Fall for Dance 2023
New York City Center
New York, New York
September 27 and 30, 2023
Program 1: The Statement (Ballet BC), Rhapsody in Blue (Conrad Tao & Caleb Teicher), OH COURAGE! (Gibney Company)
Program 2: X (Dix) (Côté Danse), MASS (Sara Mearns & Davóne Tines), Farruca | Orgía | Folia | Soleá X Bulerias (Sergio Bernal Dance Company)
Fall for Dance, City Center’s venerable program of international dance, began its 20th year with two programs that reflect the eclectic nature of the series. I saw Program 1 on the festival’s opening night, September 27, and Program 2 on September 30. As in prior years, the audience was eclectic as well, a likely consequence of the accessible ticket prices – now $35 per ticket, anywhere in the house.
I’ll consider these first two programs in performance order.
Program 1 was almost one of the finest FFD programs I’ve seen. There were no premieres – world, U.S., or NYC, and I saw one of the dances previously, but at a minimum they showed the talents of their respective choreographers and dancers.
I’ve seen Crystal Pite’s The Statement before – performed by Nederlands Dans Theater in a November 2016 program at City Center. My subsequent review was positive, and my opinion has not changed. It’s unusual and brilliantly conceived, choreographed, and performed, even if it is something of a polemic.
The piece opens to an image of a large conference-like table, which eventually is flanked by four dancers, one pair in shirtsleeves (as in business attire rather than casual), the other pair wearing suits. The first impression is that the piece is a contemporary take on Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table. [In both, persons who make, or who are responsible for making, terrible decisions are gathered around a conference table.] But aside from the visual similarity, and notwithstanding that each may be considered anti-war, the two pieces are quite different, and the subject of The Statement is, perhaps intentionally, ambiguous.
The dance’s title has a dual meaning: it’s “about” a statement to be made shifting responsibility for a decision that has already been made about something, but it also relates to a definite statement that the dance itself, via a libretto written by Jonathan Young as well as by Pite’s choreography, makes about the existence and construction of bureaucratic self-preservation, irresponsibility and accountability, plausible denial, post-truth, and covering one’s ass.
The 2016 dance is already a classic, and has been deemed a masterpiece by many, myself included. But for those unfamiliar with it, the libretto relates to a decision that has gone terribly wrong [“they’re killing each other” – although who “they” are, what led to it, and in what sense are they “killing each other” are intentionally ambiguous], and the efforts to assign responsibility for it. Two of the four characters are a man and woman in shirtsleeved “business attire” who made or implemented the decision, including the man enacting the above statement who’s certain that he’s the one to be blamed and fears the ignominy – as well as likely losing his position. “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” he wails via the libretto when the dance begins. Counter-balancing this pair are another man and woman wearing business suits who have been ordered by some anonymous “upstairs” (executives – whether corporate or government doesn’t matter) to assign responsibility for the decision to someone other than themselves, even though, apparently, “upstairs” was responsibility for actually ordering the decision. That is, to push someone under the bus; to make him (or her) the scapegoat.
There’s little in the way of “dance” as it’s usually understood, but the choreography visualizing the words (it’s “see the words” as opposed to “see the music”) is nevertheless pitch-perfect, and there’s considerable movement even though that movement remains within a relatively confined area. Dancers physically enact the words of the libretto as well as the impact of the words: faces are buried into the table, bodies stand atop, are imprisoned beneath, or slither across the table as the process of placing blame evolves, including unexpected twists and turns (most often visualized literally). Choreographing to words is a process for which Pite is well-known, and here she hit a bullseye. From beginning to end The Statement is riveting.
The four Ballet BC dancers are not identified by their roles. Although I’m not certain, by process of elimination based on web site photographs Patrick Kilbane and Sarah Pippin portrayed the pair in suits, and Viivian Ruiz and Rae Srivastava the pair in shirtsleeves. Each was masterful in their highly credible execution –including delivering a level of acting and character development not often present in contemporary dance. Although this performance featured only four Ballet BC dancers, it further enhances the reputation of the company since I last saw it at the Joyce Theater in 2016.
