Top 15 in 2019 New York Dance

Jerry Hochman

It’s that time of year. Again.

Two years ago I decided to join many other reviewers and offered my list of the top dance performances in New York that year. I did the same last year, and will do so again now – for my own benefit if no one else’s, since it gives me the opportunity to review the performances I’ve seen in the previous 12 months – along with the chance to correct seemingly endless typos in previously posted reviews.

My Top 15 includes both individual and group performances, and also choreographic efforts. As was the case previously, 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 less than last year), and I don’t doubt that there are many more performances that are worthy of accolades.

For those who have read and remember my criteria, you can skip the below and go to the listing itself, but there are some tweaks that are new this year.

My criteria are necessarily both objective and subjective. They include 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, as is choreography that is not derivative of something else. 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.

As I did 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 will effectively combine them here – no dancer or choreographer will be recognized as one of the Top 15 twice, no matter how much the second (or third, …) outing may warrant it. And if there are multiple dances on the same program that demand recognition, I’ll combine them, giving primary credit to my preference. But this year, where a particular ballet had multiple casts, and dancers in each cast merit independent recognition, I’ll salute both separately – combining them did not seem fair. And in the context of discussing an overriding lead performance in a particular ballet, I may also recognize other dancers who performed in the same ballet in “lesser” roles – proving the adage that there are no small roles – who deserve special mention.

Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle
in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

The list still does not include the following, which I arbitrarily decided were beyond the scope: a company’s overall excellence; a dancer’s body of work for the year (e.g., the marvelous seasons that New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild has had since her return to performing, and the marvelous seasons that NYCB’s Sterling Hyltin always seems to have); a dancer’s commendably fulfilling expectations (though this year I’ll make one exception); the presentation of an excerpt from a larger piece (otherwise the performance of Akram Khan’s Dust Duet in Fall For Dance Program 3 would certainly have been included); performances (or parts thereof) that I’ve seen exclusively via social media (including the meteoric early career of The Mariinsky’s Maria Khoreva, which I continue to monitor), extraordinary individual “moments” that go beyond “tricks” and push boundaries (like Daniil Simkin’s explosive moment as Ali in ABT’s Le Corsaire, which was captured and subsequently posted in social media), and individual performances at a ballet competition like YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix) or one-shot performances at a gala or special program –although this year, in an “added” special award, I’ll recognize one unexpected superlative performance by a dancer who was then – and may still be – a pre-professional. This last prohibition eliminates such interesting and/or stellar performances at YAGP’s annual gala (one of two this year) as those of Michel Fokine’s The Dying Swan, which added another character to the solo (American Ballet Theatre Soloist Calvin Royal III), thereby making the ballet far more than “just” watching a swan’s slow demise; choreography by Juliano Nunes (Nothing Left; performed by Nunes and Boston Ballet Principal Derek Dunn, and reportedly the additional choreography for Royal in The Dying Swan), which demonstrates that Nunes, who choreographs hyper-emotionally, hyper-intricately, and hyper-physically, is a choreographer to watch; Porte Rouge (choreographed by Melanie Hamrick – who would retire from ABT later in the year – to music by the Rolling Stones, a promising first effort); and individual efforts by Zoe Anderson in David Parsons’s Caught, Catherine Hurlin in a scorching paso doble, the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim, and the ever-elastic and ever-sensual Lucia Lacarra. [Yes, I know I just effectively did what I said I wouldn’t do.]

The listing also does not include performance photographs of many of the cited dances, because no such photos were made available.

Like last year, I’ve also included two additional categories: the best compilation (in this case, the compilation created a “new” dance), and “best worst” of 2018 (which this year is a policy rather than a performance). But I’ve added four more, which may or may not be repeated in the future: best performance by a student in a gala (not in competition), a most promising stage partnership (which doesn’t really merit this type of recognition, but there was no other place to put it), best out-of-town performance, and best program notes.

Finally, although I’ve tried to avoid emphasizing individual or group performances that I’ve included in prior “Tops” lists, I cannot in good conscience ignore stellar performances just because I’ve recognized that dancer or choreographer previously. If some reader considers that a form of critical favoritism, so be it (though I trust the reviews provide sufficient basis for inclusion), but I cannot in good conscience not include them.

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


1) Sarah Lane – Manon. American Ballet Theatre, June 18 and 21

Yes. Again.

I saw back to back (to back to back) extraordinary ABT performances in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon many years ago by Diana Vishneva and Alessandra Ferri, and never thought anything I’d see afterward could come close to those.

ABT finally returned Manon to its repertory during its Spring 2019 Met Season, and there it was again: back to back brilliance. And although all three of the Manon casts that I saw delivered superlative performances, Sarah Lane’s and Hee Seo’s stood out – for different reasons. There are two distinguishing factors, as I’ll explain below, for separating them as I have.

