City Center, New York, NY: September 25, 2013

Jerry Hochman

For its tenth anniversary season, City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival has scheduled its usual assortment of high quality dance from around the world at rock-bottom prices to appeal to viewers who may not regularly have the opportunity to see live dance performances. While the festival, overall, may be less inclusive that it was in its early years in terms of the number of companies appearing and the breadth of dance presented, and the audiences less bohemian (and the entry price a bit higher), the festival remains an eclectic sampling of dance that entertains and enlightens.

The opening City Center program (this year’s Festival informally opened with two free performances in Central Park last week) featured the usual conglomeration of dances not usually seen, or dancers seen in roles not seen previously. For me, the opening two dances were most successful, the pas de deux choreographed by New York City Ballet’s talented young choreographer and soloist Justin Peck was entertaining if not particularly exciting or novel, and final piece somewhat disappointing.

Richard Alston is a celebrated choreographer in his native Britain, and the popularity of his choreography, and his company (Richard Alston Dance Company), has grown steadily since the company was formed in 1994.  I missed the company’s previous appearance at FFD in 2011, but “The Devil in the Detail,” to music by Scott Joplin, is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted.

I’m sure there have been more dances choreographed to or including Scott Joplin music, but only one comes immediately to mind. I vaguely recall seeing Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Elite Syncopations” when the Royal Ballet visited New York a long, long time ago. I recall it being fun, as any ballet that includes Joplin music should be, but weightier than the music and highly theatrical – somewhat glitzy and over-the-top. That is, not any imagined moving images that might be generated in one’s mind while watching the film “The Sting.” With “The Devil in the Detail,” which premiered in 2006 at Sadler’s Wells, Alston did it simple, and got it right.

Choreographed to seven Joplin pieces, including the popular “Maple Leaf Rag,” and “The Entertainer,” “The Devil in the Details” is, choreographically, as visually light and effervescent; jazzy and as uncomplicatedly complex as Joplin’s music, enhancing Joplin’s syncopation without commenting on it. Without being familiar with Mr. Alston’s style, I thought I saw similarities to Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, but the stylistic genesis doesn’t really matter. [Alston studied with Merce Cunningham, but, at least based on the musicality and lyricism of this piece and “A Rugged Flourish,” a dance he created for New York Theater Ballet that I’ve previously seen, his choreography bears no apparent relationship to Cunningham’s.] I thought it was fabulous, and a perfect introduction to FFD’s decennial celebration.

The dancers were, uniformly, as delightful to watch as the choreography. In alphabetical order, they were: Elly Braund, Oihana Vesga Bujan, Jennifer Hayes, Marianna Krempeniou, Nancy Nerantzi, Ihsaan de Banya Nathan Goodman, James Muller, Liam Riddick, and Pierre Tappon.  Based on company website images, since I’m not familiar with the dancers, Ms. Nerantzi, Ms. Bujan, Mr. Goodman and Mr. Riddick appear to have had the predominant roles.

If “The Devil in the Detail” is the visual equivalent of sparkling Beaujolais, “Esencia De Tango” is as robust and complex as Cabernet Sauvignon. Argentinian Cabernet, of course. And just as intoxicating.

I am not familiar with Argentine Tango, other than as popularized in “Dancing with the Stars.” “Esencia de Tango,” however, is ‘Dancing the Real Tango with the Real Tango Stars.’ The piece, choreographed by Gabriel Misse and Analia Centurion, whose names comprise the company name (Mr. Misse is the Artistic Director), purports to trace the development of the Argentine Tango from its inception on the Argentine pampas to the present day in a series of sketches. That bare description, however, doesn’t do it justice. The piece is all flying footwork, fiery testosterone and sultry estrogen, combined in a presentation that was interesting and informative, and charming and explosive. Mr. Misse and Ms. Centurion were sensational, as were the two dancers who shared the stage with them, Carlos Barrionuevo and Mayte Valdes.  Mr. Misse’s performance alone was worth the price of admission (and much more) – and it would not be inappropriate to describe the dynamic Mr. Misse as an Argentine Lord of the Dance. The original Bandoneon music was by JP Jofre, who played the instrument during the performance. [The Bandoneon is a sort of small accordion, a popular accompanying instrument to the Tango.]

The subsequent dance on the program was the pas de deux by Justin Peck, entitled “The Bright Motion,” for New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns and Dutch National Ballet principal Casey Herd. The piece was exquisitely danced by Ms. Mearns, and is pleasant enough to watch.  But Mr. Peck’s choreographic palette here is limited.  Morevover, although the pas de deux is ‘about’ something, the emotional component appears restricted to Ms. Mearns’s understated despair, the reason for which is not apparent.  Mr. Herd’s role is more severely limited – he has little to do but keep Ms. Mearns upright and transport her around the stage. The piece relies almost exclusively on Ms. Mearns’s technique and stage charisma, but that’s enough to make it work.  “The Bright Motion” was choreographed to music by Mark Dancigers (“The Bright Motion II”), and featured Cory Smythe on piano.

The evening concluded with DanceBrazil’s “Fe Do Sertao” (adapted for FFD), featuring choreography by Jelon Vieira and an original score by Marquinho Carvalho. The title is not translated in the program, but based on online definitions it means: ‘faith of the Sertao’ (the Sertao is an arid inland region of Brazil, described as being similar to the Australian Outback).

Brazilian dance can be gloriously exciting to watch, but to me, for all its abundant energy, this piece fell flat. Enthusiastically performed by its company of ten dancers, two of whom were women (with four musicians), “Fe Do Sertao” is a combination celebration of tribal community sense (the dance is primarily a company-wide affair, with occasional solos and duos); ritual reverence for nature’s gifts (the sun rises; it rains; presumably crops grow; and people live another day); and the dancer’s boundless energy and athleticism (with occasional bravura acrobatics – the equivalent, perhaps, of ballet ‘tricks’ – thrown in). But for all its exuberance and athleticism, this presentation didn’t match the excitement and finesse of previous performances of Brazilian dance I’ve seen at FFD. It was all drop down hard; jump up hard; push/pull; with an occasional tumble and trick.

But overall, this program was as fine way to begin Fall for Dance’s second decade.