Simmering beneath Young’s words and Pite’s choreography are the music by Owen Belton, the set by Jay Gower Taylor, and the lighting by Tom Visser. And therein lies the only quibble I have with the dance. Belton’s score is essentially high-class background noise that echoes, or portends, the libretto and choreography. It begins, for example, with a quiet “rumble” that warns of the situation to come. Most of it proceeds in that manner. But at some point the score, while still “background,” begins sounding somewhat strange and eerie. Moreover, toward the dance’s end, the overhead lighting that illuminates the table area is lowered, and from my viewpoint the object from which the lighting emanates looked something like a menacing space ship from a science fiction movie. Accompanied by the other-worldly score, the libretto’s word “Upstairs” takes on a completely new possible meaning. Subsequently this lighting array moves further downward toward the conference table, on which one of the characters, the man in the suit, after having been made the fall-guy/scapegoat by his suit-costumed partner, is stretched, as if to crush him. Then the stage goes dark.
I suspect this alien wrinkle was unintentional, especially since I made no note of it when I previously saw the piece, but it provides The Statement with an interesting thematic possibility for those who habitually overthink.
I’ve seen Caleb Teicher previously, but based on his performance in this program, not frequently enough. His and pianist Conrad Tao’s reimagining of George Gershwin’s masterpiece “Rhapsody in Blue” is itself a masterful marriage of tap dance and music.
There’s no way I can satisfactorily translate in words what Tao and Teicher accomplished here.
The dance opens to Tao playing the piece on piano, and Teicher, first in deep shadow, sitting and listening / watching. Then, driven and energized, Teicher moves atop the tap-platform and begins to dance. The rest was quite extraordinary.
Tao pounded the keys with greater ferocity than I’ve previously seen – or heard – in his execution of George Gershwin’s celebrated composition, and Teicher choreographed a variety of moves consistent with the music as emphasized (though not changed), but more cleverly than slavishly. I’ve not previously seen some of the “moves” Teicher made while tapping, or his integrating non-tap (to a limited extent), but it didn’t add any extraneous ingredients: it was just Tao’s and Teicher; T n T. And it was dynamite.
The program’s final dance, however, was disappointing.
I’ve admired each of the pieces choreographed by Sonya Tayeh that I’ve seen – two in previous FFD programs (Reclamation Map, in collaboration with pianist/vocalist Heather Christian, and Unveiling, in collaboration with vocalist Moses Sumney and dancers Stella Abrera, Gabe Stone Shayer and Robbie Fairchild) to the most recent, her work for Martha Graham Dance Company overseeing the reconstructing of, and re-choreographing part of, Graham’s Canticle for Innocent Comedians. So my expectations for OH COURAGE!, which Tayeh choreographed for the Gibney Company, were quite high.
There were no explicatory notes in the program, so, after the performance, I accessed the Gibney Dance website. There, OH COURAGE! is described as “a piece about self-reflection, truth and resilience. It is a soul march that navigates what occurs when there is a guttural need for change. In that need, there is a sense of euphoria in possibility, and a vivid mourning for what is being lost along the way. How do we create a sanctuary for both?” Even if I’d read this prior to the performance, it wouldn’t have helped. Except for a hint of self-reflection and the predicate need for change, I saw none of those qualities in the dance. Rather, I saw lots of self and group expression about self-reflection and the referenced “guttural” need for change (“guttural” being the operative word – not directed at any particular issue). Combined with the score, the expression is directed toward some need to take non-specified action about something for some unstated reason beyond that the dancer(s) is uncomfortable with, whatever that something is.
The score provides the dance’s framework, as well as its limitation. The music is credited to The Bengsons, a contemporary husband and wife indie-folk-pop at times gospel-sounding song-writing and singing team who have had considerable popular and critical success in recent years. Although the specific song isn’t identified, it must be, in whole or in part, The Bengsons’ “Oh Courage,” or maybe a mash-up of that and other songs. Perhaps for that reason, or because the sound of the singer came across as high-decibel shrieks, I couldn’t understand the lyrics except for catching a few lines that are repeated (…and repeated…and repeated) periodically during the course of the piece.
The difficulty I have with the dance arises from this score, which is the equivalent of a football coach’s motivational speech to his team’s players. Its subject is motivation itself, not how to go about doing it, or what the goal is. Just do it; just change; just persevere, in repeated mantras like: “You think you’re dying, you’re being born,” “Jump the life back into you,” and “Shake these bones.” Everything but “Go out there and win one for the Gipper.” [For those in x,y,z or whatever generations, that’s from the 1940 film “Knute Rockne: All American”.] While the Bengsons’ song may work in the abstract as musical inspiration (and frequently does – as their massive hit song, “The Keep Going Song” demonstrates), converting that “motivation for change” alone, without some problem to prompt this need for change or some goal to which the need for change is addressed, is a tough choreographic road to hoe.
