Six programs, 28 separate works—the annual Fall for Dance blast at the City Center gives you your money’s worth. In fact, at 10 bucks a seat, it gives you much more than your money’s worth, one of the reasons it’s such a spectacular success.
But the bargain price isn’t the only reason people throng 55th Street every night, hoping for last-minute cancellations or an act of God. Through the ups and the downs, the wheat and the chaff, the homers, bunts and strikeouts, you end up with a pretty fair idea of what dance is up to, here at home and around the world. And even if you snooze through some of the individual acts, you can’t help coming away with renewed admiration for the talent and dedication, the sheer ardor, of so many dancers in so many different disciplines. (A big plus: The programs for this year’s festivities were exceptionally well-balanced and composed.)
Oddly enough, the most underrepresented form of dance on view was ballet—a sparse half-dozen companies showed up, and most of those only in token form. Last year, A.B.T. managed both the White and the Black Swan pas de deux; this year they could muster only Le Corsaire (granted, it featured the nonpareil Herman Cornejo).
As for City Ballet, last year they stretched to six dancers in Robbins’ In the Night. This time round, only Damian Woetzel made it to the City Center with A Suite of Dances, which actually looks better on this stage than it does at the vast State Theater. Woetzel presents it modestly and sensitively, but let’s face it: This is one of Robbins’ thinner efforts, not only unexciting but punctuated with the usual Robbins cutenesses—the shrugs at the audience, the look-Ma-I’m-somersaulting’s. Surely City Ballet could scrape together a small Balanchine piece—Concerto Barocco, Allegro Brillante, Valse-Fantaisie—and ship it eight blocks south.
The appealing dancers of the Boston Ballet made a welcome appearance, but with the apparently inevitable Jorma Elo work—they’re everywhere, like mold. (Stand by for yet another one at A.B.T.’s upcoming season.) This one (Brake the Eyes)—seen only in excerpt, however endless it may have seemed—isn’t his usual thrashing, hurtling, wham-bang gym-class exercise but rather a heavy-handed lark with thin, blond Larissa Ponomarenko as a kind of demented ballet mistress, chirping away in Russian. The action lurches from tedious modern (set to “Sound Design by Nancy Euverink”) to tedious classical (set to Mozart). Twyla Tharp invented this conceit decades ago, most brilliantly in Push Comes to Shove. Sorry, Jorma, but you’re no Twyla.
The most effective entry from a ballet company was the Kirov’s Middle Duet, a 1998 pas de deux—intense, inventive, structured—by ballet’s newest great hope, Alexei Ratmansky. He’s absorbed Balanchine without imitating him—not easy. Everything we’ve seen of his in New York, beginning with the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, has been valuable. You can sense the ballet world holding its collective breath over him.
ONE OF THE CHARMS OF FALL for Dance is how lightning can strike from unexpected sources. Last year it was a troupe of Carpathian folk dancers. (It’s true.) This year it was Andy and Rick Ausland, a pair of brothers from Minnesota with their backup musicians, calling themselves Buckets & Tap Shoes. They’re fabulous drummers (watch those drumsticks go!), they’re fabulous tappers. No self-congratulation, no narcissism, just amazing, contagious energy and joy unconfined. If later this month you happen to find yourself in Duvall, Wash., or River Falls, Wis., be sure to catch them.
No surprise that Paul Taylor’s Arden Court, which kicked off the festival, was a smash—the City Center audience loves him, and why not? No surprise (to me) that Doug Varone’s mysterious and beautiful Lux made an even greater impression in the generous space the City Center stage affords than it has in smaller venues. And no surprise that the ageless Carmen deLavallade, the Lena Horne of dance, was not only as glamorous as ever (in a clinging red outfit) but was full of beans in The 5th Wheel, a vigorous head-to-head with the terrific saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom.
Alas, it was also no surprise that in the unavoidable Hispanic sweepstakes, both Ballet Hispanico’s Club Havana and Mariela Franganillo’s Tango del Sur were predictable and clichéd. It’s just not enough to sweep around in the semi-dark, swirling skirts and smoking and casting smoldering glances. Ever since we were knocked out by the fabulous Tango Argentino of more than 20 years ago, everything in this vein has looked pallid.
