The Ups and Downs of 2018’s Fall for Dance

New York City Center's 2018 Fall for Dance festival brought as many high points as usual—and even fewer disasters.

The Barbarian Nights. Stephanie Berger

Yes, it’s Fall for Dance time again, because it’s Fall! Five programs, twenty works. I’ll walk you through them, program by program. Happy landings!

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Program 1

1) First up was the Boston Ballet, which once again shot itself in the foot by stubbornly bringing us yet another work by their resident choreographer, Jorma Elo. The company has such strong, appealing dancers—how irritating that we have to see them in such anodyne stuff. This time the usually trendy Elo has gone for worthy/classical. (Can anything be worthier than Bach’s cello suites?) And so eight good dancers gamely tried to live up to Elo’s Bach Cello Suites, but there wasn’t a moment of insight or revelation. What a waste!

2) Sara Mearns brought her Dreams of Isadora Duncan—A Solo Tribute back to town. (We first saw it as part of the Paul Taylor season earlier in the year.) The choreography is attributed to Lori Belilove, “after Isadora Duncan.” The esteemed Cameron Grant, from City Ballet, was the pianist. What to say? Mearns, in billowy rose, floats, thrusts, scampers, scatters rose petals—all things Duncan did. Before Isadora self-destructed, she galvanized the world. Alas, there’s nothing in Mearns’s performance to galvanize the world. There’s hard work, there’s good intention, there’s repetition of the same effects over and over. It’s like one of Meryl Streep’s less inspired impersonations: all surface. Where is the unquenchable genius, the heroic flame of art, that made Isadora Duncan one of the supreme icons of her time? Not here.

3) Bzzz, a cheerful tap work choreographed by Caleb Teicher for his company of seven, was witty and pleasing, led by Teicher himself with his striking patch of white hair flopping down the middle of his otherwise dark head of hair. Also featured was a prominent beatboxer named Chris Celiz who chattered away and made noises into his portable microphone. This was my first exposure to beatboxing, and I won’t forget it.

4) Finally, an extended excerpt from The Barbarian Nights, or the First Dawns of the World, by Hervé Koubi. His company is comprised of thirteen bare-chested, virile and superbly trained Algerian street dancers, mixing tumultuous acrobatics, hip-hop, martial arts and more in a non-stop rush of excitement. The music is by Maxime Bodson and Mozart—the Big Two—but it could be by anyone who either triggers or plays against the wild propulsion of somersaults, cartwheels, flips, sensational leaps and crash dives.

Program 2

1) The star of Pam Tanowitz’s New Work for Goldberg Variations (excerpt) was Simone Dinnerstein, the pianist. How eternally fascinating this music is! But let’s face it: dance doesn’t do any favors to the Goldbergs, and Tanowitz—serious, laudable—is not the choreographer to change that.

2) Justin Peck’s music video for The National’s “Dark Side of the Gym,” all sneakers and romance, was a charmer when we first saw it not so long ago, and the expanded version, called Sleep Well Beast, is more of the same. Did we need more? Not really, except it’s a joy to watch more of Peck himself, underrated as a dancer, and his partner, the enchanting Patricia Delgado (ex-Miami City Ballet).

3) Gemma Bond of ABT has been making ballets for some time now, and her Inner Voices is as careful and uninspired as the others I’ve seen. The music is Prokofiev, and Bond responds to his intensity, but there’s no real point—it’s an effort of will. Still, we got to see a bunch of her ABT colleagues (including Cassandra Trenary and James Whiteside) under new circumstances, and that was just fine.

Promethean Fire. Paula Lobo

4) Paul Taylor’s Promethean Fire, seen for the first time since his death in August, was an even greater emotional experience than it has been ever since its premiere in 2002—emotional for both for the audience and (clearly) the Taylor dancers. Bach’s organ music as orchestrated to the max by Leopold Stokowski is monumental, as befits a post-9/11 work that, in Taylor’s words, “affirms that in the wake of a cataclysmic event, the human spirit may find renewal and emerge triumphant.”

Program 3

1) A company new to us, Tayeh Dance with Heather Christian, presented Reclamation Map. Tayeh is the choreographer, Christian the musician: she’s the composer, keyboardist, and one of the three very effective, soulful singers—“I survive. I grow old.” There were four dancers, one of whom spent some time on top of the piano. I would report more if I could remember more.

2) Dance Theatre of Harlem showed up with something new from the experienced Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. She always fluent and organized—functional. In Balamouk, everything takes place in trendy darkness, and it’s all beat, beat, beat. The women are on pointe, the men do lots of pirouettes. The DTH dancers go full-out, but to little avail. For me, it was all over before it was over.

3) Midnight Raga, from the Nederlands Dans Theater 2, is the work of Marco Goecke, who as a choreographer for the Stuttgart Ballet, the Hamburg Ballet, and of recent years, the Nederlands Dans Theater, comes by his Eurotrash sensibility honestly. This piece gives us two young men spasming, jerking, sweating to music by Ravi Shankar and the earth-shattering Etta James. We’ve been seeing less Eurotrash recently, so Midnight Raga had a kind of nostalgia to it….

The Crane Calling. Paula Lobo

4) Finally, excerpts from The Crane Calling, another of those elaborate visitations from China—presumably sponsored by the government, because surely City Center can’t afford to import 29 dancers for two performances. This year’s extravaganza featured a flock of really beautiful women-as-cranes, all very clever at balancing on one leg, and some guy cranes too, and a wholesome peasant heroine and a homespun peasant hero, and a lot of ballet steps, and undoubtedly with a stirring patriotic plot which we were spared. For those who feel the need to see the entire thing, good news: upcoming performances will be taking place in “several cities in China.”

