Top 15 in 2018 New York Dance

Jerry Hochman

It’s that time of year. Again.

Last year, against my better judgment, I decided to join many other reviewers and offered my list of 2017’s top dance performances in New York. In response to a steadily diminishing number of requests, I’ll do the same with 2018. I’m aware that we’re already nearly a full month into 2019. So sue me.

My Top 15 (as last year, 10 ballet; 5 “not ballet” – although the distinction is somewhat fluid), includes both individual and group performances, and also choreographic efforts. As was the case last year, it is decidedly not a listing of the “best” performances of the year in New York, although many – if not most – of them merit that distinction, because I can’t claim to have seen more than a subset of the offerings in the New York area (and a bit less than last year), and I don’t doubt that there are many more performances that are worthy of accolades.

Again, my criteria includes not only my evaluation of the individual performance or dance, but also any extraordinary circumstances that increased the personal or situational “adrenaline factor.” Being an unexpected and pleasant surprise is also determinative, and that I remember each performance or dance as if I’d seen it yesterday means something significant to me as well, compared to others I might have enjoyed but can no longer remember why. And I recognize that comparing a performance in a leading role in a full length, full dress ballet with one in a 20 minute contemporary dance is like comparing bananas and peanuts, much less apples and oranges, but excellence is excellence. And if I tend to lump a danseur’s outstanding efforts in the context of recognizing a ballerina, my apologies.

I have modified the criteria somewhat from last year. Even though I may think that particular performances by the same dancer or choreographic efforts by the same choreographer merit separate attention, I’ll combine them here. And this year I’m including a performance that I saw, but did not review. Last, where it seemed appropriate, I bundled two dancers’ performances together. [Yes, that really makes it way more than 15 … so sue me.]

Skylar Brandt in "Don Quixote" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Skylar Brandt in
“Don Quixote”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

The list still does not include the following, which I arbitrarily decided were beyond the scope (a list almost as long as the Top 15): a company’s overall excellence; a dancer’s body of work for the year (e.g., Skylar Brandt, 2018’s international “it” girl, who nailed every featured role she was given but who hasn’t even assayed a career-making leading role in NYC … yet; New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski, whose 2018 performances proved that retirement expectations were way premature; and Sterling Hyltin in anything); noteworthy events (such as Natalia Osipova and David Hallberg’s one-shot return to ABT with Giselle; Marcelo Gomes’s glowing return to New York in the final pas de deux in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Two Pigeons, with Sarasota Ballet; the extraordinarily entertaining compilation of the wit and wisdom – and performing exuberance, still – of Twyla Tharp’s Minimalism and Me program at the Joyce; and Sara Mearns’s briefly shedding her NYCB persona and delivering a remarkable portrayal of Isadora Duncan in Dances of Isadora during the Paul Taylor American Modern Dance season, later repeated on a Fall for Dance program); individual performances in a competition (e.g., in Youth America Grand Prix’s 2018 NY Finals); a dancer’s commendably fulfilling expectations (e.g., Hee Seo’s now first-rate Giselle); the presentation of an excerpt from a larger piece (e.g., Cie Hervé Koubi’s possibly epic The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World, excerpts from which were presented on an October 1 Fall for Dance program); or a reprise of a piece that suddenly made sense after years of thinking that it wasn’t particularly successful (e.g., New York City Ballet’s performances this past year of Alexei Ratmansky’s Namouna, A Grand Divertissement).

Two new categories of “not included”: performances I see exclusively via social media or a “live” transmission, although in one case I’ll mention some to buttress my point, and stellar performances of dances that have been around for a very long time (e.g., El cruce sobre el Niágara, performed by Carlos Luis Blanco and Alejandro Silva (Acosta Danza), choreography by Marianela Boán, on Fall for Dance’s fifth program, and Threshold, performed by Virginie Mécène and Kevin Predmore (Buglisi Dance Theater), choreographed by Jacqulyn Buglisi, on a “Women / Create!” program at New York Live Arts). And I’ve tried not to include contemporary dance companies I included last year, notwithstanding outstanding programs, in order to provide some measure of “equal time” to other equally meritorious groups (so the 2018 Joyce Theater engagements by Ballet Hispanico and Rioult Dance NY are not included, although both programs included dances and performances of distinction). Finally, and maybe most memorably, I’ve not included the collective NYCB Robbins Centennial celebration because … there was just too much that was exceptional.