Tayeh is a known quantity (relatively), a choreographer of intelligence who’s also adventurous in her choice of subject matter. But here her dance doesn’t amplify the score or provide a way to see it a different way. It simply reflects the score by visualizing the need to change from something to something and the motivational commands to effect whatever that change is. Just keep going; keep changing; keep adapting to deal with the unidentified slings and arrows of life.
It’s this amorphous “subject” that I saw presented on stage. Dancers, either solo or in groups, are seen as uncomfortable about something, and as gathering the will to change that something to something else. So there’s a lot of sound and furious movement signifying nothing – or, at a minimum, not much. It’s what needing to be motivated, and the act of motivation, looks like.
And the set (by Rachel Hauck) is as meaningless as everything else: a structure made up of rows of bench-like seating (like the rows for viewers in a high school gym), except here the rows recede pyramid-like from bottom to top, and are equipped with lights that occasionally blaze into the audience for no apparent purpose other than, perhaps, signaling that the audience is “part of” the suffering mass, and audio speakers (many of them of turned on their sides as if not in operation) that may have been used when The Bengsons appeared live but which here is a gathering place in which one or more of the dancers occasionally stand or move around.
And that’s what the dance, at best, shows: mostly group visualizations of movement change for movement change’s sake. There’s nothing specific for an audience to empathize with: the intensity of the expression of some nebulous need for change isn’t enough. While the groups dances contain some interesting choreography (though not expressing anything more than frustration or motivation), the best parts of OH COURAGE! are the solos. The opening solo, in which one female dancer (the specific solo dancers are not identified), obviously in some level of stress, approaches the fixed stage set onto which the piece’s other seven dancers have moved from the darkened stage-left area, and, standing, emotes discomfort in an apparent effort to rally the others to join her to do something about it. Later there’s a solo by a male dancer that’s far more complex in its varied movement quality than most anything else in the piece – but which is just another reflection of non-directed angst. The solution, presumably, comes from within, not without. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something.
The piece ends (almost) with all dancers together in a circle, reaching toward a light-opening in the rafters, as if deep in a cage reaching toward the light (a cave/light image I’ve seen all too frequently of late). Here it’s a cave of the soul built on world-weariness reaching out toward the soul’s skylight.
None of this discussion is a criticism of the Gibney dancers (whom the company call “artistic associates”). Each executed the sometimes frenetic choreography quite well, and with an appropriately minimal level of drama. They consisted of Miriam Gittens, Eleni Loving, Jesse Obremski, Kevin Pajarillaga, Jie-Hung Connie Shiau, Madison Tanguay, Jacob Thoman, and Jake Tribus.
Program 2 was the inverse of Program 1. That is, I was disappointed in the first piece, largely for the same reason that I found OH CHOURAGE! lacking, but the other two were very good, with the middle piece, MASS, being the evening’s knockout.
Guillaume Côté is a highly-regarded dancer and choreographer – a Principal Dancer and Choreographic Associate with the National Ballet of Canada, the Artistic Director of the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur (in Quebec) since 2014, and the Artistic Director of Côté Danse, which he founded in 2021. He’s been choreographing since (at least) 2010, to considerable acclaim. As I recall, I saw Côté perform with NBC, as well as as a guest artist with American Ballet Theatre, and came away impressed. For those reasons, I had every reason to expect to enjoy his X (Dix).
However, Côté here has choreographed a piece that’s supposed to have a meaning, but that meaning is unclear (though it’s far more focused than in OH COURAGE!, and far more internalized).
As with Tayeh’s piece, part of the problem is the selected music, by Son Lux, an American experimental post-rock band that is perhaps best known for having composed the music for the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (which won an Oscar for Best Original Score). It’s hardly the same style of music as in OH COURAGE, but its motivational force is similar – except the lyrics that are emphasized here are sung more like wails than shrieks.