Program 4

1) Beautiful stretches of Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, a pièce d’occasion he created in 1980, long after his retirement, to celebrate the 80th birthday of his friend the Queen Mother. This was the only work made for Baryshnikov at the Royal Ballet (his partner was Bryony Brind) and it’s swoony—all lifts and longing glances—set to Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paginini.” This is minor Ashton, but it was a good excuse to bring us two of ballet’s biggest current stars: Herman Cornejo from ABT and Alina Cojocaru from the English National Ballet and elsewhere. It would have been nice to have seen these glorious dancers in one of Ashton’s great romantic pas de deux instead of this faint echo, but beggars can’t be choosers.

2) A recent work by Lucinda Childs called Canto Ostinato. Minimal music, minimal choreography from this famous graduate of Judson Church—four handsome dancers walking backwards and forwards with high seriousness, travelling vertical strips of light projected behind them to liven things up. It’s semi-balletic—the women are often on half-point. Why doesn’t Childs go all the way?

Brooklyn Mack, Tiler Peck and Lil Buck in Petrushka. Stephanie Berger

3) Next, Jennifer Weber’s Petrushka—yes, Stravinsky and Fokine and Nijinsky’s Petrushka, only without Fokine and Nijinsky. But this re-imagined and abstracted version had a vivid life of its own, and three compelling stars. The tragic clown himself was impersonated by the brilliant Lil Buck (in whiteface), perhaps a little more shticky than tragic. Someone should have stopped him from extending his floppy, shuddery antics through the many curtain calls. City Ballet’s Tiler Peck (she who can do no wrong) not only grasped the essence of the flirtatious treacherous Ballerina but grasped the essence of being a puppet, and a malign one at that. The Moor was danced by Brooklyn Mack of the Washington Ballet—a powerful presence with an extraordinary leap, though the least puppety of the cast. I can’t imagine what this work meant to viewers unfamiliar with the original Petrushka and for whom there were no program notes to offer context, but for me Weber’s ingenious take on it was exhilarating. Now I have to catch her hip-hop Nutcracker.

4) Finally, Rennie Harris Funkified: twelve terrific dancers, a terrific seven-man band on stage, a superfluous and mostly unintelligible voiceover, a superfluous and mostly unintelligible video running overhead, and an overall glitzy presentation more appropriate to Vegas than to Philadelphia, whence Harris and his non-pareil hip-hop spring. As always, I was knocked out by his work, its sustained invention and energy, but only for the first fifteen or so minutes. Unfortunately, Funkified went on so long, and so repetitiously, that it ended up more stupefying than entertaining.

Program 5

1) I stopped going to Ballet Hispánico a long time ago—not enough Ballet. This piece was called Con Brazos Abiertos (With Open Arms). We’re told it was about being caught between two cultures, and indeed out of the irritating “soundscape” someone could be made out saying, “I don’t belong here.” There was a tall, sexy young woman, striking in a blinding white bikini; there was a bunch of folksy folks in sombreros—indeed, sombreros were everywhere, including one being jiggled at the end of a woman’s foot. Etc. We hear a lot about cultural appropriation. Here was a culture appropriating itself.

2) Next came the nadir of the entire season—Tangos. Credits: The company—Junior Cervila & Guadalupe Garcia; Artistic Directors—Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia; Choreography—Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia; Staging—Junior Cervila; Costumes—Guadalupe Garcia; Dancers—Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Cervila. So we know who’s to blame. This was degraded tango—glitzy, blingy, empty of everything except self-satisfaction. Shame!

Alejandro Silva and Carlos Luis Blanco in El cruce sobre el Niágara. Johan Persson

3) Who could have guessed that what followed would be so outstanding? (That’s why we keep coming back to Fall for Dance—you never know!) Two men from Acosta Danza, Carlos Acosta’s Cuban company, performed a long duet called El cruce sobre el Niágara, based on a famous Peruvian play. For once the blackness punctuated by spotlights was appropriate—the charged, somber mood of the material was intensified by the play of dark and light. Although the two men are dressed in nothing but g-strings, and are in intimate contact with each other, this is not an erotic outing. The piece begins extremely slowly as one of the two men, with careful, almost painful deliberation and at times veering off into dangerous balances, inches toward the other who is curled up in a fetal position. When they meet, they begin their thrilling duet in which they support, shadow, confront and carry each other, at moments blazing out, until at last they reach their goal: a red light beamed at them (and us) from the very back of the stage. Something transforming has taken place. We’re not informed that the play’s title translates into Crossing over the Niagara, and that it’s about the ultra-famous Blondin, the greatest tightrope-walker of all time, who indeed made his way across the Niagara Gorge many times, once with his ultra-loyal manager on his back! However, Marianella Boán’s extraordinarily powerful and beautiful choreography doesn’t require biographical information to justify itself: this work, from 1987, is timeless.

Stack-up. Paul Kolnik

4) And then, as the grand finale of the evening and the season, a bang-up performance by the Aileys of Talley Beatty’s Stack-up, which they premiered more than 35 years ago and have kept under wraps for most of that time. Big mistake! It’s colorful, it’s dynamic, and seemingly random comings and goings are subtly and convincingly organized. Back in 1983, the Times said “Fast-moving lines of junkies, good kids, gang members and street girls stream by in an almost ceaseless flow,” and that’s it, plus a subdued narrative about one kid gone wrong. It’s an ideal work for Ailey, calling on all the energy, power, high spirits and kick of the company and avoiding the pretentiousness that infects so much of what they do. If you missed it at Fall for Dance, you can catch it in December when the Aileys will be back at City Center.


As for the season as a whole, perhaps there were as many high points as usual and fewer disasters, so thank you, Fall for Dance.

The Ups and Downs of 2018’s Fall for Dance