Sarah Lane, here with Daniil Simkin
in “Swan Lake”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

That Lane dances an extraordinary Giselle – and a memorable Nikiya, Odette / Odile and Kitri (although inexplicably with only one opportunity for each, to date) – is not a surprise. She either epitomizes the role or one could envision her in it. The role of Manon was just too dramatic, too emotionally blistering, too physical, too … everything. It’d be too much of a stretch. No matter what one may have thought of Lane’s prior performances, no one I knew (myself included) expected Lane to pull off Manon.

No one… except maybe Lane. The shock factor that her performance provided was seismic.

Sarah Lane
and Herman Cornejo
in the curtain call
following their performance
in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s
Photo by
Jerry Hochman

But it wasn’t just the surprise; hers was a memorable performance regardless of exceeded expectations. Everything worked, including the potboiler final Act and the shock of her first appearance in that Act’s opening scene. I vividly remember the sight of, and collective audience gasp in response to, Sylvie Guillem’s first appearance in that scene. Nothing could equal that, but Lane’s was almost that miraculously gut-ripping. And what also made the performance particularly memorable – the second distinguishing factor – was that she initially appeared innocent and vulnerable rather than a courtesan-in-training as soon as she stepped out of her carriage in the first scene in Act I, making the outcome even more real, and legitimately tragic.

Her Des Grieux, Herman Cornejo, was a bit off in their first performance (understandable, since that was his first performance of the season following what apparently was a significant injury and he seemed to be – not surprisingly – unwilling to test it too much, but his partnering and emotional support was extraordinary in their second Manon. And Blaine Hoven delivered a promising, though not yet fully developed Lescaut, which was a new role for him this season.

2) Hee Seo – Manon. American Ballet Theatre; June 17. [Special mention: James Whiteside]

The expectations with respect to Manon were far different for Seo than for Lane. All the Manons were touted as debuts, but I find that hard to believe for Seo. Assuming its truth, however, Seo has had the benefit of years of honing her dramatic chops (her extraordinary performance in John Cranko’s Onegin was an early example), so her ability to deliver this character was never in question. Nor was her ability to deliver choreographic execution where Romantic or Classical requirements aren’t an essential consideration (although with the many opportunities given she’s improved significantly in those respects in recent years to the point that that’s no longer really an issue). Regardless of expectations, however, the sheer quality of her portrayal of Manon demands separate recognition. The portrayal was in keeping with the Manons I’ve previously seen (she seemed to know exactly what she was getting into as soon as she stepped out of the carriage), but that didn’t make the execution any less exquisite, or any less commendable.

Hee Seo and Roberto Bolle
in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

In his penultimate performance with ABT, Roberto Bolle’s Des Grieux took awhile to get going, but once it did, his partnering was the equal of Cornejo’s, and his dramatic impact was unusually (for him) demonstrative. In his first guest appearance with ABT, partnering Ferri, I described him as looking a bit like Superman (Christopher Reeve). Here he delivered a super performance to match.

The role of Lescaut is critical to the success of the ballet, and I cannot understate the quality or value of James Whiteside’s performance in that role at this performance. He devoured the stage whenever he was on it, delivering a scintillating, venomous characterization that was one of the most memorable I’ve seen (at least equaling that of Cornejo, which I saw many years ago). By far, and of those I’ve seen, it was Whiteside’s finest role. Indeed, Whiteside had a particularly good year, culminating with a very fine choreographic work presented during ABT’s Fall Season at the Koch Theater, Modern American Romance.

[the review of this Seo / Bolle / Whiteside Manon performance is in the same review as Lane’s]

3) David Hallberg and Joseph Gordon: Song of a Wayfarer. Royal Ballet Stars (Program C); August 16

Maurice Bejart’s Song of a Wayfarer has been around for a long time (since 1971), but I’d not previously seen it. What an introduction!

Saying that this dance is “about” an impatient, rebellious youth and his mentor (or Fate figure) says nothing. It’s about characterization – a lot more difficult to deliver credibly, particularly where the characters aren’t supposed to be “real.” Here ABT/Bolshoi/Royal star David Hallberg teamed with New York City Ballet Principal Joseph Gordon to deliver a miraculous performance that gripped me from the beginning and never let go.

David Hallberg
in Maurice Bejart’s
“Song of a Wayfarer”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Hallberg’s ability to inhabit a character is not unexpected, but in this case, with a “character” as amorphous as this god and human, mentor and seducer, his execution was extraordinary. And even though one expects great performances from Hallberg, his well-earned reputation as one of ballet’s best danseur nobles had nothing to do with its power – it was “just” Hallberg’s presence and characterization. But nothing prepared me for Gordon’s seething portrayal of a restless, youthful stallion whose direction needs to be channeled and focused: in hindsight, and although the dances are in no way similar, it’s a little (just a little) like Balanchine’s Apollo being taught his destiny. Regardless, simply put, Hallberg and Gordon here delivered one of the finest overall performances of anything that I can remember, even though it all seemed to be over in the blink of an eye.

