The Fall Harvest: Fall for Dance’s Offerings Were Bountiful but Uneven

Hometown companies underwhelming, but troupes from Russia, Hawaii and Sumatra offered varying pleasures

The Moiseyev Dance Company. (Courtesy E. Masalkov)

THE RULES FOR FALL FOR DANCE changed slightly this year—several more performances, spread out over three weeks, and a modest price hike—but the principle remains the same: a smorgasbord of wildly various disciplines and aesthetics, and equally various levels of interest and talent. You never know exactly what to expect, but you know there will be the good, the bad, and the well-intentioned boring.

Inevitably, there were four dance modes on view: classical ballet, “downtown,” ethnic/folk and novelties. It makes sense—the programs give audiences a chance to decide what they like, and give critics a chance to get a sense of companies and performers they might never be able to see otherwise—and to send up warning flares: If this bunch makes it back to town, STAY AWAY!

Ballet has been a problem for Fall for Dance since the beginning. There have been occasional happy surprises—the Aspen Ballet a few years ago, for instance (they’ll be at the Joyce next week)—but on the whole the choices have been tame and thin. Our two big companies are miserably represented: Usually they wander down from Lincoln Center with a duet. This year ABT put on Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, which we’ve seen all too often, though anything that brings us Herman Cornejo is a plus. City Ballet, absent this time around, usually gives Wendy Whelan taxi fare downtown, a partner and a Christopher Wheeldon pas de deux; this time we got Whelan and Wheeldon as usual, but under the auspices of Fang-Yi Sheu & Artists. It might as well have been a City Ballet moment, however, since three of the four dancers were from the company.

The ballet—Five Movements, Three Repeats—was new, and there was Sheu herself (well, it’s her company), barefoot in contrast to Whelan’s point shoes, though if this contrast was what the ballet was telling us about, it wasn’t telling us very much. Sheu is a strong, assertive dancer but not very interesting; the music, by Max Richter, is also strong, assertive and not very interesting. Wheeldon is obviously clear in his mind what the connections are among the movements and repeats, but he hasn’t made them clear to us. Nor can I figure out why in the middle of his careful duets and solos and trios he’s inserted Whelan dancing to the Dinah Washington recording of “This Bitter Earth”—we last encountered it (and her) a little while ago at the City Ballet gala. It looked better this time out, with Whelan rid of the ghastly Valentino concoction she was sporting then and dressed in a becoming costume by Reid Bartelme. Wheeldon is always efficient, but this is mid-level Wheeldon, not a keeper.

Another Wheeldon number, the duet from Carousel (A Dance), was the contribution of Pacific Northwest Ballet. It’s sweetly pretty in the Jerome Robbins young-ecstasy mode, with sweeping overhead lifts and rhapsodic expressions. And it brought us the wonderful Carla Körbes at her most lyrical. But this isn’t what we want to see from one of the country’s leading ballet companies. If Fall for Dance can afford to transport large groups from Hawaii and Indonesia and Hong Kong, it should be able to afford plane fare for a dozen dancers from Seattle to present a work of substance.

What was imported from Hong Kong was The Hong Kong Ballet (who knew?) with eight ardent and naive dancers giving their all in Luminous, a relatively new work by Peter Quanz—shmaltz by the bushel from this busy choreographer all of whose works seem to be acts of will rather than artistic impulses.

Worst of breed, worst in show, worst in memory was Ballet West, from Salt Lake City, in the “Grand Pas” from Paquita, a mainstay of the classical repertory that demands the highest level of Petipa technique and style. From the first seconds it was obvious that this company lacks everything Petipa requires; it all looked like an under-powered graduation performance at a second-level ballet school. The ballerina was clearly chosen because she can do, sort of, the barrage of fouettés the climax calls for—I won’t embarrass her and her colleagues by naming them. Regional? Provincial? Definitely not ready for the Big Apple. Poor gifted Elena Kunikova who staged it—we know how thoroughly she understands Paquita from the version she made of it for the Trocks. Where were those fabulous boys when she needed them?

TWO HIGHLY ADMIRED CHOREOGRAPHERS from downtown were displaying their wares at the City Center. Pam Tanowitz’s Fortune, performed by Juilliard Dance to a (live) quartet by Charles Wuorinen, is in her severe, high-minded mode, with lots of silence punctuating lots of jumping, and the clever disposition of Juilliard’s score or so of dancers. (Tanowitz is one of the few modern choreographers who deploys groups effectively.) As usual with her, there are little hints of ballet—you keep feeling that the dancers are raring to rise on point. I wish she’d let them.

Tanowitz is coolly worthy. Jodi Melnick is hotly self-absorbed. Her onstage musicians are much too loud, and like so many narcissistic performers, she goes on much too long: She’s interested in herself, why wouldn’t we be? She and her three colleagues wag their bottoms and swing their arms casually and toss their heads—Melnick’s reddish mop of hair is practically a fifth performer. She’s not without talent both as a dance-maker and a dancer, but Solo, (Re)Deluxe Version is more irritating than appealing.

As for novelties, there was the gone-in-a-flash Shutters Shut from the Nederlands Dans Theater, two goony performers in Cubist-inflected costumes having fun to a recitation of a Gertrude Stein poem about Picasso that begins “If I told him would he like it.” And a group called TU Dance (two ex-Ailey dancers) had a hit with High Heel Blues, more because of its use of Tuck and Patti’s lament about a woman who can’t resist buying shoes she knows in her heart will never fit her than because of any original dance invention. I don’t understand why it didn’t show the lamenter in high heels—at least she could have been trying them on and kicking them off.

The Martha Grahams turned up with the apparently obligatory excerpts from Chronicle (1936)—not again, please, Martha—and there was an extended sequence from Jared Grimes purporting to show a Transformation in Tap which “entertainingly reveals the journey of a young dancer who seeks to create innovative perspectives in tap dance live on stage.” Grimes is a pretty good tapper, and so are his four colleagues, but I just don’t want a message with my tap, and he goes on too long, like just about everyone else. Including the much-admired Balletboyz, 10 guys imported from England who put on a highly charged exhibition of guy stuff called Void. They’re non-stop explosive as they fling themselves at and on each other and crash to the ground, all to pounding music and grim lighting and visuals, and they’re fun to watch—for a while. Then the inevitable law of diminishing returns sets in, and the whole thing, at last, just stops—not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a fizzle.

BY FAR THE MOST INTERESTING OFFERINGS this year were the folk/ethnic ones, although most of them suffered from the raging epidemic of endlessness. The three Asian works all displayed intensity, sincerity and onstage percussion musicians, including singers. (Alas, neither the Hawaiians nor the Sumatrans offered translations of what they were singing—maybe the words don’t matter?) Before the curtain went up, a voiceover explained that Shantala Shivalingappa’s piece was about Shiva, the Lord of Dance, and Ganga, Goddess of the sacred river Ganges, both of whom were impersonated by the much admired Shantala. She’s a slim, attractive figure who moves gracefully—but I found that her Eternal Feminine aspect as Ganga wasn’t very different from her Eternal Masculine aspect as Shiva. It all had to do with Shiva using his head to deflect or absorb a deluge from the river. To each his own.

The Fall Harvest: Fall for Dance’s Offerings Were Bountiful but Uneven