Fall for Dance Turns 10: From Richard Alston’s Inventive Devil in the Detail to Robert Battle’s Energetic Home

With tap, hat tricks and tango in between

The Doug Elkins Mo(or)town/Redux is less a gloss on Othello than a gloss on the Limon Othello we’d seen a few nights before. The music wasn’t Limon’s Purcell or taken from the Verdi opera; it was Motown songs, the best known being “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” (It’s from Marvin Gaye that the Moor gets the word about Desdemona.) Elkins’s contemporary take on this most harrowing of stories is fluent and lively, but the premise undermines the horror—and the point.

The up-and-coming British choreographer Liam Scarlett brought two major Royal Ballet dancers, Zenaida Yanowksy and Rupert Pennefather, in a new duet called Fratres, to an over-used score by Arvo Pärt. One can see why Scarlett is having so much success so quickly—commissions abound; he’s forceful and can be exciting, though I prefer his fuller pieces to this intense pas de deux, too much in the Christopher Wheeldon mold. As for the grand climax of this program, alas it was Martha Graham’s Rite of Spring in this centenary year of the revolutionary Stravinsky-Nijinsky ballet that caused the famous riot at its first performance. This is the desperate Graham of 1984, and, although The New York Times was still propping her up, it’s a wretched come-down from her years—her decades—of glory, at its worst when it cannibalizes, and dilutes, passages from masterpieces like Night Journey. Its chief claim to notice is the use of Halston for the costumes and the bolts of cloth that get flung across the action as the Chosen One prepares to die. The ultimate word on it back then came from the caustic critic and wit Dale Harris, who headlined his review “Slaughter on Seventh Avenue.”

The last program opened with another reimagining of a Nijinsky ballet, L’Après-midi d’un faune, here reduced (in more ways than one) to Faun. The choreographer is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the provenance is Sadler’s Wells London, and the music is the great Debussy score—except that Cherkaoui has improved on Debussy by adding music by someone called Nitin Sawnhey: the Big Two, Debussy and Sawnhey. There’s only one nymph in this version, the somewhat stolid Daisy Phillips, but the Faun, James O’Hara, makes up for her stolidity with his mega-narcissistic archings and humpings—lots of bare chest, lots of tossed hair. Think of the Jerry Robbins masterpiece Afternoon of a Faun, first seen on this very stage 60 years ago—think of it and weep.

Then a group called Bodytraffic, from L.A., had fun with some numbers set to classic jazz—Ella, Billie, Oscar Peterson. The low point was an ultra-camp version of “All of Me,” danced and lip-synched by tall, thin Andrew Wojtal. I’m afraid the audience thought he was funny. The other four dancers were clearly at home with this music and the minimal originality brought to it by choreographer Richard Siegal. The whole thing was harmless and mildly pleasurable—a holding operation until the sublime Trocks turned up with their very special Black Swan pas de deux. Odile was the voracious Yakatarina Verbosovich (Chase Johnsey), and Prince Siegfried was the pint-size, bewildered but adoring Innokenti Smoktumuchsky (Carlos Hopuy). She ate him up and spat him out several times, but he didn’t seem to notice, and then she launched into her fabulous fouettées, proving that anything a “she” can do a “he” can do just as well.

This anniversary Fall for Dance went out with a big bang. Robert Battle’s Home, new a couple of years ago, gives us 14 terrific Alvin Ailey dancers, led by their biggest talent, Matthew Rushing (now a guest artist) and the ravishing Linda Celeste Sims. They’re in a club, clubbing away in their jivey, hip-hopping fashion, with Rushing as a somewhat forlorn outsider until he blasts his way into the gang as they’re all swept up together in kinetic bliss. Home will be on at least four Ailey programs here at the City Center starting in early December. Go for it.