Cie Hervé Koubi in "The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World" (excerpt) Photo by Stephanie Berger

Cie Hervé Koubi
in “The Barbarian Nights,
or the First Dawns of the World” (excerpt)
Photo by Stephanie Berger

And yes, I realize I just effectively doubled the “top 15.” So …  sue me.

This year I’ve also added two additional categories: the best compilation (I don’t envision this category being repeated), and “best worst” of 2018 (which, unfortunately, I do).

So with those caveats, here are my Top 15 (links to the pertinent reviews are provided as well): 

1) Sarah Lane, American Ballet Theatre, Giselle (May 16, mat.); Other Dances (October 26)

In 2017, Sarah Lane debuted in Giselle with American Ballet Theatre. That was a remarkable performance, one I described as “a Giselle for our time,” and sufficiently exceptional to be included on my “tops” list last year.

Sarah Lane and members of American Ballet Theatre in "Giselle" Photo by Erin Baiano

Sarah Lane
and members of American Ballet Theatre
in “Giselle”
Photo by Erin Baiano

This past spring, Lane outdid herself, with a “mad scene,” and a Giselle, for the ages. I don’t know how she did it, or whether the synergies could happen again (top-flight ballerinas – and danseurs – never give exactly the same performances in the same piece twice), but this performance was particularly extraordinary. It helped immeasurably that the rest of the cast was “on” as well, but the mad scene was an individual effort. And as much as I’ll never forget the accomplishment, I’ll also never forget the response from the young woman sitting a few rows behind me, who remained frozen in her seat after Act I ended, transfixed, eventually whispering to her companion: “Oh. My. God.”

https://criticaldance.org/american-ballet-theatre-four-giselles-one-ages/

This Giselle was not Lane’s only extraordinary outing this past season. Her Other Dances, performed during ABT’s Fall 2018 season and complemented by Herman Cornejo’s dynamic performance, added qualities to Jerome Robbins’s piece that I’d not previously seen, that worked, and that added a new dimension to what already is a wonderful example of his work.

https://criticaldance.org/american-ballet-theatre-performances-dances/

Sarah Lane, Herman Cornejo, and members of the company in American Ballet Theatre's "Don Quixote" Photo by Jerry Hochman

Sarah Lane, Herman Cornejo,
and members of the company
in American Ballet Theatre’s “Don Quixote”
Photo by Jerry Hochman

Combined with helping to make Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade palatable after what I considered to be an annoyingly self-absorbed opening performance by a different cast, and her debuts (albeit one-shot) in La Bayadere and Don Quixote (both reviews are included below), each partnered by Cornejo, it was quite a year – even with ABT’s artistically indefensible decision not to recast her in Swan Lake, and its continuing and inexplicable failure to cast her as Juliet.

https://criticaldance.org/abt-met-2018-makarovas-magnificent-la-bayadere/

https://criticaldance.org/don-quixote-whipped-cream-abt-met-2018-us-ballet-soars/

2) Michael Trusnovec and the Paul Taylor Dance Company: Promethean Fire; Concertiana (Koch Theater, March 22; Fall for Dance October 4)

What a way to go: parts 1 and 2.

The company must have known that Paul Taylor, who passed away at the end of August, was near death during their Spring, 2018 Lincoln Center season – their performances during that entire engagement seemed even more driven than usual. The crowning achievement was their performance of Promethean Fire, which made an already superb program even more memorable.

Promethean Fire is a Paul Taylor masterpiece – perhaps Taylor’s greatest work (although with so many to choose from, including of course Esplanade, it’s a close call). Generally accepted (although not formally acknowledged) as Taylor’s response to 9/11, the piece is never less than superbly executed and incredibly moving. PTDC’s performances of it in 2018, however, took it to another level, and the performances by Michael Trusnovec, who is retiring this year after a 20 year PTDC career (and who later received a 2018 Dance Magazine award), helped take it there.

Michael Trusnovec and Parisa Khobdeh appearing at the Dance Magazine Awards in Paul Taylor's "Promethean Fire" Photo by Christopher Duggan

Michael Trusnovec
and Parisa Khobdeh appearing at
the Dance Magazine Awards
in Paul Taylor’s
“Promethean Fire”
Photo by Christopher Duggan

In my review of that March 22 performance, I described Trusnovec as one of the most powerful dance presences anywhere, and together with his partner through most of that piece (and in many other dances during that season), Parisa Khobdeh, who herself had a remarkable 15th season with PTDC, and an electric audience that started cheering even before the dancers began to move, this performance of a work of art that recognizes horror and tragedy and also celebrates the ultimate triumph of the human spirit brought tears to my eyes.