4) Devon Teuscher; Jane Eyre; choreography by Cathy Marston. ABT; June 6, 8. [Special mention: Catherine Hurlin, Skylar Brandt, Sarah Lane, and ensemble.]

Ok. So it’s dark. So it may be one-sidedly feminist. So its last image hits the audience over the head with an anvil. Jane Eyre is still a breath of fresh air.

Devon Teuscher
in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre”
Photo by Gene Schiavone.

The first full-length ballet choreographed by a woman that ABT has presented, Jane Eyre is decidedly choreographed from a different point of view. But that would mean nothing if the ballet weren’t so well-crafted and executed. Except for that final self-congratulatory image (and that of Edward Rochester’s first appearance – like a cross between John Wayne and Gengis Khan), everything worked.

Catherine Hurlin
in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

And in Devon Teuscher, the ballet had a perfect lead. Although I’ve been impressed with Teuscher’s dramatic abilities previously (e.g., in Sir Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas), in Jane Eyre she took everything to a new, higher level. Every experience she’d had, every emotion her character felt, was etched in her searing and animated (but not melodramatic) performance.

But the ballet wouldn’t have had the impact it did had it not been for the characterizations of Young Jane, the victimized child / adolescent whose experiences form the predicate for the adult Jane’s actions. Hurlin’s performance was astonishing. The quality of her execution has never been in doubt, but her role here provided a side to her acting abilities I’d not previously seen. If that role had been a “lead,” her performance would have been separately included here. Very close to that, and not at all surprising, was Skylar Brandt’s Young Jane in a subsequent performance. Both portrayals were scathing and memorable.

(l-r) Cassandra Trenary, James Whiteside, and Devon Teuscher
in Cathy Marston’s “Jane Eyre”
Photo by Gene Schiavone

And although the ballet would have worked without it, Lane’s Mrs. Fairfax was, in a word, amazing. The role requires some dancing (not as limited as that might sound), but that’s not its essence. And it could have been routine and insignificant. But Lane created a personality (physical and emotional) and a backstory out of it. I watched in total disbelief: it was one of the performances of the year. Another one.

Last, it must be emphasized that Jane Eyre is an ensemble piece in the truest sense. As detailed in the review below, every member of the casts I saw significantly contributed to the success of the whole.

Jane Eyre returns to the Met this coming Spring 2020 season. See it.

5) Carrying Floor – choreographed and performed by Abel Rojo. Malpaso Dance Company; January 9. [Special mention: Beatriz Garcia’s Being (Ser)]

A dance with a man moving four square planks of wood around the stage floor sounds like a sure cure for insomnia, and I don’t doubt that its measured pace prompted that response in certain members of the audience. But not only did Carrying Floor not put me to sleep, it hooked me from the first minute. That it was a first choreographic effort is astonishing. Simply put, Abel Rojo’s Carrying Floor is one of the most original, imaginative, and gripping solos I can remember.

Abel Rojo. here with Maria Karla Araujo
of Malpaso Dance Company
in Merce Cunningham’s “Fielding Sixes”
Photo by Nir Arieli

Those planks of wood represent the stage floor upon which Rojo, and all dancers, perform – but in its message, it’s more than that. To my recollection, Rojo moves exclusively on these four squares. One at a time (usually), Rojo, a lumberjack of a man who towers over the other company dancers in ensemble pieces, slowly picks up a block and moves it adjacent to another, and then continues with another square, and then another. Most of the dance’s movement is some form of contemplation, which prompts the movement in order to achieve some anticipated result, which is always unfulfilled. As he moves and then positions himself, he ponders the arrangement; the adequacy of the floor on which he dances; the directions taken (the equivalent of roads taken and not taken) that are the predicates for whatever his next move is; and the gradual recognition that what you think you control may really be controlling you.

Also on the program was another first choreographic effort: Beatriz Garcia’s Being (Ser). The dance is a very fine piece of work for a choreographer of any level of experience, but for a first effort it is particularly exceptional. Garcia has crafted three visually and choreographically distinct but interconnected movements descriptive of broad emotional forces – independence, conflict, and resolution – that are reflected in the interactions among the piece’s three dancers (including Garcia). Being (Ser) is a simple, powerful statement about the fear of, and need for, relationships, and demonstrates what “being” is, might, or should be. That may sound trite, but here it was beautifully conceived.

I didn’t like this Havana-based company’s program a year ago, but this one was exceptional – maybe the best contemporary dance program I saw all year. In addition to the two dances mentioned, the company delivered a superb performance of one of the best dances by Ohad Naharin that I’ve seen: Tabula Rasa – a dance with mesmerizing repetitive movement that is a means to an end rather than an end in itself; and a fine rendition of Merce Cunningham’s Fielding Sixes.

