An Eclectic Dance Menu, All You Can Eat for Only $10

The City Center has been serving up a dance smorgasbord—30 companies on display, ranging from the less than sublime to the more than ridiculous. And it’s been a big success. In a brilliant stroke, made possible by serious underwriting, all tickets were $10, and the day the box office opened, the line went down the block. I was only able to catch the first three of six courses (for the next month, I’ll be eating in Paris), but I saw enough to be able to report that the experiment was well worth making. Apart from anything else, I’ve been exposed to three or four dance groups I’ll never again have to fell guilty about not covering.

Day One opened with a sentimental gesture: the last performance by artists from Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theatre of Harlem before an enforced hiatus of six to nine months (for budgetary reasons). And the ballet was Balanchine’s masterpiece Agon, which originally featured Mitchell in the central male role. But there were more than sentimental reasons for welcoming this Agon. First of all, with one major exception it was danced with a lot more energy than we’ve been seeing at New York City Ballet. There may have been a little too much of the trademark D.T.H. “Here I am!” attitude, but the ballet came alive—it wasn’t solemn. Unfortunately, it was stopped dead in its tracks in the climactic pas de deux, in which the talented Tai Jimenez, who really doesn’t command the cool impassivity the role requires, was disastrously paired with Kip Sturm, an old hand who—there’s no polite way to put it—is simply past it, as well as being badly out of shape. And there went Agon. Still, it benefits greatly from being performed on the small stage of the City Center where it was first danced. It’s more compact, more compressed; the dancers are charged by being so close to each other; the mechanics of the ballet have more impact. Of course, Agon can survive any circumstance as long as it’s danced with conviction.

And then along came Bill (T. Jones) in his Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, with the late Zane’s 1978/1989 Continuous Replay. It’s based, we’re told, “on a sequence of 45 hand and arm gestures.” Actually, it’s based on mass nudity (about which the audience was warned, proving that forewarned is not necessarily forearmed). A guy darts onstage and darts right off, but since he’s naked, the audience gasps and applauds. In a moment he’s back, demonstrating the first of those hand and arm gestures. Poor little guy (and I’m not referring to his equipment)—he has to pretend to be doing some significant with those arms while everybody’s staring at other parts of his anatomy. Soon the stage is filled with people rushing across it, all of them gesturing and all of them naked. Men, women; fat, thin; short, tall—it would have been funny if one of the naked ones hadn’t been a 5- or 6-year-old girl. Would you call this exploitation? Eventually—and predictably—the participants start getting dressed, until at the end only the first fellow remains in the altogether, still gesturing away. The whole thing makes you appreciate clothes. Standing ovation.

Streb? Six dancers, if that’s what they are, work a raised trampoline, flinging themselves recklessly downwards onto mats. It’s sort of exciting when they soar through the air, but the whole acrobatic exercise, called Wild Blue Yonder, belongs in Cirque du Soleil, not a “Fall for Dance Festival.” A second piece, Ricochet, has the six flinging themselves over and over against a see-through plexiglass wall. (Bulletin: I just noticed in the program that this second piece actually was made for Cirque du Soleil.) Well, different strokes for different folks.

A brief, vaudevillish solo called Dose followed, choreographed and danced by David Neumann to a good Tom Waits song. Neumann, at least in this piece, has a little of the look of Jim Carrey, so I’m all for him, but this quick sample doesn’t tell us much about the scope or depth of his talent.

Whereas we know all about Merce Cunningham, who gave us his overfamiliar How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run, in which he and his longtime colleague David Vaughan read aloud little wry stories and anecdotes while eight of his dancers bop around. The ensemble wasn’t as winning as it usually is, but maybe if I hadn’t seen this piece so recently, I would’ve been more charmed.

Day Two: For openers, Martha Graham’s Embattled Garden, that brilliant sex comedy set in Eden with the amazing Noguchi set. The performance was a bit heavy. Virginie Mécène’s Eve appeared overwrought and tormented, as if she were auditioning for Graham’s Jocasta or Medea; the original Yuriko, back in 1958, was more contained (and more effective). David Zurak was a somewhat bland Adam, Christophe Jeannot was a lithe and seductive Stranger (a.k.a. Snake), and the towering Katherine Crockett, as Lilith, dominated the stage as she always does.

To clear the palate, a duet by Susan Marshall, The Kiss, in which Eileen Thomas and Mark DeChiazza hang from ropes attached to their waists while they embrace. It sounds hokey, but as they kiss and sway, sway and kiss, swim and tumble through the air, cling, separate and reunite, their desperate passion gets to you. The piece seems to be saying that sexual attraction can be so deep that it becomes painful; think of the tormented Paolo and Francesca. The dancers are beautiful—you can certainly imagine kissing them—and the intensity of the work seems justified.

