So it’s come and gone again–our wildly popular (all 27,500 City Center seats sold out in three days) annual smorgasbord known as “Fall for Dance.” Five programs, 10 performances, 20 works and a gaggle of drained dance critics, at least those of us nut cases who turn up for everything. As usual, it’s been a bumpy ride, though clearly not for the audience, which whoops and hollers for every single event as though it were Nijinsky in Petrouchka or Fonteyn in The Sleeping Beauty. If only.
“Fall for Dance” flings a wide, if not always discriminating, net over the dance world. There’s not a lot of money for them to spend–tickets remain at the fantastic bargain-basement price of $10 each–so big ballet companies can’t or won’t bring in big works: ABT throws in a duet, San Francisco the same, City Ballet a quartet. Modern companies are more generous: Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Larry Keigwin, Ronald K. Brown came with more richly populated offerings.
The opening piece on opening night was XOVER, a very late Cunningham work being featured in his company’s worldwide farewell tour. It is to my abiding regret and shame that for 50 years Cunningham has eluded me. I recognize the clarity, the elegance, the intelligence, but watching him, I feel the way you do when you’re watching a sport whose rules you don’t know and can’t figure out. XOVER seemed to me as opaque as almost all the other Cunningham pieces I’ve struggled to enjoy. The sound–I can’t call it music–was more egregious than usual: a singer named Joan La Barbara shrieking, gurgling, howling, moaning in scraps of several languages. And then it was over.
Along the way, the season served up the exotic (India’s smuggish, plumpish Madhavi Mudgal); the pretentious (Carolyn Carlson’s Man in a Room, which, “inspired by the life of painter Mark Rothko … explores man’s creative anxiety”); the overexposed (the Thaïs Pas de Deux; Red Angels); the happy reminders (Brown’s Grace); the old favorites (Company B, The Golden Section); the irritating (William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude); the vacuous (Yuri Possokhov’s Diving Into the Lilacs–what makes San Francisco insist that he’s a choreographer?); and–as it’s done before–a sensational surprise.
One year, it was a group of enchanting Carpathian folk dancers; another, a pair of white-bread brothers showing off their fabulous Minnesota brand of tapping and drumming. This year, out of nowhere–well, Rio–came the Companhia Urbana de Dança with nine terrific guys mixing hip-hop and modern-dance moves in a totally satisfying work by the company’s director, Sonia Destri. For once, hip-hop was used to an artistic end and not merely as exhibitionism, however exciting. The mood was dark. The dancers blended their individual specialties into a rigorous though never rigid progress from meditative to explosive. There was an idea in charge, but not an agenda.
Will hip-hop prove to be the liberating force that can invigorate today’s dance, rescuing it from pretension and exhaustion? A less substantial, more conventional, yet still stimulating use of it motored Jason Samuel Smith’s Rhythmdome, presented as a challenge–a street clash–between four tappers and four hip-hoppers. Alas, as in so many desperate new works, there was a portentous spoken commentary, but the tappers’ saxophonist, Stacy Dillard, and his hip-hop counterpart, DJ DP One at his turntables, made up for it. This piece was hardly original, but again it demonstrated how recent social dance forms can liven things up. What’s harder is reinvigorating old forms, as Rafaela Carrasco failed to do with flamenco. She’s robust, she’s slick and she’s trying too hard. Her musicians, though, were spectacular.
There was more, much more, with one other offering worth singling out: a solo called AfterLight Part 1 by Russell Maliphant, featuring an intense, moving performance by Daniel Proietto in the semi-dark. A kind of meditation on Nijinsky, it invoked his state of mind rather than his tragic story, and against the odds, it worked. (He had Satie’s Gnossiennes 1-4 to help him out.) I refuse to discuss Shu-Yi & Dancers: I’ve gone on strike to protest all works set to Ravel’s Bolero.
Overall, then, by no means the most exciting “Fall for Dance” season–but with its moments. One heartfelt plea: Next year, please tame the constant over-miking. The final course on the menu–Brown’s Grace–was almost unbearably loud. It’s a much more subtle work than the City Center’s sound system would have you believe.
THE CITY BALLET fall gala was weakly programmed but mercifully short. (The swanky folk in the audience have to get to their dinner.) The centerpiece of the evening was yet another new ballet by Benjamin Millepied, his first for the company in at least five months, and just as empty as all the others. Title: Plainspoken. (Why?) Music: a less than magnificent commissioned score by David Lang, whom we had just encountered at the Guggenheim. (Is he going to prove as ubiquitous as Millepied?) Cast: four couples plucked from the company’s finest. Costumes: Karen Young’s hideous acid yellow-green tops for the men and purple bunchy things for the women that made beautiful Teresa Reichlen look not just tall but big. The most–the only–affecting moment was a long mysterious duet for Janie Taylor, floating in the air with the help of Jared Angle’s capable partnering. As always, Millepied is efficient … and utterly unmemorable. The big question is why he secures so many commissions.
Accompanying this nullity was a tepid performance of Jerome Robbins’ I’m Old-Fashioned, which shoots itself in both feet by starting out and ending up with huge-screen Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in their wonderful Jerome Kern duet from You Were Never Lovelier. Not only do the dancers onstage look like confused ants compared to the radiant images onscreen, but the disparity between Astaire’s exquisite choreography and Robbins’ dutiful attempt to embroider on it is an embarrassment. As for Balanchine’s Tarentella, Daniel Ulbricht and Ashley Bouder, for all their virtuosity, have it all wrong. This charmer was originally danced by a randy Edward Villella and a wickedly, subtly flirtatious Patricia McBride. The current two treat it as an occasion for tricks, and they’re mugging more and more with every performance. If only Ulbricht would forget about his tambourine and keep his eyes on the girl!
IT WAS AN emotional return to BAM for Pina Bausch’s company so soon after her shockingly sudden death last year. Vollmond (Full Moon), created in 2006 but unseen until now in New York, is a full-evening work that isn’t Pina-heavy and isn’t really Pina-lite; it’s more Pina fooling around with water effects and a big boulder. The men fling themselves around–at times splashing and slithering like crocodiles through the onstage pool of water and in the occasional downpour, while clambering up and over and even under that boulder. The women, often in Bausch’s trademark gorgeous gowns, are frequently soaked, too, as they make their trademark enigmatic and often funny remarks, and fiddle with glasses, cigarettes, buckets and waiters. There are angry moments, sad moments, comical moments and many wet moments–it’s all familiar, and a lot of it effective. But the whole thing does suggest that Pina Bausch was running out of steam: There’s nothing here that wasn’t more interesting earlier on. It’s always a little sad when a turbulent New Wave subsides into still waters.