The specific songs used are not identified. I haven’t found any title of a Son Lux song or album with the title “X” or “X (Dix)” –though I did see a reference to “X” in a Son Lux social media post relating to the release of previously unreleased tracks in recognition of the tenth anniversary of a prior album, “Lanterns” (but the post appeared to be from 2016; and “Lanterns” was released in 2013). Perhaps the dance’s title refers to that, or perhaps to the dance being choreographed to “ten” Son Lux songs. I suspect the latter (though I didn’t count), since each emphasized lyric came from a different Son Lux song (“I need a different kind of love” from the song “A Different Kind of Love” in the album ‘Tomorrows III” – which was released in early 2021), “maybe I should be somebody else” – from the song “Apart” in the album “Tomorrows II,” and “we are the dead and dying” – from the song “This Time” in the album “Bones”).
The dance opens with two persons walking audience left to right across the stage, with one (a woman) in front of the other (a man) and the distance between them increasing. At one point the person ahead of the other stops, turns back to the other looking wistful and sad, and then mournfully walks off stage. This seems the lead-in to a generic “separation dance,” but that’s not exactly what X (Dix) is. It’s from the opposite direction – it’s a “why can’t I be me” or “gathering the courage to be me” self-examination/ motivational dance, occasionally multiplied from one individual to a small group of similarly troubled people.
After the introduction, the dance continues in a different choreographic mode, focusing on the internal struggle of the man in the opening scene who apparently ended the relationship he was in; and it’s more complex and generally less angular-looking than OH COURAGE!. Nevertheless, this opening separation is there for a reason: it’s the action that, directly or indirectly, inspires and gives meaning to what follows. But the dance doesn’t clarify what that meaning, that cause for the self-examination and the self-motivation, is. Given the melodramatic lyrics and the fact that the introduction was a woman reluctantly separating from a man, the target may be the man’s self-acceptance of his homosexuality. But there’s nothing specific in the dance to support (or contradict) that. Rather, the target of the motivation is a generic “be true to oneself,” whether it relates to gender identity or a search for something (a relationship) that’s better than, or different from, the one that he ended. Consequently the dance seemed to wander aimlessly in some inner voyage in search of a ‘whatever it is’ that may be required to soothe a tortured soul.
Choreographically, Côté here merges his ballet background with a contemporary visual sense, but, again like OH COURAGE!, its focus on angst and frustration overwhelms any particular style.
X (Dix) has something else in common with OH COURAGE! – the quality of its dancers: Martha Hart, Natasha Poon Woo, Kelly Shaw, Willem Sadler, and Evan Webb. Each performed admirably, and although not specifically identified as to his/her position in the piece, I especially admired Webb (as the troubled man) and Poon Woo as a similarly troubled woman (not the woman in the opening).
The finest component of the program shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’m aware of Sara Mearns, of course: a NYCB Principal, and I’ve been impressed by the work I’ve seen by choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith. But I’ve had a mixed reaction to the compositions I’ve heard by award-winning composer Caroline Shaw, and no knowledge at all of Mearns’s stage partner, Davóne Tines.
But the piece turned out to be a success on all levels; a little gem.
Tines is not a dancer: he’s a highly-regarded classical singer (including opera). His performance here validated that. His voice has a dramatic range beyond the “bass/ baritone” description in the program, and he’s in complete control of that voice at whichever range, tempo, or timbre he’s singing. As the score progressed, his voice enveloped the house with the purity and sincerity he demonstrated at all vocal levels. He poured more emotion and clarity into his vocal presentation here (augmented by his appropriate albeit limited body movement) than would have been expected on first sight of him (he appears like a super-sized tree tunk), or by any casual program attendee with no prior knowledge of him could have expected. His was a simply fabulous, and indelible, performance.
That level of quality was matched by Mearns.
I’ve frequently been critical of Mearns’s injection of pathos into many of the classical pieces she dances with NYCB. But here, her dramatic talents channeled that pathos into something completely different and perfectly appropriate: a quality overflowing with hopeful serenity – perhaps the essence of a prayer – and with no sense of obligatory ritual.
Shaw’s score is far more personal in scope than I’d anticipated. And its calm but resolute expression is echoed in Smith’s choreography – a masterful combination of quiet devotion, reverence, suffering, and hope – all within a relatively confined area; perhaps the perimeters of a soul rather than a stage or church. [Mearns remained relatively close in physical positioning to Tines throughout, befitting the intimate connection between the two in the piece.] Smith crammed a lot of movement variety into this brief duet, but it was all measured and, within context, restrained, but its passion was evident. MASS doesn’t take one’s breath away with bravura; it does so with its heart.