But that was nothing compared to the gusher prompted by the company’s performance of Promethean Fire at City Center’s Fall for Dance program on October 4, several weeks after his death. It was a celebration of a monumental dance, and a monumental life in dance. And it was recognition that technique and style are one thing (well, two), but heart and soul are another.

On that same March 22 program, I was treated to Taylor’s final dance, Concertiana, which had premiered earlier in the season. Taylor was criticized by some shortsighted critics in recent years because the quality of his choreographic output in his ‘80s did not appear to them as strong as it was earlier in his career. Concertiana proved that he had it to the end. It’s an Esplanade for the 21st Century, and it was Taylor’s parting gift.

https://criticaldance.org/paul-taylor-classic-choreography-classy-company/

3) Taylor Stanley and The Runaway, NYCB, choreography by Kyle Abraham (October 6)

I did not see Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway at its NYCB premiere, but the buzz I heard was not positive. Coupled with my less than enthusiastic response to other pieces of his that I’d recently seen, my expectations for Abraham’s first piece for NYCB were not high. And for most of my initial exposure to it, I disliked it intensely.

Taylor Stanley in Kyle Abraham's "The Runaway" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Taylor Stanley
in Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Then it suddenly clicked (it’s glorious when that happens). I thought I understood what Abraham was trying to communicate, and although I’m not sure I’m right, I’ll take it. Even though I suspect many will embrace The Runaway for all the wrong reasons [Abraham’s outrageous song choices (which, as I noted, I would have been perfectly happy never having heard); the equally outrageous racially oriented costumes; or the fact that it might be perceived as an “African-American” ballet performed by what some erroneously consider a white-bread company], what I think Abraham is trying to say is far more significant, far more introspective, and in a strange way, far more universal than it first appears. It’s a landmark ballet, and one not to be missed.

Regardless of its meaning (or whether it has one), The Runaway must be seen for the company’s outstanding execution overall – you probably will never see Sara Mearns, Ashley Bouder, and Georgina Pazcoguin dance like this in any other piece, but mostly for Taylor Stanley’s tour de force performance. Stanley had a huge artistic growth spurt in 2018: seemingly everything he danced was brilliantly conceived and executed, but his jaw-dropping performance in The Runaway was from an entirely different dance galaxy.

https://criticaldance.org/new-york-city-ballet-runaway-hit/

4) Joaquin De Luz (and Tiler Peck), NYCB, Theme and Variations, A Suite of Dances (October 14); Other Dances (October 12), Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux (September 21)

What a way to go: Part 3

Joaquin De Luz and members of New York City Ballet during his Farewell Celebration Photo by Jerry Hochman

Joaquin De Luz
and members of New York City Ballet
during his Farewell Celebration
Photo by Jerry Hochman

It’s never too late. For years, as competent a danseur as he was, I felt that Joaquin De Luz was too into himself on stage, and while he danced superbly on his own, he seemed deficient as a partner. But in recent years, in my eyes that distinction either became less apparent, or he overcame it. And in his last NYCB year, his performances seemed particularly memorable. Ultimately, at his October 14 “Farewell,” he left not with an echo of what he used to be able to do, but with performances that reached new artistic heights.

Since announcing his retirement, every performance was, to one extent or another, his last in that role. Two days before his Farewell, he danced his final Other Dances, appearing with his frequent stage partner, Tiler Peck. It was a marvelous performance. [Discussed in detail in the context of my review of Lane and Cornejo’s performance of Other Dances above.] Earlier in the Fall, 2018 season, he and Peck danced their final Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux together, which he danced admirably, and which Peck, seemingly buoyed by the occasion, blasted into the stratosphere.

Joaquin De Luz in George Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Joaquin De Luz
in George Balanchine’s
“Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But his Farewell performance two days later, and most significantly his performance in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, was a year highlight. One would not logically choose this piece on the eve of retirement: Farewell performances are not usually the time to take risks, and the piece is tough enough for a danseur in his prime, much less one whose hair is beginning to grey and whose technique, fine as it still is, couldn’t possibly be as sharp as it once was. However, and with Peck perhaps as inspiration, he nailed it. Even he seemed amazed, and grateful – and his performance was saluted with onstage applause by the entire cast. He followed this with a demanding Robbins masterwork, A Suite of Dances, which he executed as well on this occasion as he did when he debuted in the role during the company’s Robbins Celebration the previous spring.