6) Unveiling – choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. Fall For Dance (Program 4), October 10

By far the best of the three Fall for Dance programs I saw this year was Program 4. And the most indelible dance on that program, which included a superbly rendered performance of Merce Cunningham’s Beach Birds by CNDC D’Angers and a virtuosic solo performance of Geoffrey Holder’s Come Sunday by Alicia Graf Mack, was Sonya Tayeh’s Unveiling.

(top to bottom) Stella Abrera,
Gabe Stone Shayer, and Robbie Fairchild
in Sonya Tayeh’s “Unveiling”
Photo by Stephanie Berger

In my “Tops” listing a year ago, I included a dance choreographed by Tayeh that was so unusual, so interesting, and so well-crafted that it took my breath away. Part of the thrill of that piece, Reclamation Map, was the live accompaniment by Heather Christian that was incorporated into the dance’s staging.

Unveiling demonstrates that Tayeh can work magic in a style and with a theme that’s completely different – even though, again, much of the work depends on the impact of the music and its live performance by its singer/songwriter. Here, that singer/songwriter was Moses Sumney. I didn’t follow the lyrics because of the way Sumney delivers them (that is, his strange vocalization, which I described as “iron falsetto”), but after awhile it became apparent, at least to my eyes and ears, that more important than the words Sumney was saying/singing/ whining/weeping was the nature of the sound he was creating.

But again, as with Reclamation Map, Tayeh here creates a dance around that sound that was visually breathtaking and intellectually stimulating. That Unveiling included galvanizing performances by former NYCB principal Robbie Fairchild, ABT Principal Stella Abrera, and ABT’s Gabe Stone Shayer was icing on the cake.

7) Cristaux – choreography by Arthur Pita. Royal Ballet Stars (Program D); August 13.

Aside from the quality of the dancers performing in the four-program series “Royal Ballet Stars,” which was in all respects brilliant (led by Lauren Cuthbertson, Edward Watson, and the luminous Sarah Lamb, who manages to appear connected to the stage floor and to float above it at the same time), and aside from Song of a Wayfarer, the Royal Ballet Stars programs at the Joyce were less than memorable.

And then there was Arthur Pita’s Cristaux.

Edward Watson
in Arthur Pita’s “Cristaux”
Photo by Maria Baranova

Pita is nothing if not original. And he takes chances that may seem foolhardy but that more often than not work. Cristaux, one segment of which premiered a few years earlier, is one of his simpler-looking creations. But that simplicity is a virtue. It’s also deceptive. Cristaux is not about everything under the sun, but in a way, it is – and the moon. And it’s put together so cleverly that it’s difficult to keep track of, much less notice, Pita’s reference points. Lamb, Watson, Fairchild, and NYCB Principal Maria Kowroski performed sensationally – although without having to display the bravura technique that each is capable of. For Cristaux, that didn’t matter nearly as much as Pita’s concept and the dancers’ execution of it.

[referenced in the same review as Song of a Wayfarer, above]

8) Only the Lonely – Choreographed by Kyle Abraham. Paul Taylor American Modern Dance; October 30. [special mention: Michael Trusnovec in the Variations solo from Episodes on the same program]

Hot on the heels of his remarkably successful first choreographic effort for New York City Ballet, The Runaway, is Kyle Abraham’s first piece for Paul Taylor American Modern Dance. Only the Lonely is comprised of a series of scenes choreographed to a series of songs, each of which – except perhaps for the first segment – visualizes the need for companionship by individuals who don’t, or think they don’t (or sometimes think they do when they don’t), fit the norm, whatever that is. The dance explores this simple theme, and the loneliness (or absence of it) that accompanies it, through emotional vignettes that are funny at times, but more frequently heart-wrenching, and at all times human. In the process, Abraham’s choreography provides the lead dancers in each of the most dramatically significant segments – Lee Duveneck, Devon Louis, and especially Michelle Fleet – the opportunity to display characterization abilities I’d not previously seen. That I initially thought the dance was another Taylor piece that I’d somehow missed is, to me, an extraordinary compliment.

Michelle Fleet, here with Michael Trusnovec
in Paul Taylor’s “Piazzolla Caldera”
Photo by Paul B. Goode

On this same gala program was a noteworthy performance of the Variations solo from Balanchine’s Episodes that was choreographed on and originally performed by Taylor. Were it not an excerpt from a larger piece (I have to draw lines somewhere), I would certainly have listed Michael Trusnovec’s performance of it as one of last year’s top performances. I’d not seen Taylor’s performance, but I suspect Trusnovec’s was very different. To me, not only did he epitomize Balanchine’s “fly caught in a glass of milk,” he also appeared at times to be a bird (or maybe a fly) in flight. My understanding is that Trusnovec will reprise his performance during certain presentations of Episodes during NYCB’s Winter, 2020 season. See it.

