heard the hugely popular Judy Collins version, you really don’t know the song, at all. As Mitchell sings it, it’s very moving, not just an upbeat intelligent observation; and, as choreographed and executed, it fit the dance’s subject like a glove.

Sara Mearns and Robbie Fairchild
in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Two of Us”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Structurally, Mearns and Fairchild are first seen together, leaning on each other as they recline on the floor center stage. When the music begins, the pair dance together, separate, reconnect. Then Fairchild dances a solo, which Mearns joins cleverly as it concludes, then Mearns dances her solo, then, for the concluding song, they dance together until its somewhat inevitable conclusion, illustrating far better than I can describe how a single set of images can be heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Mearns and Fairchild are magnificent.

Of course, this says nothing. You have to see it. Although less complex, The Two of Us is as fine a piece as Wheeldon’s After the Rain, and the even finer This Bitter Earth. Perhaps, if contractual obligations permit, it too can become part of NYCB’s repertoire.

As for Joni Mitchell, I understand that her work is reemerging now and being celebrated by an entirely new music-listening generation. So maybe sometime soon someone will choreograph to her “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song that begs to be converted into a dance for audiences in New York City, where many small paradises were paved to put up a parking lot (and which since have been ripped up in favor of more skyscrapers).

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
in Abby Zbikowski’s “Indestructible”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Program 4’s opening piece, by Dayton Contemporary Dance Theater, was Indestructible. Choreographed by Abby Zbikowski to music by Death Grips, the 2018 dance essentially is a street dance demonstration, with subgroups of the seven-dancer cast put through their paces in generally tandem execution of break dance / hip hop moves. The extra touch here is that each sequence is preceded by someone from offstage (a performer in a different subgroup) shouting “Go” or similar terse instruction, thundered into the air like a starter pistol in a foot-race. It’s methodology, and the virtuosity it displays, vaguely suggest a street dance version of Etudes.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company
in Abby Zbikowski’s “Indestructible”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Although it’s not my cup of tea, excellence is excellence, and the Dayton company dancers (Devin Baker, Qarrianne Blayr, Alexandria Flewellen, Robert Pulido, Quentin Apollovaughn Sledge, Sadale Warner, and Countess V. Winfrey) executed the constantly-in-motion choreography brilliantly.

I saw Program 5 the next night. [Performance photographs for Program 5, if available, will be provided upon receipt.]

The most anticipated presentation (at least by me) was the appearance of four dancers from Dutch National Ballet in Hans van Manen’s Variations for two couples. The contemporary ballet featured an eclectic curated score that included music from a highly diverse contingent of composers (Benjamin Britten, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer, and Astor Piazzolla) that somehow worked well together, as did the dancers: Maia Makhateli, Smirnova, Constantine Allen, and Jakob Feyferlik. I’m familiar (relatively; via the internet) with Makhateli and Feyferlik’s talent, each of whom has a well-deserved sterling dance reputation, and with Smirnova, whose work I’ve seen both live and streamed.

Smirnova was one of the first dancers, and one of the few (if any) native Russians, to leave Russia to protest her home country’s invasion of Ukraine. Many considered her to be the Bolshoi’s most accomplished and respected young ballerina, so her departure was even more of a sacrifice for her than it might have been for others. However, based on her few appearances here (in ABT’s La Bayadere and in a YAGP Gala), I wasn’t so impressed. But those qualities that I found wanting in her prior appearances (a forced, corkscrew-like posturing in the former; a curious distance in the latter) were not at all evident here. At least based on this piece, her change of venue has proven fortuitous.

Variations for two couples isn’t of shattering significance, but it’s a finely-crafted, crystalline little ballet that was very well danced by all four of its dancers, with Allen partnering Makhateli and Feyferlik paired with Smirnova. The audience reacted enthusiastically to all (particularly to Smirnova; recognizing her selfless decision), and celebrated at least as vocally when van Manen emerged from the wings for the curtain calls. van Manen is now 90, and his prolific body of work is well-recognized in Europe. It’s long overdue for his simple but pristine dances to be featured in programs by American companies.

The evening opened with an Indian dance group (actually, a combination of dancers from two different companies – Nrityagram Dance Ensemble and Chitrasena Dance Company) performing the New York premiere of a piece titled Poornarati. The eight dancers (four from each company) were accompanied by a group of musicians that included Nrityagram’s Artistic Director (and the A.D. of this joint presentation), as well as co-choreographer and co-composer of much of Poornarati’s musical accompaniment, Surupa Sen.

The dance appeared well-executed, but the movement quality is quite different from classical Indian dances that I’ve previously seen. I don’t pretend to be an expert in Indian dance, but at least based on this piece, the dancers, who performed the style of Indian dance called Odissi, are far less filigree in appearance, with less hand / arm gestures and more torso movement. Consequently, it looks more weighty – earthy – than what I’ve seen previously, with frequent thudding foot-stomping as opposed to the delicacy I’ve observed in other examples of Indian classical dance. That being said, it was well-received by the FFD audience, so I expect that it was a fine example of Odissi style.

The program, and FFD 2022 as a whole, concluded with Hofesh Shechter’s Cave, performed by Martha Graham Dance Company and guest artist Daniil Simkin. I saw this piece less than six months ago at City Center with the same cast. It’s curious that City Center brought it back so quickly.

That aside, my initial view of Cave was not positive. Although I found it to be well-performed by the company and Simkin, to me it was more evidence of catering to an audience’s thirst for hyperactivity and for seeing dancers squeeze every ounce of energy they have for no apparent purpose beyond seeing them squeeze every ounce of energy they have.

Essentially, the dancers jump up and down and up and down and up and down some more …., most often with their arms and hands raised toward a somewhat deified light source. I concluded, based on the piece’s title and the nature of the chorography that what was being depicted has an intended meaning, which is the visualization of primitive, tribal energy and rapturous worship of a light source that illuminates the dancers’ cave dwelling and depicted somewhat like substance-induced mass hysteria.

Seeing it a second time modified my opinion a bit: Cave is a skillfully choreographed piece (which I previously recognized), but one that not only drives its cast to physical exhaustion, but that pushes them to a heightened performance sense as well. Choreographically and in performance quality, Cave is an accomplishment of epic proportions, even if it engenders little more than temporary audience visual exhaustion, and appreciation for the dancers’ efforts.

But it’s also manipulative. Many highly successful dances are, but here I mean it in a negative way. Based on this second view, I question my initial determination of what seemed to be obvious: that Cave is a visualization of tribal movement and primitive worship of something the dancers’ characters don’t understand. I’m not sure now if that’s the case, or if Shechter is simply laughing at audiences, and critics like me, who attempt to find meaning in a dance that has none. I base this on that final image that I didn’t divulge previously and won’t here, but now, to my eye, it evidences Shechter’s shrugging his shoulders and essentially telling his audience to “never mind” what came before: to “unthink” that there’s any method to the madness that’s been presented to them beyond being a method for presenting madness.

Regardless, Cave should be seen when it returns (which, I suspect, is likely) for Shechter’s undeniable choreographic attention to detail and for the equally undeniable accomplishment of the dancers executing it (including Simkin). It’s fascinating to watch evolve. But ultimately …  meh.

Absent any Covid resurgence, I look forward to FFD’s next incarnation, which should include even more visits from international companies freed from pandemic restrictions.