https://criticaldance.org/new-york-city-ballet-celebrate-celebrate-dance-music/

https://criticaldance.org/new-york-city-ballet-sensational-still/

5) Erica Pereira, NYCB, Romeo + Juliet (February 16)

    Indiana Woodward, NYCB, Romeo + Juliet (February 21; Les Noces (May 12)

Perhaps I’ve been unusually fortunate, but I’ve never seen a poor performance of Juliet (going back as far as ABT’s one-act Romeo and Juliet with Hilda Morales, choreographed by Antony Tudor). [Speaking of which, the return of Tudor dances to ABT’s repertory is long overdue.] So to make it on my list, there has to be something particularly special about it. The portrayals by Erica Pereira and Indiana Woodward in Peter Martins’s Romeo + Juliet were that, and more.

Erica Pereira and Peter Walker in Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Erica Pereira and Peter Walker
in Peter Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

For whatever reason, following her exceptional debut as Juliet during its premiere 2007 season (selected by Martins to dance the role while still an apprentice), and although she was promoted to soloist fairly quickly, Pereira was rarely assigned demanding full-length roles thereafter. But under the interim NYCB leadership Pereira has finally been given a shot at a wider variety of roles.

Even though she’s danced it before, I consider her return as Juliet last winter to be, effectively, a second debut (similar in impact and significance to Lane’s “second debut” as Aurora with ABT several years ago). Together with her Romeo, Peter Walker (in an outstanding role debut), Pereira made the most of the opportunity: it was a courageous, triumphant performance. She should be given more such opportunities. [Unfortunately, rumor has it that this coming season’s The Sleeping Beauty will not be one of them.]

Indiana Woodward in Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Indiana Woodward
in Peter Martins’s “Romeo + Juliet”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

It seems that Indiana Woodward hits most everything she touches out of the park. Her Juliet debut the following week was no exception. And her Romeo, Stanley, improved exponentially since his role debut many years ago.  His may now be the seminal Martins milquetoast to murderous-avenger Romeo.

https://criticaldance.org/nycbs-romeo-juliet-new-performances-indelible-memories/

Indiana Woodward, Ashley Hod, Unity Phelan, Russell Janzen (center, front to back), and members of New York City Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "Les Noces" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Indiana Woodward, Ashley Hod, Unity Phelan,
Russell Janzen (center, front to back),
and members of New York City Ballet
in Jerome Robbins’s “Les Noces”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

Although she impressed me immediately with a ballerina-next-door quality, Woodward’s stage persona has acquired many facets. An example is her compelling, dominating performance in the resurrection of Robbins’s Les Noces. Even though she had less dancing to do than other featured characters, every move she made, every breath she took, demanded attention. One could not take one’s eyes off her – and wouldn’t have wanted to.

https://criticaldance.org/new-york-city-ballet-robbins-centennial-programs/

6) Daria Reznik, Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg, Anna Karenina (April 7 mat.)

When your only criticism is that the lead ballerina in Eifman Ballet’s Anna Karenina may have been too young to portray the character, that says something about every other aspect of the performance. Reznik, a relatively new member of the company (she graduated from Vaganova in 2016, and was only 20 at this performance), is riveting in a demanding role.

Daria Reznik and Sergey Volobuev in Boris Eifman's "Anna Karenina" Photo by Evgeny Matveev

Daria Reznik and Sergey Volobuev
in Boris Eifman’s “Anna Karenina”
Photo by Evgeny Matveev

For Eifman, ballet movement is about expressing and visualizing emotion, including the subconscious psychological forces that create and respond to emotional stimuli. It is relentlessly intense – all melodrama all the time – but it’s also electric to watch.

Superbly abetted by Sergey Volobuev in a masterful performance as Karenin, Reznik dominated the emotionally tormented role, and dominated the stage in the process. And it wasn’t just her overall choreographic execution or the body that looks like a stretched rubber band. She does with her eyes what she does so magnificently with her legs – she somehow wraps them around everything in their path.

https://criticaldance.org/eifman-ballets-anna-karenina-rapturous-daria-reznik/

7) Christine Shevchenko, ABT, Swan Lake (June 23 mat.)

I’ve often written that swans aren’t hatched fully grown. But Christine Shevchenko’s debut came reasonably close.