9) Last Look – choreography by Paul Taylor. Paul Taylor American Modern Dance; October 29

Paul Taylor Dance Company in “Last Look”
Photo by Paul B. Goode

Not everything that Paul Taylor created is as fluid and lyrical as Aureole, Roses, and Esplanade, as shattering and profound as Promethean Fire, as moving and bittersweet as Company B, Black Tuesday, and Sunset, or as pure fun as Diggity. Every so often he lets the dark side out. Last Look, which I’d not previously seen, is Taylor’s visualization of the dark side of human nature, a hellish vision that is as brilliant as it is at times repulsive. But it’s not just the concept – it’s Taylor’s movement quality, filled with seemingly uncontrollable jerks and twitches that would be considered contemporary and maybe idiosyncratic if done today, but which is there for a thematic reason. The result is a visual jagged edge that cuts like a knife but that can’t be ignored, and an opportunity for the extraordinary performances that make such a purgatory seem all too graphic and real. It may not look like other Taylor masterpieces, but it’s a Taylor masterpiece.

[referenced in the same review as Only the Lonely above]

10) Star Dust – Choreographed by Dwight Rhoden. Complexions Contemporary Ballet; February 22

Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s two program return to the Joyce Theater was a revelation in many respects. By far the most successful of the dances presented was one that Rhoden choreographed several years ago, but which I was seeing for the first time: Star Dust. This celebration of, and tribute to, David Bowie, which is concurrently a celebration of the company and its dancers, is breathtaking in its appropriate irreverence and indisputably glorious entertainment value. Somehow, Rhoden and his dancers captured every facet of Bowie’s multi-faceted stage persona in a manner that both honored and enhanced his memory – and the different company dancers who inhabited Bowie’s character in the dance’s various segments were extraordinary.

Brandon Gray and Complexions dancers
in Dwight Rhoden’s “Star Dust”
Photo by Sharen Bradford

11) mutual comfort – choreography by Edward Clug. NDT2; January 16.

Choreography that explores a “new” choreographic language frequently leaves me cold – or worse, convinced that the choreographer was only being different for the sake of being different. But Edward Clug’s mutual comfort, which reflects a different movement vocabulary, doesn’t fit the idiosyncratic stereotype. What the dancers here are doing is enjoyable to watch, and doesn’t look like torture. And when it suddenly dawns that Clug’s movement is not just unusual, but an accessible choreographic language, one also realizes that there’s a point to all this. It’s minimal to be sure, but what Clug is choreographing are relationships and the ‘mutual comfort’ relationships provide, using a new and thrilling way to visualize the same type of thing we’ve seen in other “relationship” dances. It left a glow that continued to provide the audience with emotional comfort long after the dance concluded.

NDT 2 dancers
in Edward Clug’s “mutual comfort”
Photo by Joris Jan Bos

The balance of the program was very fine as well, including a rendition of Marco Goecke’s Wir sagen uns Dunkles that, notwithstanding choreographic language that to me looks hideous and pointless, enabled me to see something thematically describable in Goecke’s ugly vision of humanity; and Sol León and Paul Lightfoot’s Sad Case and SH-BOOM!, which provided antidotes to Goecke’s nihilism.

12) Dorrance Dance (entire program). March 29

That Michelle Dorrance has revitalized tap as a dance art in recent years is incontrovertible. Although I’ve sometimes found her company’s programs to be either too experimental or too didactic, her programs are generally highly entertaining and undoubtedly eye-opening. But her City Center program last year took her company to another level.

Dorrance Dance
in Brenda Bufalino’s “Jump Monk”
Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The stunningly well-conceived program I saw (Program B) consisted of six dances: two “older” pieces and one world premiere choreographed by Dorrance (Jungle Blues, Three to One, and Basses Loaded), one by Brenda Bufalino (Jump Monk), and two by (or with the assistance of) the extraordinary comic clown Bill Irwin (Lessons in Tradition and Harlequin and Pantalone). With the possible exception of Three to One, which came off as the evening’s weak sibling, everything on the program worked, and at its conclusion – and throughout the program – not a frown could be found within the packed house.

13) Homebound/Alaala – choreographed by Bennyroyce Royon. Ballet Hispánico; March 26

There’s nothing new about a dance that explores the impact of leaving one’s home and emigrating to another country and culture, as well as the culture clash and cultural assimilation that results. But in Homebound/Alaala, choreographer Bennyroyce Royon takes this theme and visualizes it in a different and highly moving, entertaining, and enlightening way. Royon has pieced together a paean to yearning for the familiar and discovery of the new that in the context of Filipino / Latino experience is more celebration for what’s happened than nostalgia for what’s been lost. And it’s fun. Homebound/Alaala can appeal to anyone unable or unwilling to let homebound memories evaporate in the context of creating a new, different, vibrant multicultural community.

