Fall for Dance
City Center
New York, New York

October 2,4, and 6, 2017
Program I: Polyphonia, Gula, You can see us, Myelination
Program II: Rush, Nibiru, Chair-Pillow, Excerpt from Goldberg Variations, Tango Fire
Program C: Kin-Incede, Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Open Door, Paquita

— by Jerry Hochman

The 2017 incarnation of Fall for Dance, the annual New York Event that is celebrating its 13th year, is continuing to do what it’s always done: encouraging a broad dance experience for its attendees; providing unfamiliar companies with a forum, and familiar companies with an opportunity to gain new converts; and enabling those audience members already hooked on a company or a particular style of dance to see, and cheer, what they already love at a mere $15 per ticket.

To date, this year’s programming has been at its expected high level, with each program offering something that would appeal to anyone. As in previous years, the most successful pieces in terms of audience response (at least based on my built-in audience applause meter) were those that packed the biggest wallop in terms of obvious energy and loud sound. Speed, sweat, tricks, and novelty are most appreciated; finesse takes a back seat to expression.

The easiest way to structure this combined review of FFD’s first week would be to take the programs and dances in order of presentation, as I’ve done in the past. But I’ll do this one a bit differently – I’ll highlight those dances I found most impressive, and then backtrack to others that may not have been quite as compelling.

The two pieces that impressed me most over the three programs were ones that I expected to dislike. And I suppose my receptivity to them, and acknowledgment of their excellence, is what Fall for Dance is all about.

While I appreciate the skills involved in the umbrella designation hip-hop in general, including in particular breaking, locking and popping, and can react to examples of them objectively, I concede that I’ve never really enjoyed watching performances. Many dance forms originated as “street” dance, so that’s not it. I suppose that to me the usual presentation of individual performers being isolated from others and exhibiting their virtuosic specialty is the equivalent of presenting ballet “tricks,” with no glue to hold all of them together as a unity – although last year’s FFD presentation that focused on the astonishing capabilities of the dancers with CCN de La Rochelle (Opus 14) was an exception.

Enter CIE Art Move Concept, and, in its U.S. premiere, Nibiru.

I couldn’t get a handle on Nibiru initially, but there’s something about its atmosphere that is so pervasively desperate that it forced me to watch it with heightened interest. Then the sense of angst-ridden anxiety acquired a context, non-specific though it initially seemed to be, and this took the dance to a higher level.  Even though it’s not a narrative dance, Nibiru is a coherent whole that’s more than the sum of its parts, and it sings – even though the song is a frightening wail.

The piece, the second of Program B, opens to its seven man cast with their backs to the audience. The men are grouped loosely and in no rigid formation, but they’re definitely a group, assembled either purposefully or because they all happened to be in the same place at the same time, and their bodies slowly sway restlessly from side to side as they appear to stare at a projected image against the stage backdrop. It’s not necessary to understand the dance to know what the design represents (I thought it looked like an oversized hashtag). The design is illuminated, but the dance takes place in subdued light.

Nibiru gradually evolves with a fairly typical structure – individual dancers become the focus of attention, replaced by another, and then another, with the examples of breakdance seeming to become increasingly complex and bravura. When the temporarily featured dancer returns to the fold, the group’s ensuing ensemble movement is led primarily by one dancer moving differently from the soloists, with him and the group executing sequences of locking (and probably of other breakdance subgenres that I’m unable to identify).

But the overall sense, somehow, is a unity as well as a vehicle for individual displays of prowess, with a coherent sense of alienated men in a pressure cooker environment of simmering hopelessness, impatience, and increasing anger. What I saw on stage seemed akin to stereotypical black and white movie images of alienated youth on urban streetcorners, or of men in a prison yard, waiting for something to happen. Although breakdancing is an outlet for expression, the point of the dance is that these men have nowhere to go.

As it ends, the group returns roughly to its original pose, facing that design projected against the backdrop.

On my way home, I thought of the dance, and suddenly realized what that design might have represented. It was a magnified image of an individual gap (and of the metal “frame” surrounding it) of a chain link or barbed wire fence – an actual fence as in a prison, or a metaphorical fence as in the boundaries and functional limitations of a neighborhood. The men are staring at the light emanating from the other side of that fence.

Nibiru is a silent scream, both frightening and memorable, and it’s deafening.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum is Program A’s Gula, a solo performed by the choreographer, Vincent Mantsoe. Gula was initially created as a solo that premiered in March, 1993 in Johannesburg, which Mantsoe subsequently expanded to a “full work,” Gula Matari. But the original solo can stand on its own.

I’m not comfortable sitting through choreography in which dancers mimic the movement of animals. I don’t mean animals in a story – I mean animals as animals. I’ve seen it done before, and although I’ve seen noteworthy exceptions, more often than not the result looks artificial and unsatisfying to watch.