Christine Shevchenko in "Swan Lake" Photo by Gene Schiavone

Christine Shevchenko in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Shevchenko is one of the company’s strongest dancers, but she avoids appearing to dominate the stage and every dancer in eyeshot, turning the strength somehow inward so the focus is on her character rather than her undeniable command (except where command is an obvious requirement – as in her gasp-inducing fouettes). And in her Odette / Odile debut she demonstrated both strength and an unexpected quality of lyricism. The result was a rare balanced performance, with both a high excitement factor and an almost as high vulnerability factor. That there’s room for improvement, albeit limited, in an already marvelous portrayal(s) is almost scary.

https://criticaldance.org/abts-swan-lake-stunning-shevchenko-debut-seo-shines/

8) Dada Masilo / The Dance Factory, Dada Masilo’s ‘Giselle’ (April 3)

It was a good year for Giselle – even an anti-Giselle.

Dada Masilo (center) and members of The Dance Factory in "Dada Masilo's 'Giselle'" Photo by John Hogg

Dada Masilo (center)
and members of The Dance Factory
in “Dada Masilo’s ‘Giselle'”
Photo by John Hogg

I was angry when I read what I considered to be a one-sided and inaccurate description of Giselle in the program note for Dada Masilo’s interpretation of the classic Romantic ballet – it isn’t necessary to knock something else down in order to build your interpretation up. That aside, and notwithstanding a couple of serious missteps, Masilo’s revisionist / African-based one-act Dada Masilo’s ‘Giselle’ is a marvel of cross-cultural invention, intelligence, and audacity, with a contemporary spin and an emphasis on revenge. I found Masilo and her company’s appearance at the Joyce in 2017 promising; this performance took her and her company to another level.

https://criticaldance.org/dada-masilos-giselle-shes-human/

9) Katherine Williams, ABT, Giselle (Myrta); David Hallberg, ABT, Harlequinade (Pierrot)

Non-lead performances don’t often get recognized, but two last year could not be ignored.

ABT has a new queen of mean.

ABT has many strong Myrtas. From Gillian Murphy to Stella Abrera to Shevchenko to Devon Teuscher, there’s not a weak link in the bunch. Now there’s another – and although I’ve recognized Katherine Williams’s technique and, even more significantly, her characterizations, from the day I first saw her dance with ABT, I was not prepared for the strength and depth of her debut performance as Myrta, one that proved promotion-worthy.

[Williams’s Myrta debut is discussed in the review of Sarah Lane’s Giselle, above.]

The character of Pierrot in Alexei Ratmansky’s bloated but ultimately enjoyable Harlequinade, depending on the cast, is relatively non-descript. Intentionally.

But David Hallberg’s Pierrot was from another dimension: the most moving depiction of the character that I’ve seen in Harlequinade or in any other ballet derived from Commedia dell’arte where the sad and somewhat clueless clown is seen on stage. His was an astonishingly gripping, heartfelt, and unforgettable portrayal – a pierrot noble – even more stunning because in costume he was unrecognizable, and the audience failed to acknowledge him (normally audiences applaud when he first appears) until the ballet’s end.

https://criticaldance.org/les-millions-de-petipa-hes-jolly-good-fellow/

10) Maria Khoreva, Daria Ionova, Anastasia Nuikina and Xander Parrish, Apollo, The Mariinksy Ballet; Mathilde Froustey, Scotch Symphony, San Francisco Ballet; Balanchine: The City Center Years (November 1, 2 and 3)

A year ago, I recognized the astonishing performance of the Bolshoi’s Alina Kovaleva in “Diamonds” at the Lincoln Center Festival’s Celebration of Balanchine’s Jewels, and stated that “sometimes you just know…”

Sometimes you just know, redux.

Maria Khoreva and Xander Parish in George Balanchine's "Apollo" Photo by Daniele Cipriani Courtesy of The Mariinsky Ballet

Maria Khoreva and Xander Parish
in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Daniele Cipriani
Courtesy of The Mariinsky Ballet

I had been watching Vaganova student Maria Khoreva since I quite inadvertently stumbled upon one of her social media posts, and I knew immediately – as, apparently, did the powers that be at the Mariinsky, who assigned this not yet graduated student the role of Terpsichore in Balanchine’s Apollo, and then had the audacity, and perspicacity, to send her and two other newly minted Vaganova graduates to New York a few short months after they joined the company. Khoreva has already been promoted to First Soloist, has already been cast in lead roles in full length ballets (and, hot off social media, will be dancing “Diamonds” very soon), and already brings a rare quality of joy as well as technical brilliance to her performances. And she’s only 18. To be present at (or close to) the beginning, and to watch her grow, is a thrilling opportunity – as was the opportunity to interview her the night before her New York debut.