Ballet Hispánico dancers
in Bennyroyce Royon’s “Homebound/Alaala”
Photo by Paula Lobo

The Ballet Hispánico dancers seem to have a particular affinity for themed dances of this nature. Also on the program was a similarly themed dance, Edwaard Liang’s El Viaje, but one more about the immigration / emigration experience (here Chinese immigration to Cuba) than cultural conflict and resolution. And two years ago the company presented Con Brazos Abiertos, choreographed by Michelle Manzanales, a dance that explored cultural lures of a Mexican girl growing up in Texas, which was one of my “Tops” for that year.

14) Come In – choreographed by Aszure Barton. Houston Ballet; October 24. [Special Mention: Reflections, choreographed by Justin Peck]

Houston Ballet celebrated its 50th Anniversary season with a brief City Center season limited to three repertory pieces. That the company didn’t bring a signature evening-length ballet was disappointing, but understandable. And whatever scheduling regrets there may have been disappeared after seeing the second piece on the program. A dance for an all-male cast of fourteen, I feared that Aszure Barton’s Come In might be another testosterone-laden power-dance, but it was nothing of the sort. Originally choreographed in 2006 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, Come In is a moving testament. At first it impresses as a sympathetically performed group / relationship dance, but it evolved to deliver a shot to the gut stronger than that of any power dance I’ve seen.

Houston Ballet dancers in Aszure Barton’s “Come In”
Photo by Amitava Sarkar

To me, the ballet is a memorial to those who lived and died during the AIDS epidemic, but this is only my interpretation: I understand there are others relating to mentoring, age, and passing the torch. My interpretation (there were no program notes indicating Barton’s intent) allows for a far more profound a message, especially since it was delivered with such awareness and sensitivity. But even if this wasn’t Barton’s intent, it doesn’t matter. Come In is an eloquent piece of work regardless of what it might mean. The Houston Ballet men (who, judged only by this program, appear to be a very strong group), led by Connor Walsh, delivered excellent performances of this generally low-key presentation.

The Houston Ballet program concluded with another hugely successful piece, one that bears special mention: the New York premiere of Justin Peck’s Reflections. A glorious ballet even if one considers it derivative of previous pieces he’s choreographed for NYCB, Peck manipulates his dancers with extraordinary skill, particularly with respect to moving the group as a whole. Patterns suddenly materialize out of nowhere, repeated images are there for purpose, not just because you’re supposed to do that, and an overall sense of visual surprise that makes watching those Peck ballets that are “similar” so rewarding, even if some of this stuff has been seen before. The audience-pleasing dance engendered applause with its initial image, and the roar at the dance’s conclusion could perhaps be heard all the way back to Houston.

15) The Shaded Line – choreography by Lauren Lovette, NYCB, September 27 [Special Mention: Georgina Pazcoguin]

NYCB programs in 2019 included the usual allotment of superb performances this past year, ranging from Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley’s double debut as Aurora and the Prince in Peter Martins’s The Sleeping Beauty, and Gordon’s debut opposite Lauren Lovette in another performance of that ballet, to Sterling Hyltin’s irresistible “vision” in Jerome Robbins’s Opus 19 / The Dreamer, Mira Nadon’s debut as the “tall girl” in Balanchine’s Rubies, from Jewels, Liang’s lovely Lineage, and Sara Mearns and Daniel Ulbricht’s spectacular performances in Balanchine’s Variations Pour Une Porte et Un Soupir. But even though I had some serious concerns about it, Lovette’s new piece, The Shaded Line, represents a significant step forward in her choreographic career, and needs to be recognized.

Georgina Pazcoguin (center), Davide Riccardo,
Mary Thomas MacKinnon, Gilbert Bolden,
Unity Phelan and Jonathan Fahoury (foreground, l-r)
and members of the company
in Lauren Lovette’s “The Shaded Line”
Photo by Erin Baiano

In tackling a significant issue, or issues, that impact the world of ballet, Lovette here treads on very thin ice, made even more precarious by the intentionally outrageous costumes and what appeared to me to be an unnecessarily broad attack on the art form (one she may not have intended). But the ballet also demonstrates an unusual facility with theme development and moving large groups of dancers in a manner that’s makes sense in both respects. It’s a huge leap for her, and presages more accomplished, and maybe less didactic, choreography to come.

Although Lovette’s vision is what made The Shaded Line as significant, and as controversial, as it is, Georgina Pazcoguin’s performance of the ballet’s central character must be highlighted as well.   [The review includes comments on all the dances above except The Sleeping Beauty performances, which can be found here: ]

Special Categories:

Best Compilation: Decadance/ Chicago, choreography by Ohad Naharin. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago; March 6.