Nobody could call the work of Noche Flamenca & Soledad Barrio pallid. I don’t know much about flamenco, but I know a great performance when I see one. Soledad Barrio is clearly a master—of thrilling steps and passionate movement. She stalks, she circles, she struts, she snaps her head—her feet drill the stage. Her two male colleagues, Juan Ogalla and Antonio Rodriguez, share her complete conviction and control, the musicians and singers are wildly exciting, but it’s Barrio who’s the big story—the Anna Magnani of flamenco.
Then there were the solo acts. (1) Kyle Abraham, choreographer and dancer of Inventing Pookie Jenkins, for which he wears a full down-to-the-floor white tulle skirt with nothing on top, and does some (but not many) amusing things to music by Dizzee Rascal. (2) Camille A. Brown, whose The Evolution of a Secured Feminine proves yet again what a sublime singer Ella Fitzgerald was (with Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson no slouches either). In this performance, Brown hammed and flirted so shamelessly that her subject seemed more like narcissism than feminism. And (3) Johan Kobborg, who repeated the Afternoon of a Faun he performed as part of the Kings of Dance flop-extravaganza a year or two ago. Kobborg’s a wonderful dancer, but Faun—originally, Nijinsky and nymphs; later, in the Robbins version, a boy and a girl—quickly gets boring as a solo, with the elfin creature darting in and out of pools of light.
AND ON IT WENT. Some people loved the first offering from India—Shantala Shivalingappa’s Varnam. I like fuchsia as well as the next guy, but I found her too smiley and too repetitious. No doubt others understood why this piece was dedicated to “OM, the primal sound, the pure, eternal vibration, which is the source of the universe,” but I didn’t even understand why she stepped onto what looked like a big plastic potato chip and cunningly steered it up and down the stage.
On the other hand, I rather enjoyed Quick!, in which the choreographer, Nina Rajarani, had eight men—four dancers and four musicians—acting out a day in the life of a group of sharp young Indian businessmen in London against huge projected clips of streets and buildings. Combining the modern context with traditional dance modes seemed witty to me—or at least original.
There were pleasant, undemanding offerings from Trisha Brown and Karole Armitage. And there were Elisa Monte’s well-worn Treading and Christopher Wheeldon’s familiar After the Rain, danced by City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Craig Hall—not its strongest performance. There was Love Songs from Keigwin + Company, amusing pas de deux for six dancers set to Aretha Franklin, Neil Diamond and Nina Simone, which left me gratified that someone out there—Simone, singing Jacques Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas—has a French accent even worse than mine.
There were the Urban Bush Women with their popular Batty Moves (to rap), with the seven women (soloists: Bennalldra Williams, Love Muwwakkil and Maria Bauman) shaking their booties all over the place. This piece has become a little formulaic, a little unspontaneous, but it reminded me of how ideas of what’s sexy change: yesterday, the can-can’s flashing legs; today, twitching bottoms.
As if in response to the seven Bush Women, we got Via Katlehong’s nine guys (from South Africa) in extended excerpts from Nkululeko. They stomped and stomped, sometimes bare-chested, sometimes in sleek satin shirts, always on the go. At moments it looked to me as if they’d learned their moves from Michael Jackson, but so what?
And then there were the Euro-entries. Memory, a clever meditation on aging love from Mats Ek. Terrain Vague from the French Compagnie Käfig, in which a bunch of street guys have fun with a girl’s suitcase. The Royal Ballet of Flanders’ Cornered—eight dancers in unappealing lilac tops in a series of serious (or earnest) partnerings, once again in the semi-dark. And the Lyon Opera Ballet with Maguy Marin’s pretentious Grosse Fugue, which proved once more how right Balanchine was when he warned against choreographing to Beethoven. Particularly this Beethoven, so much grander and nobler than the vacuous flailings and convulsings and retchings of the four women in red who presumably stand for the four instruments of the fugue. To be fair, I know people who loved it. Can it be that they don’t love Beethoven?
An unexpected disappointment: I’d been looking forward to seeing Tharp’s breakthrough Deuce Coupe after three decades, but I found the Juilliard Dance group far less exciting than my memory of the original Joffrey production. A few of the boys were zingy, but the wit, the charge, the sense of something important happening were absent. Either Deuce Coupe has aged badly or I have. I suspect it’s the latter.