Maria Khoreva (foreground) with (l-r) Daria Ionova and Anastasia Nuikina in George Balanchine's "Apollo" Photo by Daniele Cipriani Courtesy of The Mariinsky Ballet

Maria Khoreva (foreground) with
(l-r) Daria Ionova and Anastasia Nuikina
in George Balanchine’s “Apollo”
Photo by Daniele Cipriani
Courtesy of The Mariinsky Ballet

Khoreva is not alone. Her Vaganova-graduate colleagues, Daria Ionova (who I’d already noticed on social media) and Anastasia Nuikina (who until this performance I’d known only because she was the other recent Vaganova graduate cast in Apollo), also excelled, with Nuikina being a huge surprise. She has a particularly engaging, endearing quality that steals the heart, and that I hope will not be lost with increasing experience. And both appear at a technical level far beyond their years. Although I was not enamored of Xander Parish’s Apollo on first view, I grew to appreciate it as a credible and, for him, an essential interpretation, to like it a lot, and to recognize that different is not necessarily deficient.

This recounting of Balanchine’s choreography might not have been acceptable to purists, and it’s undoubtedly true that any NYCB performance of it will be more stylistically sound and just as accomplished. But for NYCB dancers Balanchine is part of their genetic material; dancing the roles as well as these Mariinsky dancers did, as young as they are, is something else entirely. And the glimpse it provided into the Mariinsky’s future is priceless.

https://criticaldance.org/balanchine-city-center-years-choreographic-performance-excellence/

https://criticaldance.org/conversation-maria-khoreva-mariinskys-precocious-young-ballerina/

At another Balanchine City Center celebration performance, I had the opportunity to see San Francisco Ballet’s Mathilde Froustey for the first time. Scotch Symphony, which I’d not seen in ages, is Balanchine’s abstract take on La Sylphide. I’m grateful to SFB for delivering such a glowing presentation of it, but even more grateful for introducing me to this young principal. Strong, fast, endearing and effervescent – but also as delicate as a sylph, Froustey’s return to New York (ideally, in Giselle) would be most welcome.

11) Tatiana Melnik and The Hungarian National Ballet, Don Quixote (November 9)

It was a particularly busy and, as it turned out, significant time of the year, so with a full plate I doubted that I’d have an opportunity to see The Hungarian National Ballet Company’s brief three-performance visit to Lincoln Center, consisting of one Swan Lake, one Don Quixote, and one repertory program. But I made a last minute decision to see Don Q, and although I didn’t review it, I’m very glad I did.

Based solely on this performance, this company deserves more performance opportunities in New York. Every dancer in the company delivered superb performances, including (but not limited to) the evening’s Amour, Mercedes, Gypsy dancer, and Basil (Igor Tsvirko, who had recently joined the company after roughly ten years with the Bolshoi). [Sadly – and unforgivably — aside from the two leads, the other featured dancers were not identified.]

But the performance highlight was Tatiana Melnik’s Kitri. Melnik clearly is the company’s prima (she also danced the lead in the company’s Swan Lake performance earlier in the week), and the role is nothing new to her. Nevertheless, her execution was fresh and exceptionally accomplished – perhaps not with all the nuance we’ve seen in some other Kitri portrayals, but with all the essential pizazz and extraordinary facile technique, culminating in an unforgettable final pas de deux that left the audience, and me, in disbelief.

Back in the Stone Age, New York ballet enthusiasts could look forward to visits by visiting non-US companies like Hungarian National Ballet on a regular basis thanks to the foresight and risk-taking of producer / impresario Sol Hurok. As good as performance snippets on social media and YouTube may be, there’s no substitute for a live performance; and as broad a brush as the Joyce Theater’s offerings in recent seasons commendably represent, there’s no substitute for a venue that can enable a company to perform what it does best. So take notice, would-be Huroks. There’s considerable performing excellence out there, regardless of its location – the Hungarian National Ballet is only one example – and there’s an audience out there eager for an opportunity to see what these companies and their dancers can do.

12) Reclamation Map (Tayeh Dance with Heather Christian), Fall for Dance, (October 5)

So … I sit in the City Center audience waiting patiently for Program 3 of Fall for Dance to begin, hoping that the first dance, by a group I’d never heard of (I’d forgotten that I’d seen choreographer Sonya Tayeh’s work once previously) would pass quickly so I could focus on what I thought would be the evening’s main events.

