City Center, New York, NY; October 1 and 2, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Program 3: “The Moor’s Pavane” (American Ballet Theatre); “The Turn” (Colin Dunne); “Sombrerisimo” (Ballet Hispanico); “Sinfonia India” (Introdans)
Program 4: “SOUNDspace” (Dorrance Dance); “Mo(or)town/Redux” (Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc.); “Fratres” (The Royal Ballet); “The Rite of Spring” (Martha Graham Dance Company)

The third and fourth programs in this year’s five-program series of the Fall for Dance Festival provided two extraordinarily fine evenings of dance. While not every one of the eight dances was a complete success, each had individual merits, and several were memorable.

At the outset, I must recognize Martha Graham Dance Company’s performance of Ms. Graham’s 1984 version of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.” In March 2012, when the Company returned to City Center for a gala performance after a lengthy period of discord following Ms. Graham’s death, the company was back dancing brilliantly under Artistic Director (and former Graham Company principal) Janet Eilber. Ms. Graham’s ‘Rite,’ recently resurrected, is further proof.  Ms. Graham’s choreography, and the company’s sparkling performance of it, was the highlight of the FFD performances I attended this year.

The two FFD programs that I saw this week, perhaps unintentionally, provided an interesting opportunity to compare different approaches to a particular story, or to a particular form of dance.

Tuesday’s program opened with American Ballet Theatre’s performance of Jose Limon’s masterpiece, “The Moor’s Pavane.”  I regard it as one of the seminal works of art of the Twentieth Century, distilling the timeless Shakespeare tragedy to its essence, and placing it in the context of a dance form temporally and geographically appropriate to the story. Francisco Ruvalcaba, a dancer with the Limon Dance Company appearing as a guest artist, played ‘the Moor’ (Othello). Without doubt Mr. Ruvalcaba successfully executed the Limon technique, but he lacked the power that Marcelo Gomes provided in ABT performances of the piece last year. Thomas Forster, a member of ABT’s corps, similarly lacked the power and villainy seen in previous portrayals of ‘His Friend’ (Iago). Stella Abrera was first-rate as ‘His Friend’s Wife’ (Emilia); and Julie Kent was an appropriately sympathetic and stricken “The Moor’s Wife” (Desdemona).

The following evening, program 4 included “Mo(or)town Redux,” Doug Elkins’s ‘movement conversation’ (a descriptive phrase from  the program notes) with the same Shakespeare story as well as the Limon refinement of it. Taking his point of departure from Limon, Elkins distills the story to the four primary characters, but updates the action to a contemporary urban setting utilizing a ‘Motown-inspired score’, to which he applies a rough and raunchy veneer. This isn’t your father’s, or Limon’s, or Shakespeare’s Venice. While I wouldn’t put it in the same league as “The Moor’s Pavane,” it’s an interesting interpretation.

The piece opens to a scene relating the sexually-charged relationship between ‘Othello’ and ‘Desdemona’. [The characters in the dance are not identified by name; I’m using the names of the characters in the play that the characters in the dance are clearly intended to represent.].  But there’s nothing either important or heroic about this Othello.  Although we do get a sense of self-importance and swagger – it’s the attitude of someone who’s full of himself, not of a recognized leader.. He could be a star athlete (the film “O” comes to mind), or a gang leader or pimp. Beginning the piece this way was a mistake – without a fallen hero, the story loses one of the components that made Shakespeare’s play a tragedy.

Nevertheless, after that initial scene, and despite my view that the connection between the stage action and some of the Motown song choices seemed forced and tenuous at best, I grew to appreciate the way in which Elkins molded the plot onto Motown-inspired ‘street’ movement as Limon had done with the Henry Purcell music and the more constraining form of the pavane. And as a natural, but skillful, consequence of this update, Elkins’s piece provides a dose of sexual tension that the Limon piece lacks. Kyle Marshall and Donnell Oakley performed convincingly as ‘Othello’ and ‘Desdemona’, but Cori Marquis’s ‘Emilia’ and Alexander Dones’s ‘Iago’ were particularly impressive, with Mr. Dones successfully conveying the sleaziness and treachery that must be a component of any portrayal of Iago.

The two programs also featured different examples of tap dancing. In Program 3, Colin Dunne presented the U.S. Premiere of his solo piece “The Turn,” and in Program 4, Dorrance Dance performed “SOUNDspace” (adapted for Fall for Dance), choreographed by Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance.

Ms. Dorrance’s company has gained considerable favorable and well-deserved repute in the past few years for its revolutionary expansion of tap into the realm of contemporary dance. Where Dorrance Dance shines is in Ms. Dorrance’s eclectic and dynamic choreography (it’s tap, but with a difference, and an edge), and the extraordinary skill of its dancers. “SOUNDspace” exemplifies this. Reflective of Ms. Dorrance’s concept, the piece integrates the entire company of 12 dancers (including her) into the performance, and takes the audience with them. It is a tour de force for the entire group, and a thrilling example of kinetic energy unleashed.

The piece also appears to attempt to connect tap with sound, and to create music – a sound space – using the sound created by tap essentially as the music of the piece. This is nothing new – sound, particularly when performed on a microphoned platform for the purpose of amplifying sound as is done in “SOUNDspace,” is an inherent component and consequence of tap amplified. The sound of tap shoes hitting the platform created sound to me, but nothing more. And in “SOUNDspace,” it didn’t need to. On the other hand, Mr. Dunne’s piece has a clear and intentional connection between tap (and associated movement) and music.

