Falling Hard: Never Mind the Fall for Dance Festival’s Irritating Stocking Stuffers

<em>Roughcut</em> is light, breezy and exhilarating; <em>Three to Max</em> rivets

This year the five Fall for Dance events—two performances each—sold out in five hours: a record. Hurrah for the series, hurrah for dance (sort of) and hurrah (definitely) for the immaculately refurbished City Center, which already looked scruffy when I started going there, in 1948. (I was pretty scruffy then, too, and no one has refurbished me.)

There was a lot to be grateful for this year, chiefly Richard Alston’s exuberant Roughcut and Ohad Naharin’s tonic Three to Max—but let’s get the junk out of the way first. In some ways, the Joffrey’s offering was the most disappointing—it’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to see this once-important company, and though the dancers looked strong and confident, what difference can they make to a piece as pretentious yet vapid as Edwaard Liang’s recent Woven Dreams? There’s an enormous web dominating the stage, descending and ascending to break the (overextended) piece into segments. There’s a wide spectrum of composers (very fashionable these days). There’s a lot of blue in the costumes. There are lifts, lifts, lifts. And there isn’t a single original idea. This is the work—and it’s been true of everything else I’ve ever seen of his—of someone who has willed himself to be a choreographer.

And did we need the return of Glen Tetley’s Gemini, with which A.B.T. used to torture us in the ’70s? We owe its reappearance to the Australian Ballet, for whom Tetley made it in 1973. Here is a case in which the music—Hans Werner Henze’s portentous and loud third symphony—seems to have nothing to do with the cool, lyrical movement style. Many lifts, of course, punctuated by Tetley’s signature V splits for the women—they’re a little Martha Graham-y. (No surprise, he worked with Graham when young.)

Some of the little stocking stuffers were acutely irritating, most of all Drew Jacoby—a usually trustworthy dancer—in an Andrea Miller solo (to Radiohead) in which she floats and skims and leaps in billowing fuchsia tulle while imagining herself transformed into wind; this followed by a Jessica Lang duet for Yuan Yuan Tan (San Francisco’s star ballerina) and Ailey’s Clifton Brown. The program notes explain that this piece “celebrates the meeting of Orihime (Vega) and Hikoboshi (Altair).” Alas, the Milky Way “separates these two stars, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.” Who knew? What we see is two ultrasensitive dancers tangling with a very long piece of white cloth, emoting—them, not it.

Let us also pass quickly (which is more than it did) over the Tao Dance Theater, which showed us two disconnected pieces by Tao Ye called collectively Weight x 3, to repeated phrases by Steve Reich. In one, a dancer (who, at the curtain calls turned out to be female—it was too dark to tell during her performance) twirled a long rod or stick or sword around and around and around and around … you get the point. She was remarkable without being interesting. In the other, a couple in long comfortable white robes did a lot of semisynchronized moving about. Weight x 3 featured a couple of the salient themes of the festival (and of a lot of other things I’ve been seeing recently, including a black stage with spotlights).

The other solo acts were an improvement, beginning with a prodigy in sneakers called Lil Buck in his wow take on The Dying Swan, which marries Anna Pavlova to Memphis jookin’. He’s an amazement, using his sneaks as if they were toe shoes, and tying himself into impossible knots. (Hip-hop is another ubiquitous theme of the current dance scene.) The audience was in love—and why not? No doubt many people had already seen him on YouTube performing this Saint-Saëns cello number with Yo-Yo Ma.

From England’s Royal Ballet came a principal dancer, Steven McRae, in his own tap specialty Something Different, which begins with a silent extended solo in which he cutely flirts with the audience and then erupts to the sound of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” The marriage this time around is between tap and ballet—Mr. McRae taps en pointe, for instance—and again the audience was besotted. (He seemed pretty pleased with himself too.)

There was a final tap event: Maurice Chestnut’s Floating, to an on-stage jazz group. Mr. Chestnut is a real virtuoso—from the waist down, a kind of Art Tatum of impossibly brilliant footwork. From the legs up, there’s nothing. And there was nothing from his two tap partners. The piece also featured a painfully shrill vocalist. She sang of what she wanted, and you’ll be stunned to hear that what she wanted most was to be … FREE!

We got to see two works well known in New York: Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (his finest, I think), with its superb City Ballet cast more or less intact—a striking example of how Mr. Wheeldon loves to fold Wendy Whelan in two, like a collapsible chair— and Ailey’s production of Mauro Bigonzetti’s colorful Festa Barocca.

Falling Hard: Never Mind the Fall for Dance Festival’s Irritating Stocking Stuffers