Members of Tayeh Dance,  with Heather Christian and vocalists,  in Sonya Tayeh's "Reclamation Map" Photo by Paula Lobo

Members of Tayeh Dance,
with Heather Christian and vocalists,
in Sonya Tayeh’s “Reclamation Map”
Photo by Paula Lobo

It doesn’t happen often, but seconds after Reclamation Map began, I was hooked. Somehow the concept and the collaboraton – the powerful but highly controlled dance choreographed by Tayeh and movingly executed by her company’s dancers, and the astonishing performance by composer/vocalist Heather Christian and her two vocalist colleagues (Jo Lampert and Onyie Nwachukwu) – created a haunting, multi-faceted ambiance to get lost in. I don’t know if this piece is typical of Christian’s work, but here her voice, delivery, and performing presence matched delicacy with power, crystalline clarity with earthy expressiveness, and emotional depth with soul.

Surely the concept of overcoming darkness and despair through inner strength is nothing new, but this piece presented it in a unique and sensational way – so much so that I reviewed the same performance twice. Reclamation Map was a benevolent shock; it blew me away.

https://criticaldance.org/fall-dance-2018-first-two-half-programs/

https://criticaldance.org/fall-dance-2018-second-week/

13) Parsons Dance (May 24)

Parsons Dance in Trey McIntyre's "Ma Maison" Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Parsons Dance in Trey McIntyre’s “Ma Maison”
Photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Six dances, and not a clinker in the bunch. Featuring five pieces by Artistic Director and Co-Founder David Parsons – one jointly with company dancer/rehearsal director Abby Silva Gavezzoli, who retired following this Joyce Theater engagement (what a way to go – Part 4) and one by Trey McIntyre (the knock-out Ma Maison), for sheer entertainment value, this was the finest overall contemporary dance program that I saw last year.

https://criticaldance.org/parsons-dance-joyce-dance-doesnt-get-better/

14) Lauren Lovette and Kennard Henson, NYCB, Afternoon of a Faun (October 12)

Lauren Lovette’s success in roles she seemingly was born to dance, is, by now, nothing to be surprised about (although her successful choreographic efforts, happily, still are). And the role of the self-absorbed ballerina in Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun is one of them. She should have been assigned this role years ago, even while she was still in the corps, but NYCB has many outstanding interpreters of that role (Sterling Hyltin being one), and there’s a long and growing waiting list.

Lauren Lovette and members of New York City Ballet here in Jerome Robbins's "The Goldberg Variations" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Lauren Lovette
and members of New York City Ballet
here in Jerome Robbins’s
“The Goldberg Variations”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

But when she was finally cast, the stage partner who I thought would be ideal in this piece was no longer with the company, and other candidates were injured or otherwise unavailable. The casting of Kennard Henson, a relatively new member of NYCB’s corps whom I’d not seen outside of non-featured corps roles, seemed disastrous.

As has been happening with increasing frequency, I was wrong. Her technique and attitude and his seeming awe-struck freshness resulted in a silent dance theater thunderbolt. It was double-debut that was as sensational as it was a shocking surprise.

Purists might contend that Lovette and Henson added more visible emotion to their portrayals than is appropriate. I disagree that they did, and that it was inappropriate even if they did. While the narcissism of the dancers is an essential component, the characters here are self-absorbed, not unfeeling automatons. If there was a degree more reactiveness here than in other portrayals, the difference was worth it.

[The review of Lovette and Henson’s performance in Afternoon of a Faun is included in the review of the Joaquin De Luz “Farewell” performance, above.]

15) Shibuya Blues (Tulsa Ballet, March 9) and Balamouk (Dance Theatre of Harlem at Fall for Dance, October 5): choreography by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa

Tulsa Ballet dancers Joshua Stayton and Jaimi Cullen in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's "Shibuya Blues" Photo by Francsico Estevez

Tulsa Ballet dancers
Joshua Stayton and Jaimi Cullen
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Shibuya Blues”
Photo by Francsico Estevez

Shibuya Blues is not a new piece of choreography, nor is Tulsa Ballet a new company, but both were new to me when Tulsa Ballet appeared last year at the Joyce. The dance, “about” an outsider trying to find her way in a bustling metropolis (Tokyo), is told in an inventive and entertaining way, is multi-textured, and is a ballet that doesn’t have the appearance of a ballet. It is by far the best of the Lopez Ochoa ballets that I’ve seen. And although each of the Tulsa Ballet dancers in it excelled, the ballet belonged to the “Outsider,” Maine Kawashima, whose performance combined a waif-like characterization with steely determination.

https://criticaldance.org/tulsa-ballet-tornado-hits-new-york/

Shibuya Blues was not Lopez Ochoa’s only 2018 success. Though not at the same level, her Balamouk, which was created for Dance Theatre of Harlem and premiered on a City Center Fall for Dance program, is highly entertaining and the best “new” piece that I’ve seen performed by DTH in many years. It’s a sparkling, joyous ballet that melds its disparate musical cultural sounds into a coherent whole, and that showcases the individual and group talents of the company’s ten participating dancers. It was a fitting tribute to the late Arthur Mitchell, DTH’s co-founder, to whom the program was dedicated.