Gula, however, is a horse – actually a bird – of a different color. The brief program note tells of a man who turns into a bird, and the bird turns into a man – and that, essentially, is the dance. But as soon as he enters the stage, Mantsoe is a man being a bird, gradually and increasingly exhibiting the typical avian movements that are characteristic of birds when they’re not in flight: moving close to the ground with staccato cocks of the head – down then up then at all angles – concurrently to search for food and to be alert to predators. Mantsoe nailed every gesture (and sound effect). Then this “bird” gradually morphed into a human: walking erect, exhibiting “normal” human head gestures. And then the man because a bird again as the dance ends.

Based on comments I overhead, some members of the audience apparently found the piece too strange, and too slow. But to me such observations miss the point. This was a fascinating exhibition of reverse anthropomorphism (zoomorphism?) and an encapsulation of one small part of Mantsoe’s environment, and one of the finest examples of it that I’ve seen.

Also impressive were presentations that enhanced the scope and significance of a particular dance form. German Cornejo’s Tango Fire, which closed Program B, delivered an Argentine Tango clinic, but also expanded the tango far beyond its usual (to me) parameters, both stylistically and structurally.

The piece, titled Tango Fire (same as the company), consisted of nine tangos to music by a variety of compositions (including three by the renowned contemporary tango composer Astor Piazzola). But the dances aren’t limited to couples, either alone or in pairs, as I’ve most often seen in tango presentations. This dance, on the contrary, is a dance with a cohesiveness that takes it beyond the style and the individual excellence of its dancers.

That being said, the piece wouldn’t have worked had it not been for the extraordinary execution by the mostly deadpan (the style) dancers, not only with footwork that as so fast you’d miss details of it if you blinked and the intense sensuality that is a hallmark of the style and that would burn a hole into granite, but also with moves that I’d not previously seen in a tango context (e.g., acrobatic lifts and aerials). Tango is a very grounded dance form, but these dances took flight. The word “amazing” is often overused, but the five couples, gathered, the company touts, from world tango champions and from the greatest tango houses in Buenos Aires, all were amazing, as was Cornejo’s choreography for each of the nine dances.

Of the ballet companies in the first week’s FFD programs, all performed well, but none provided the same level of excitement as the pieces mentioned above – unless one includes Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo in the mix. The Trocks, closing Program C with Paquita after (far after) Marius Petipa, were up to their usual form – exciting, hilarious, and very good – and they brought the house down. It’s not ballet, but it sure looks like it could be ballet’s more grounded fraternal twin – or its slightly demented stepchild. That having been said, pulling off what they do as well as they do is no small feat for no small feet. The lead dancer, Yakaterina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey) danced immaculately, and the interaction with her partner, Boris Mudko (Giovanni Ravelo) was priceless – as was his solo. Of the five other featured dancers, I was most impressed by Helen Highwaters (Duane Gosa) and Nina Enimenimynimova (Long Zou), but all executed very well – and if they award a prize for Trock pseudo-Russian names, I nominate Tatiana Youbetyabootskaya (Laszlo Major) and Nadia Doumiafeyva (Philip Matin-Nielson).

The “mainstream” ballet companies presented very good dances and superb dancers, but the ballets lacked the pizazz that could have bought the audience to its feet. In Program C, American Ballet Theatre performed Alexei Ratmansky’s Souvenir d’un cher, which had its ABT premiere last spring, and which I then reviewed in detail. I liked the piece a great deal then, and still do. Surprisingly, however, I thought that it lost something on the smaller City Center stage – I’d expected the opposite. Original cast members Sarah Lane (impossibly luminous) and Stella Abrera (pensively vivacious) excelled, but the timing with their “new” partners (respectively, Tyler Maloney and Thomas Forster) seemed slightly off compared to the Met performances, and Forster lacked the gravitas that Marcelo Gomes brought to the original (which is not a criticism – few dancers can convey Gomes’s innate depth of character), changing the dance’s dynamics and making the ballet appear less meaningful, though no less beautiful.

Miami City Ballet apparently likes to take risks when it comes to NYC. Its “in your face” dance selection is surprising – surely the company has ballets that it could have brought to FFD besides those that are regularly presented by New York City Ballet, making comparisons between the companies’ respective execution of them inevitable.  Polyphonia, the fourth piece that Christopher Wheeldon created for New York City Ballet (it premiered in 2001), is on NYCB’s performance schedule this season.

To date, while MCB’s recent (post-2009) efforts have been good with respect to dances that NYCB premiered and that are a regular part of the company’s repertoire, they didn’t quite approach NYCB quality. But MCB’s execution here, the opening piece in FFD’s opening program, was excellent all around, and Emily Bromberg’s performance was especially resonant.