For several years, Ohad Naharin, Artistic Director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company from 1990 to 2018 and now its House Choreographer, has prepared an evening of excerpts from his dances under the rubrick Deca Dance. There have been several Deca Dance incarnations and subsequent modifications over time, so one Deca series performance (seen live, or as captured on YouTube) will likely not be identical in content to the Deca performed at another point in time. The one that Hubbard Street Dance Chicago brought to its season at the Joyce, titled Decadance / Chicago, premiered in Chicago last year.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
in Ohad Naharin’s “Decadance / Chicago”
Photo by Todd Rosenberg

I don’t like excerpts, and I have had difficulty with Naharin’s choreography in the past. But Decadance / Chicago is more than the sum of its parts. In its entirety, it’s a complete evening of dance comprised of bits and pieces or more of other dances which results in the creation of a new whole that may be stronger than its individual links. I loved it – and not just because, for a brief period of time, I became a part of it.

Best Performance by a Student in a Gala: MacKenzie Brown, Black Swan Pas de Deux: choreographed by Marco Goecke. YAGP International Dance School Festival – April 20

So what do you do after you’ve just won the Prix de Lausanne? You manage to make sense out of choreography that seemingly makes no sense. And you do it with a level of quality and sophistication far beyond your years.

Mackenzie Brown and Jan Masuda
in Marco Goecke’s “Black Swan Pas de Deux”
Photo by VAM Productions

Normally I wouldn’t include a one-shot Gala performance in this listing, especially by one who was then still in ballet school, and from what I can glean still is (the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco). But I couldn’t ignore Brown’s astonishing performance of a piece that I initially disliked intensely, created by a choreographer whose work, up until this year, I’d consistently disliked intensely.

I have a visceral negative reaction to choreography that seems to be as it is because the choreographer wants to create something in an idiosyncratic style, even if the movement looks ugly and makes little sense. In a nutshell, that’s Goecke’s instantly recognizable choreography (at least based on those pieces of his that I’ve seen). I find his rapid-fire and emotionless angular body movement, emphasizing thrusting and jerking arms, particularly annoying. To me, the movement comes across as insect-like, for no apparent reason beyond displaying unusual body movement: being different for the sake of being different. But Goecke has a sterling reputation in Europe, so maybe there’s substance in addition to weird movement that I hadn’t before seen. I found this to be the case earlier this year in a performance of Goecke’s Wir sagen uns Dunkles by NDT2 (discussed in the same review as mutual comfort, above), so I vowed to try harder.

Mackenzie Brown and Jan Masuda
in Jean Christophe Maillol’s “Dove la Luna”

Aside from costuming its dancers in black, in its first few minutes Goecke’s Black Swan Pas de Deux seems to have nothing to do with the Black Swan Pas de Deux as it’s known in the classical ballet world. But, as the performances of Brown (and her partner, Jun Masuda, also a Princess Grace Academy student and, like Brown, a YAGP alumnus) evolved, I started to see character in the choreography, and a sense of a story. It’s not so much a distilled version of the Black Swan pas de deux we know (though perhaps it is) as a modified version, but the conflict between Brown’s dominating Black Swan and her seduced but kept-at-a-distance partner is clear through their execution of the movement only – there’s no characterization beyond what the movement provides. It’s annoying, but it’s comprehensible, and Brown made it look intriguing and even sensual.

The pair also did very fine work earlier in the evening in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Dove La Luna.

Most Promising Stage Partnership: Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell – ABT

It used to be that stage partnerships were cultivated and those that worked were legendary. They drew audiences not just because of the commanding and compelling abilities of the ballerinas and danseurs as individuals, but the exponentially enhanced qualities when the pair danced together. Fonteyn / Nureyev is only one well-known example; in more recent years, Vishneva / Gomes is the prime example.

Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell
in James Whiteside’s
“New American Romance”
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

The theory now, however, is that a ballerina should be able to dance equally well with any danseur, and vice versa. There’s some logic to that, but to me it’s unfortunate for audiences. It’s also a practice that’s frequently honored in the breach, with taller, stronger danseurs assigned to partner ballerinas who require the extra inches or muscular heft or both, or particularly favored ballerinas being given the opportunity to select the partner of their choice, even though that partner might be a perfect fit for a different ballerina. But that’s an argument for another day.

It’s no secret that ABT has a bevy of highly promising and talented soloists now. ABT has always had promising and talented soloists, but a misguided guest artist policy stifled many of their careers (and, to a lesser extent, unfathomably continues this coming Met season; again stealing performances from its own dancers). Now, however, its soloists are nurtured as they should be. Catherine Hurlin and Aran Bell epitomize this. They (and others) are properly seen as ABT’s future.