[The review of Balamouk is included in the reviews of Reclamation Map, above.]

Best Worst Ballet: AFTERITE, ABT, choreography by Wayne McGregor (May 22)

I don’t often hate any particular dance, but I hated AFTERITE, Wayne McGregor’s take on Rite of Spring which premiered during ABT’s Met 2018 season and was repeated during its Fall season at the Koch Theater. And it wasn’t just because, to me and many others, by its inescapable and obvious connection to Sophie’s Choice it trivialized the Holocaust, or because, at the very least, it’s controversial (and intended to be), but also because its concept, calculated to be a different take on the “Chosen One” and thereby lock in audience attention that might otherwise have considered this Rite to be just another sacrifice, lacked not only compassion, but cohesion and clarity. It was, and remains, very difficult to follow above the broad strokes of a mother’s decision to choose one of her children to die in order to make crops grow. Little of it, as presented, makes any sense beyond its melodrama and nausea-inducing horror.

Members of American Ballet Theatre in Wayne McGregor’s "AFTERITE" Photo by Marty Sohl

Members of American Ballet Theatre
in Wayne McGregor’s “AFTERITE”
Photo by Marty Sohl

But I cannot deny that although I have not seen most of McGregor’s pieces, of those I’ve seen (including his Autobiography at the Joyce earlier in the year), AFTERITE is by far the best choreographically, with a plethora of movement variety and complexity and not a dancer twisted into a pretzel or pointless angular twitch in sight. And although to some extent I was unable to see the trees for the forest on first view, on second I could appreciate the extraordinary efforts by ABT’s dancers – all of them, but particularly Cornejo, Alessandra Ferri, Isabella Boylston, Cassandra Trenary, and Blaine Hoven.

Nevertheless, if I never see AFTERITE again, it will be too soon.

https://criticaldance.org/mcgregors-afterite-make-crops-grow/

[the second performance of AFTERITE is reviewed in the context of the review of the program that included Lane and Cornejo’s Other Dances, above.]

Best Compilation: Something to Dance About, NYCB, choreography by Jerome Robbins, direction and musical staging by Warren Carlyle (May 3)

The Jerome Robbins Centennial was celebrated by ballet companies around the world (with the exception of ABT, where such recognition as there was seemed both belated and tepid at best), but to my knowledge none more comprehensively than NYCB’s commemoration during its Spring, 2018 season.

Members of New York City Ballet in "Something to Dance About" Guest Vocalist Jessica Vosk (center) Direction and Musical Staging by Warren Carlyle Photo by Paul Kolnik

Members of New York City Ballet
in “Something to Dance About”
[Guest Vocalist Jessica Vosk (center)]Direction and Musical Staging by Warren Carlyle
Photo by Paul Kolnik

The capstone of the celebration and the final piece on its Spring, 2018 gala program, Warren Carlyle’s compilation of Robbins’s Broadway choreography was so extensive, so lovingly and tastefully assembled (including extraordinary costumes and equally extraordinary lightning-fast costume changes), so brilliantly executed by the company, and ultimately so moving (despite, or maybe because of, so skillfully and shamelessly pushing audience buttons) that I cannot conceive of a more fitting tribute. And even though I knew immediately exactly where Carlyle was going when Jessica Vosk (in a performance as accomplished as that of the dancers) began singing “Something Wonderful” (from The King and I) as the dance concluded, that didn’t stop me and others in eyeshot from attempting, unsuccessfully, to choke back tears. One hopes that the powers that be don’t wait until Robbins’s 125th or 150th birthday anniversary to bring it back.

Ask la Cour and Students of the School of American Ballet in Jerome Robbins's "Circus Polka" Photo by Paul Kolnik

Ask la Cour and Students
of the School of American Ballet
in Jerome Robbins’s “Circus Polka”
Photo by Paul Kolnik

What a way to go, Part 5.

https://criticaldance.org/jerome-robbins-something-wonderful/

2018 was, overall, another noteworthy dance year in New York. On to 2019, which, as of this writing, has already produced one or two candidates for next year’s tops in dance in New York.