The evening’s closing dance was of similar quality, but was MASS’s emotional opposite. It was loud, brash, and overflowing with the kind of flaming testosterone that FFD audiences relish – but with no lack of quality or visual variety. According to the program description, what makes Sergio Bernal Dance Company different from other flamenco companies is its intentional incorporation of ballet and modern dance with the flamenco base. The presentation here amply demonstrated that.
The piece’s title is the four component dances presented: Farruca, Orgia, Folia, and Solea X Bulerias. Each of these components are semi-independent dances reflecting what might be considered as the evolution of the flamenco dance form and Bernal’s expertise in classical ballet and contemporary dance, as well as flamenco. Bernal was a principal with Compañía Nacional de Danza until 2019, when he, together with Richard Cue, formed his current company.
The opening segment, Farruca, is a form of flamenco music and dance developed in the late 19th and 20th Centuries, most likely in Galicia, characterized by its music and typical flamenco mannerisms: fast turns, quick intense footwork, dominating poses, bursts of filigrana (“filigree” hand movement), and, frequently, use of a cape. The segment grabbed attention even before a step was taken. When the curtain rose, company co-Artistic Director Bernal was standing mid-stage audience-right, tall as a tree and looking like a male peacock, in a pose overflowing with self-confidence and sensual allure. To say that the audience greeted his appearance with vocal enthusiasm would be an understatement. But once he began to pound his boot-clad feet into the stage floor with typical flamenco seething bravado, passion and speed (choreographed by Antonio Ruiz Soler to the familiar “The Three-Cornered Hat” by Mauel de Falla – referencing a bullfighter’s hat) it became apparent that the quality of Bernal’s execution matched the pose, and included all of flamenco’s characteristic ingredients. The audience’s already high level of enthusiasm increased exponentially as his performance progressed.
Orgia (which, translated, is “orgy”), is only mildly related to the Dionysian sense of the word. Here, it’s simply a somewhat salacious dance with a narrative, flimsy though that narrative may be. Choreographed by Bernal to music by Joaquin Turina, the story involves two men and a woman (Bernal, Jose Manuel Benitez, and Miriam Mendoza), who act out a story that’s a distant relative of Carmen but with none of that story’s drama or violence. With a basic flamenco style of movement throughout, the segment opens with Bernal in some unspecified location, into which a man (Benitez) enters with a woman. Short story shorter, the woman leaves the man she came with and absconds with Bernal. After a brief pause the woman enters whatever establishment this is and runs back to man #1. Happy ending? No. Bernal enters, and faster than you can say ‘fickle’ the woman again is enticed to abandon Benitez for Bernal. Despite its familiar theme, all three dancers delivered simmering performances laced with a dash of humor.
Folia (titled Folia of Gentlemen in the program), in its strict translation from the Spanish, means a piece of paper folded once. Here, I think, the word is used in the sense of one tradition seen in two different ways. Choreographed by Bernal and former NYCB principal Joaquin de Luz (now Artistic Director of Compañía Nacional de Danza) to uncredited music titled “Folia Espanola,” Bernal and “special guest artist” Herman Cornejo, an ABT Principal, challenge each other: Flamenco vs. Ballet, and in the context compare and contrast the two dance forms. Cornejo excelled at what he routinely does in ballet, and Bernal in Flamenco (at times dancing flamenco-ish interpretations of ballet). It was great, albeit somewhat vacuous, fun.
Soleá X Bulerias is a flamenco dance that essentially merges two styles of flamenco and flamenco music. In an oversimplification, it combines slow and simmering with fast and feverish, escalating from the former to the latter, and ending with a blistering exposition of speed and non-directed passion. Here, choreographed by Bernal and Jose Manuel Alvarez to music by Daniel Jurado, it was performed with appropriate flair by Bernal, and was greeted with a well-deserved standing ovation at its conclusion.
The presentation was enhanced throughout by the indispensable live musical expertise of Jurado (on guitar), Javier Valdunciel (percussion), and Roberto Lorente (vocals).
On to Programs 4 and 5, which I’ll address in a separate review. Each included a highly provocative dance. Stay tuned.