Pennsylvania Ballet, which is in the midst of a transformation under Artistic Director Angel Corella, opened Program B with the NY Premiere of Wheeldon’s Rush. Choreographed to Bohuslav Martinu’s Sinfonietta La Jolla (the same composition that Justin Peck later used for his 2013 Paz de la Jolla), the title about says it all. Although the PA Ballet dancers did an excellent job with it (particularly Oksana Maslova and Ian Hussey in the pas de deux), the piece, which premiered with the San Francisco Ballet in 2003, isn’t one of Wheeldon’s best.

Two of the FFD programs, so far, have reprised pieces created by iconic post-modem choreographers. In Program A, Trisha Brown Dance Company presented Brown’s You can see us, which premiered in 1995. The dance’s minimal movement is fairly (and deceptively) simple-looking as its two dancers, Cecily Campbell and Jamie Scott, perform what is described as a “mirrored” solo – one dancer mirroring the movements of the other. [“Mirroring is the wrong word – the images aren’t mirror images; they’re identical images danced in sync, with one dancer facing front, the other facing back.]

In Program B, Stephen Petronio Company presented two pieces from a program series called “Bloodlines.” The first, Chair-Pillow, was created in 1969 by Yvonne Rainer. To River Deep, Mountain High by Ike and Tina Turner, eight dancers sit on chairs, stand up or sit back down at various points during the song, and each holds, caresses, or tosses a pillow. It’s more fun to watch than it sounds, but it comes across as of limited significance, particularly since it essentially converts a pounding, vivid song into something mundane (and the recording used is slightly different from the original version, and more shrill).

But the other “Bloodlines” piece, Steve Paxton’s 1986 Excerpt from Goldberg Variations, described as a recreation of Paxton’s improvisation, is a brilliant take on the Bach composition using slinky, gyrating movement, and the solo was brilliantly performed by Nicholas Sciscione.

The remaining dances on the three FFD programs were less fulfilling to me, but with Icecraft Dance Company’s presentation of Sanjukta Sinha dancing the U.S. premiere of Kin-Incede, the problem may have been with my lack of knowledge.

According to the program notes, Incede is “the virtuoso avatar of the woman, the clarion call of her confidence and innate abilities,” and the dance “recreates the most intimate of emotions.” Well, maybe it’s supposed to, but the dance didn’t convey any of that to me. Sinha looked like a statue that gradually comes to life, pounds her feet into the floor and occasionally moves with mature grace. But I concede that the style of Indian Dance that Sinha propounds, Kathak, is not one that I’m familiar with. To me the loud foot pounding (to one unfamiliar, it sounded and looked curiously like a combination of tap and flamenco) and the limited hand/arm gestures looked much less interesting and considerably less engaging than other forms of Indian dance I’ve seen. But then, Sinha’s execution may have been perfection.

I’ve loved every piece by Dorrance Dance that I’ve seen to date. But although it had all the tap/hip-hop bells and whistles that are usually components of their pieces, and included the usual extraordinary execution by the company’s extraordinary dancers, Myelination, which closed Program A (and which was commissioned by FFD), looked pieced together with no overall theme or purpose beyond presenting extraordinary examples of tap and hip-hop. Other performances I’ve seen have been equally extraordinary, but also meaningful.

But to someone who may never have seen Dorrance Dance previously, I’m sure that the presentation looked … extraordinary. Indeed, as the audience exited, I overheard one wide-eyed and exhilarated MCB dancer in the audience exclaiming to her companion “Wow!, Wow!, Wow!,” and I think she echoed the sentiments of most others in the audience.

After last year’s fabulous solo by Demetia Hopkins-Greene in Alvin Ailey’s Cry), my expectations were high for the dance presented by Alvin Ailey Dance Company which closed Program C. But Open Door, choreographed by Ronald K. Brown, is a major disappointment. With movement inspired by Brown’s travels to Cuba, according to the program notes, the 2015 piece begins nicely enough with a duet of sorts by Linda Celeste Sims and Matthew Rushing. But the dance rapidly disintegrates into repetition on repetition on repetition and stereotype after stereotype. Seeing the dancers repeatedly emerge from the wings as if they’re getting ready to lasso something or someone, over and over, is at best uninteresting. And the purported theme, reflected in the title, of the “power of dance and music as vehicles for culture and compassion” is nowhere to be found. The 10 dancers deserved better. And although many in the audience vocally appreciated the presentation, I suspect this reflected appreciation for the dancers’ abundant energy and ability rather than of the piece’s quality.

Fall for Dance continues resumes on October 11 with two performances each of two more programs.