This year’s Fall for Dance Festival follows the pattern of last year’s, which was the first: At each of six performances, five different companies present a single work. Six performances, 30 works. It’s a lot to take in, and I’ve only been able to make it to the first two shows, but some home truths emerge.
The big plus of the festival is that we get to graze so generous a smorgasbord of dance, ranging from the famous to the obscure, without leaving home (that is, the City Center). It’s a (carefully structured) free-for-all. The big minus is that if you put on 30 pieces, a lot of them are going to be worthless. (Another plus, of course, is the $10 admission price—the most galvanizing aspect of the entire venture—but we critics, who come as guests, get only vicarious satisfaction from that.)
The most important thing about the festival is that we’re faced with the entire spectrum of contemporary dance: ballet, modern, ethnic, acrobatic, multimedia—you name it. There’s no dodging Black Grace’s “union of contemporary movement and Fa’ataupati (Samoan slap dance) traditional dance styles.” Or Tania Isaac Dance, Tania Isaac artistic director, text by Tania Isaac, performed by Tania Isaac (“a physically explosive, sensual marriage of Modern and Caribbean esthetics,” actually a one-woman festival of self-indulgent exhibitionism); or the Tania Pérez-Salas Compañía de Danza, from Mexico City, whose Las Horas climaxes with four girls dangling from ropes (a fifth girl is out of luck—her rope doesn’t make it all the way down from the flies). Think Cirque du Soleil, only in Spanish.
The hit of the first night, not unexpectedly, was a new solo by New York’s favorite Bill Irwin & Friends, the “friends” being a suitcase full of clothes and a TV monitor. We knew Irwin was funny, we knew he could act, but we—or at least I—didn’t know what a capable dancer he was. Untitled is a very funny skit, a parody of so much that’s silly in today’s dance. Irwin’s a dancing fool. He’s got the moves. In Untitled, he has internalized—and externalized—Buster Keaton, though I also detect an occasional flash of Eddie Cantor eyes. He keeps adding new clothes to the ones he’s already got on, including bigger and bigger shoes. It’s vaudeville. And when he gets to the Seven Ages of Man, he shows more edge than we’re accustomed to from the always-amiable Bill. This is a piece that’s going to be in demand at galas and benefits forever, and Bill Irwin is clearly a nice enough guy to give us what we want.
Philadanco (the Philadelphia Dance Company) brought in Gate Keepers, another of those semi-spiritual-but-right-on Ronald K. Brown extravaganzas. It’s all very Ailey, but not as good as the terrific Grace that he made for Ailey. It aims high, the dancers go for broke, but in this case, good intentions pave the way not to Hell but to a highly amorphous, undifferentiated Heaven.
A bizarre touch came from Jody Sperling/Time Lapse Dance. Sperling—artistic director and performer— reconstructed, or imagined, two dances by Loie Fuller, that Art Nouveau icon who a century ago dazzled the crowned heads of Europe with her revolutionary manipulations of fabric and light. Fuller was a phenomenon—a pioneer of science if not of dance—but I don’t think she’d get very far today. Jody Sperling’s dilutions are fascinating, even beautiful, for about two minutes, but even the most elaborate and inventive swirlings of huge wings of white cloth, subtly lit, quickly begin to demonstrate the fatal law of diminishing returns. We’ll draw a discreet veil over the onstage pianist’s dim renditions of Ravel’s “Une Barque sur l’Océan” and de Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance,” but attention must be paid to Sperling’s curtain calls, during which she never abandoned her molto serioso Loie persona. She’s a believer.
When the Limón Dance Company performed José Limón’s Psalm last year at the Joyce, I paid tribute to its high moral earnestness and was bemused by its High Modern aura, it’s so obviously a direct descendent of the Martha Graham–Doris Humphrey take on life. (Limón was, indeed, Humphrey’s great disciple.) Although, this time round, the virtues of Psalm were still apparent, I’m afraid its considerable length was even more so. Part of the problem is that this late Limón piece (it’s from 1967, though it had different music back then) was a star vehicle, and there’s no one in the current company of Limón’s stature. Good dancers, yes, but charismatic giants, no. Neither Robert Regala, a year ago, nor Raphaël Boumaïla today—and they’re both excellent dancers—can motor Psalm; they’re incidents in it, not its raison d’être.
What are we left with? The Houston Ballet, under the direction of the Australian Stanton Welch, turned in a Welch classical ballet called Nosotros—Spanish, I believe, for “Us.” (At last, pointe shoes!) A few years ago, Welch ballets were turning up everywhere—slick and mostly empty. This one is no better. Everyone’s in glam evening wear, the women’s gowns almost to the floor (which makes for some scary moments). The backdrop is a black sky, perforated by stars that keep changing color. Remember Robbins’ In the Night? That had three couples dancing beneath the stars; this has 11. But eight more isn’t eight better. In the Night was super-romantic, notably in its soaring, schmaltzy lifts. Welch’s lifts go way, way beyond mere schmaltz, and they’re inexorable—when the 11th ballerina is hoisted up, flung around and plunged to the ground, you can only hope they’ve all been issued Dramamine. The music—Rachmaninoff’s irritating Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—is an enabler. Except when Welch brings everyone on together in a messy finale—why are finales so hard for young choreographers?—he isn’t incompetent. He’s just unoriginal and without taste. But his dancers are attractive even if they’re not ultra-strong, and it would be good to see them dancing to a different tune.
It was a pleasure to see two fine dancers, Amandine François—particularly supple and full—and Dorothée Delabie, in William Forsythe’s Duo, as performed by the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Lyon. Forsythe is always intelligent, and his ballet background helps. But in this piece, the two women—whose breasts, for some reason, are prominently exposed through black netting—shadow each other in intricate movements that just go on too long. What was heartening was the quickness, the lightness, the authority of the dancing. I hope and trust that François and Delabie are representative of the Lyon company’s style.
Finally, a happy surprise: from India, the Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company. Five dancers and two percussionists explore the relationship of sound to dance, the slap of the dancers’ feet brilliantly in counterpoint to the slap of the drummers’ hands. Mangaldas, a compact whirlwind, is the choreographer and lead dancer. I wouldn’t have thought that a barefoot dancer could have such virtuoso allegro technique, but that’s what she has. She and her colleagues flatten their feet and use them the way tappers use taps, and they’re just as quick. Here was joyous invention performed with strict discipline. This is the kind of event that justifies Fall for Dance.
As for what I’m missing, I can’t pretend to be sorry about Ailey’s Cry or A.B.T.’s Spectre de la Rose or NYCB’s Variations pour une Porte et un Soupir or the Joffrey’s Suite Saint-Saëns (you can say for Gerald Arpino that he’s a survivor) or Pascal Rioult’s Bolero (anyone’s Bolero). But Vincent Mantsoe? Tapage? Zaccho Dance Theatre? Keigwin + Company? Yoshiko Chuma & The School of Hard Knocks? I’ll have to depend on the kindness of colleagues to keep me posted.