The next offering, Pearsonwidrig’s Ordinary Festivals, is “a dance/theater piece for 300 oranges, 16 performers, and 2 knives,” and it begins with two of the 16 catching oranges on the tips of their knives (except when they miss). The music is engaging Italian pop, and the whole thing appears to be about Italian waiters and waitresses amusing themselves with fruit. Oranges are rolled across the floor, thrown across the stage, tossed up in the air; people do somersaults on a carpet—everything was good-natured and harmless. But as is true of all novelty acts, a little of it goes a long way, and there was a lot if it.

The most stimulating part of the program came from the Rubberbandance Group—excerpts from a work called Elastic Perspectives. The choreographer is Victor Quijada, who’s also one of the five dancers, and he’s found a way to integrate the excitement and inventiveness of hip-hop into real modern dance. You know you’re onto something new when the first music you hear is from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, while three guys and two girls, in jeans and tank tops and sweatshirts, are making their fabulous hip-hop moves. By the time you get to the last “excerpt,” set to the “Libiamo” duet from La Traviata, you’re convinced that this latest kind of social dancing can be absorbed profitably into the mainstream of dance, just like waltz and jazz and pop.

And then to wrap things up, a touch—a long touch—of flamenco. You’d have to know a lot more than I do about flamenco to gauge the authenticity the star of Noche Flamenca, dancer Soledad Barrio. She certainly has self-confidence—enough to perform a long solo, and then to perform another one, equally long. Though I can see how experienced and capable Barrio is, and how brilliant her footwork, I found her less than thrilling. Besides, she was wearing a plain black dress, and as a friend remarked, a flamenco dancer without a great dress is like The Nutcracker without a great tree.

How to convey the arid tedium of Trisha Brown’s Groove and Countermove, which opened the third evening? Brown is an icon, but this work from four years ago is empty, and endless. On and on it noodles, its nine not-very-interesting dancers sauntering about, sometimes erupting into agitations, then applying the brakes. I’d say that the empress has no clothes, except that the clothes were what I liked best, since they were in those chalky pastels I associate with Necco wafers. Remember Necco wafers? They gave me something positive to focus on while the rest of my brain was going dead.

When I saw Ballet Hispanico’s Dejame Soñar ( Let Me Dream) less than a year ago, it seemed harmlessly energetic and amusingly flamboyant in its celebration of the Puerto Rican immigrant experience. It’s got a story (young man leaves the island for the Big Apple, forgetting his local sweetheart while dancing up a storm in a New York bar). It’s got juice. But seeing it a second time is not a good idea.

I also found it hard to respond to Precious Cracked Earth, the work of the “Kathak dancer” Parul Shah. Three washerwomen along a riverbank “squat on their haunches, beating their wash and capturing fish with their hands.” After a while, a man comes along, and there’s a happy encounter. The steps and tone are gentle and lulling, but as with flamenco, I’m so ignorant about Kathak dance that I can’t judge it.

Rennie Harris Puremovement gives us hip-hop plain and simple—no nonsense about absorbing it into modern dance. The young guys in Students of The Asphalt Jungle are out there hipping, hopping, spinning (often on their heads), gyrating, doing impossible things and then doing them again. They’re irresistible, though once you’ve seen someone spin on his head, you don’t really need to see him do it again. I don’t know how hip-hop can develop as an art form, but it definitely clears the air and leaves the audience wild with excitement.

I myself was more excited by the resurrection, by City Ballet’s Peter Boal, of Paul Taylor’s great solo from Balanchine’s Episodes. Taylor didn’t stick around for long after his guest appearances with City Ballet back in 1959, and Episodes was denied its solo until Peter Frame learned it many years later. Then it disappeared again. Boal’s daring and courage are all the more remarkable because he’s so dissimilar to Taylor: He’s a ballet dancer, not a modern dancer, and he can’t disguise it, whereas much of the impact Taylor made came from the shock of his anti-balleticness. And Taylor was a big bruiser of a guy, while Boal is slight—the insecty contortions the role demands look very different on this very different physique. But the differences, finally, don’t matter. Peter Boal is an artist, and he’s brought the Taylor solo back to life. We can only hope that City Ballet will welcome it back and make Episodes complete again.

So—is the festival, at least at the halfway point, a success? Yes, in that it’s brought thousands of people into the theater to see dance. Yes, in that it’s exposed us to a cross-section of what’s going on out there, even if a lot of what’s going on isn’t very good. Ballet takes a back seat; modern masters, acrobatics and ethnicities predominate. For the audience, it’s been a $10 whoopfest. Let’s see if all the enthusiasm carries over.