Mr. Dunne is an Irish step dancer of international renown, and “The Turn” clearly reflects his recognized skill. But “The Turn” is more than a well-crafted solo Irish step dance. According to the program notes, Mr. Dunne has recently modified his creative path, crossing over into contemporary dance and theater. “The Turn” is a bridge between Irish step dance and tap (as well as theater), and much of the movement quality looks and sounds a lot like tap. Mr. Dunne goes beyond the natural connection between feet hitting the floor and sound, deliberately changing the nature of the sound, at one point spreading a sound-muffing carpet over the platform top, and at another point making sound by the ‘swoosh’ of his foot, without actually contacting the platform top. The deliberate connection between sound and movement that Mr. Dunne creates is as exciting as it is entertaining. Further, Mr. Dunne uses this sound creation as an accompaniment to music by Linda Buckley titled “The Turn – Dance in Your Blood” (Ms. Buckley also handled the live sound processing), essentially making the sound of his feet an equal musical player. I found it extraordinary. The artists on stage who played instruments rather than feet were Katherine Hunka and Anna Cashell (both on violin), Cian O Duill (viola), and Rudi De Groote (cello), and they played with the skill and spirit to match Mr. Dunne’s dance.

Tuesday’s program concluded with the World Premiere of ”Sombrerisimo,” danced by members of Ballet Hispanico, and the U.S. Premiere of Sinfonia India, performed by Introdans.
Over the years, audiences at FFD have been particularly responsive to highly energetic and aggressively athletic dances, particularly when the dancers are male. “Sombrerisimo,” choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (and commissioned by FFD), is an example of such ‘macho’ dance, but with a degree of finesse and some humor grafted onto the machismo. To accompany the athleticism, there’s lots of dancing with hats (wearing them, exchanging them, playing roles inspired by them), swiveling of hips, and tangling and untangling of knots of dancers and hats. It’s clever, and one of the better examples of ‘machismo-dance’, requiring precision timing and a touch of humor, as well as masculine energy.  The piece was stylishly and exuberantly performed by Christopher Bloom, Jamal Rashann Callender, Alexander Duval, Mario Ismael Espinoza, Marcos Rodriguez, and Joshua Winzeler. However, its use of the hats (fedoras) is too remindful of Twyla Tharp’s “Push Comes to Shove,” both in the hats’ appearance and in the overall sense of irreverence they provide to the piece.  In particular, “Sombrarisimo” concludes with all characters tossing their hats into the air – an action that, even though made by men rather than women, is much too similar to the ending of ‘Push’.

According to the program notes, “Sinfonia India,” choreographed by Nacho Duato, was inspired by ritual dances of the Mexican Indians. Aside from the vibrant costumes (by Mr. Duato) and sunkissed set (scenery by Walter Nobbe; lighting by Nicholas Fischtel), I didn’t get any of that, but it didn’t matter. The glorious music on which the piece was created (“Sinfonia India, Symphany No. 2” by Carlos Chavez), which brought to mind the sense of majestic and reverent buoyancy that is typical of Aaron Copland, was matched by Mr. Duato’s lyrical, airy (albeit it somewhat repetitious) choreography. Combined with the energetic and appealing performances by the dancers, “Sinfonia India,” which received its initial performance in 1984 with Nederlands Dans Theater, is a crowd-pleaser.

Program 4 concluded with the world premiere of “Fratres,” a pas de deux choreographed by Liam Scarlett, and the Graham Company’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Commissioned by FFD, “Fratres” was choreographed by The Royal Ballet’s artist-in-residence Liam Scarlett, and was danced by two Royal Ballet dancers: Zenaida Yanowsky and Rupert Pennefather. It is an exquisite little duet that takes its inspiration from Arvo Part’s “’Fratres’ for Cello and Piano.” Like Part’s composition, the pas de deux is a partnership between two instruments (the dancers’ bodies). At times the piece is lyrical, at time angular, but at all times the two dancers are interconnected and mutually supportive, moving like the interconnected and mutually supportive notes of Part’s composition and the sounds of the cello and piano (played by Peter Adams and Kate Shipway, respectively). It is starkly sweet; a relationship of interdependence, exquisitely performed.

There’s nothing stark or sweet about Martha Graham’s “The Rite of Spring.”  I can’t claim to have seen all, or most, choreographed versions of “The Rite of Spring.” Prior to seeing Ms. Graham’s piece, the most impressive to me was a marvelous ‘small’ version performed by the Joyce Trisler Dancecompany at Riverside Church in Manhattan in the mid-1970s. I don’t know if I consider Ms. Graham’s version ‘better,’ but it’s certainly ‘bigger.’ Most important, however, is that like my recollection of the Trisler version, Ms. Graham’s is true to the Stravinsky score. It is an epic “The Rite of Spring” with a touch of DeMille (Cecil B.), but it’s not over-the-top: it’s the score brought to life, choreographed and staged with all of the score’s pounding pulse, primitive grandeur, ritual ceremony, and naked terror. And if your heart doesn’t skip a few beats when the Shaman abducts the Chosen One like a lion pouncing on a deer, you probably don’t have one.

Ben Schultz was the imperious Shaman, convinced that sacrifice is essential and his selection of sacrificial victim ordained, and Blakeley White-McGuire, the terrified Chosen One for whom resistance is not an option. Both were extraordinary, as was the supporting cast of thousands (15 dancers). The Martha Graham Dance Company is scheduled to perform “The Rite of Spring” when it returns to City Center for a brief season in March, 2014. It should be seen.

FFD is no longer the display of ‘emerging’ or unfamiliar dance that it was when it began. But to me, growing somewhat more conservative in programing (and avoiding disembodied ‘excerpts’ from larger pieces) has yielded more polished performances.  Both of these programs, among the best I’ve seen over the past ten years, demonstrate that FFD has been successful not only because of the reduced price of its tickets, but for the quality of its presentations.