But with Hurlin and Bell, something even more significant is happening. For want of a better word, a stage partnership has developed between them that looks extraordinarily “right.” Two of their performances this past Fall season demonstrate this: first in Jessica Lang’s pas de deux Let Me Sing Forevermore, and second as one component of Whiteside’s Modern American Dance. What was happening before our eyes was magical.

Because of his height, strength and presence, Bell is being pushed into demanding full-length roles. He was the company’s youngest Prince Siegfried in his Swan Lake debut last Spring, and followed that with his debut as Prince Desire in The Sleeping Beauty. Hurlin’s progress is being taken more methodically, which, given the pressures faced by a ballerina in an iconic evening-length role, is understandable. But eventually, unless Bell becomes perpetually reserved for ballerinas who require big men to lift them, a Hurlin / Bell stage partnership in major ballets will be one to look forward to.   [Bell’s major role debuts are discussed here: ]

Best Out-Of-Town Performance: Beauty and the Beast, choreographed by Kirk Peterson. American Repertory Ballet, New Brunswick, NJ.

Journy Wilkes-Davis and Nanako Yamamoto
in Kirk Peterson’s “Beauty and the Beast”
Photo by Leighton Chen

I didn’t expect much from Kirk Peterson’s Beauty and the Beast, but after a relatively slow start and, to me, narrative missteps, it began to evolve into a thoroughly enchanting ballet in which one didn’t just appreciate the choreography and the musical selections (from various Tchaikovsky pieces, marvelously played by the Princeton Symphony Orchestra), but one grew to believe the characters and to care for them. Once the Beast finally appears and interacts with Belle, all facets of the ballet come to life. The extensive pas de deux with Belle and the Beast that concludes Act I (to the “Elegie” from Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3) is a marvel of simplicity and effectiveness and is alone worth the price of admission, and the concluding dances in Act II are not far behind. Credit goes not just to Peterson, but to Nanako Yamamoto and Journy Wilkes-Davis as Belle and the Beast, for somehow making it real. The ballet deserved the standing ovation it received.

Best Program Notes: Aurum, choreography (and notes written by) Alice Topp. The Australian Ballet, May 11.

Aurum is a very fine piece of work, the best dance I saw at the Joyce Theater’s Australia Dance Festival. But what distinguished Aurum at least as much as the choreography (and the dancers’ execution of it) were the program notes that its choreographer Alice Topp wrote.

I like program notes. Although I evaluate a dance based on what I see, notes at least provide either an historical perspective or a clue to the choreographer’s intent or both – although they also often provide an opportunity to be both self-absorbed and incomprehensibly dense. But the program note for Aurum took program notes to another level.

Leanne Stojmenov and Kevin Jackson in Alice Topp’s “Aurum”
Photo by Jeff Busby

The program note examines the inspiration for the ballet: kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with gold or metallic lacquer, which melds the broken pieces back together. It is simply and beautifully composed, and by far the best written such program note that I’ve ever read. More importantly, it succeeds in conveying not just what the dance is “about,” but the emotional core behind the art, and the truth of it – as well as piquing one’s interest in the dance to come. And any program note that quotes both Ernest Hemingway (“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places”), and Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) has a leg up. This was far more than a program note: it was literature.

Best Worst: ABT’s Elimination of Orchestra Standing Room

Orchestra Standing Room at the Met is, or was, one of ABT’s most admired policies. Once I started attending ballet, I quickly became aware that ABT’s Orchestra Standing Room line was legendary (as well as an unpublicized secret), and it enabled ballet lovers to attend as many performances as they could get to. At its height (at least in “my years,” the Standing Room Line stretched around and to the side of the Met (if necessary, the “line” began to develop in the park across the street before people were allowed onto the Lincoln Center campus), it was civilized (numbers were assigned, and people could leave for coffee and report back at designated times, and some of the people who “ran” it (maintained the numbers list and called the names to make sure the people were still there) became fixtures. Although I never attained that status, over the years I ran several of the Standing Room lines myself, including for the first Kirkland / Baryshnikov Giselle at the Met (which began around 4 a.m. across the street).

This past Met season, after raising Orchestra Standing Room prices far beyond the bargain they used to be, Orchestra Standing Room was eliminated altogether. There was still Dress Circle Standing Room, but that’s not the same. The decision, according to Met personnel, was ABT’s – in an apparent effort to get orchestra standees to buy regular-priced tickets. I don’t know if the policy resulted in more full-priced tickets being sold to former Orchestra standees (I doubt it), but I do know it alienated many. [And I’ve heard rumor that ABT will now charge a premium for single ticket sales – like some hotels charge for single-occupancy rooms. If this is true, some bean-counter has gone off the deep end.]

I suspect that a request to restore Orchestra Standing Room is like spitting in the wind, but to me, the policy is ABT cutting off its nose to spite its face. The policy should be reversed.

Until 2020.