Fall for Dance, Indoors and Out

It’s hard to give focus to ensemble work.  City Center’s annual Fall for Dance series generally showcases newer work, but In the first two programs—one outdoors, one in—an older work showed us how it’s done. Indoors, it was the duets that focused our attention.

On Wednesday, September 25, in the first indoor program (repeated on the 26th), the duets—ballet and tango—were book-ended by two companies presenting very different modern-dance ensemble works—one, ballet-inflected, to ragtime; the other, old-fashioned, literal-minded romanticism.

Boys Playing Music_Luca Della Robbia_FlorenceLuca Della Robbia, Boys Playing Music


The first ensemble was the Richard Alston Dance Company in Alston’s The Devil in the Detail, to Scott Joplin rags played by Jason Ridgway. The British company danced barefoot, five men in shirts and trousers, five women in simple dresses. The choreography was elegant and light, the dancers nimble, but it was all extremely well-mannered. One mildly and enjoyable subversive note was the way same-sex couples formed within the ensemble as casually as heterosexual ones. The duets didn’t really change our focus, though, as the dancing remained within the overall pace and rhythm of the whole. Joplin’s music, once scandalous, now seems measured and decorous, and the overall effect of the choreography did, too.

The other ensemble was DanceBrazil in Fé do Sertão, by Jelon Vieira. The dancing was vigorous, but the choreographic range was limited and, unfortunately, predictable. When you open with a group of dancers hunched down on the floor, rounded backs to the audience, in muted colors under dim, dappled light, with musicians in darkness at the rear, the next thing is entirely predictable: the lights will come up on the dancers, who will all turn, raise their arms and lunge forward from their knees, then turn back as one and round over again. So they did and so it went. The most memorable moment was one dancer turning handsprings across the stage.

In fact, in both ensemble pieces, this viewer longed for something surprising—for someone to break out from the containment of the choreography, to work against the ensemble even while being part of it. For something like the speed and dash of the aptly named Michelle Fleet, who skipped around the floor like an off-kilter sprite last week in Paul Taylor’s Esplanade at the Delacorte Theater. This iconic 1975 work, the ultimate modern-dance ensemble piece, ended the initial, free, outdoor Fall for Dance program at the Delacorte Theater on September 16 & 17.

Taylor has always used body types as well as changes of speed, direction and gesture to enliven his work. Fleet seems to be the current incarnation of the short, feisty woman dancer that has long been a fixture in the company. But any Taylor dancer might break out of the ensemble for a solo dash, or sudden reversal, or simply a gesture that sharpens our focus and allows us to re-enter the ensemble work with fresh eyes.

August_Macke_Russian BalletAugust Macke, Russian Ballet

Two of the other three works at the Delacorte were ensemble, The evening opened with Elizabeth Streb’s Extreme Action Company in Human Fountain, described in the program as “engaging cascades of airborne liquid muscle.” To this viewer, the 20 performers falling face down in rapid succession or simultaneously from all levels of a three-story scaffolding to land on thick padding with a continuous series of amplified THUDs! suggested nothing so much as an accident in the making. One kept wondering about the effects of so much impact, on the backs of those who spun around in mid-air, or the chins and tongues of the belly-floppers.

Somehow, it didn’t seem to have much to do with dance, however ingenious the sound design by David van Tieghem and Brandon Wolcott, largely employing Mozart’s Symphony No. 36. Militaristic precision, each performer leaping up immediately to scamper back up the scaffolding and fall (or leap, as the program has it) again on cue, was essential to prevent collisions, but it also lent the whole proceedings a vague air of Strength through Joy. One could imagine Leni Riefenstahl filming it.

After that, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence company’s Upside Down, choreographed by Brown to music by Fela Kuti and Oumou Sangare, was a great relief. There is the suggestion of a story, defined in the program by words and phrases like “community mourning”, “destiny”, “solidarity”, and “ascension”, but really the dancing was lively, with strong diagonals and many changes of pace, plus beautiful, African-inspired costumes and Fela Kuti performed by two drummers and a tall, striking vocalist in black and white, Wunmi Olaiya.

New York City Ballet was next-to-last with Ulysses Dove’s Red Angels, not much in the way of choreography but the perfect out-of-doors ballet, with red lighting, red unisex unitards on and lots of simple, sexy partnering. As did Paul Taylor, NYCB brought out the big guns, Maria Kowroski and Chase Finlay, with Jennie Somogyi, and Arian Danchig-Waring. But despite the contemporary sound of Mary Rowell on electric violin playing Richars Einhorn’s Maxwell’s Demon, the choreography, perhaps aided by the dim red lighting, made the interwoven duets interchangeable, giving the piece something of the monotony of unrelieved ensemble work.

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This did not happen indoors with the other ballet and the tango. The ballet duet was The Bright Motion, a Fall for Dance commission and Justin Peck’s second premiere this season. It was danced by New York City Ballet’s extraordinary Sara Mearns and Dutch National Ballet’s Casey Herd. Peck is a rising young choreographer, still a soloist with NYCB himself. He’s very good, already the best American choreographer after Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon, neither of whom is actually American but both of whose careers are at the moment centered here.

Watching the start of this very short pas de deux, this viewer couldn’t help be on tenterhooks: could he do it again, would it be as good as all the other pieces she’s seen? Very soon she saw that he could, and it was, and she could relax, let the dance take over and just watch the astonishing Sara Mearns. She wore a simple white leotard, with some curving cutouts in the back. He wore tights. The choreography was deceptively simple. They came together, moved apart, paused downstage left, turned, looked at the piano upstage right. Then they danced again. The American-born Herd is a fine partner, but the dance was Mearns’s, showcasing her power, grace and fluidity of movement. Even while being partnered she kept her own motion.

Astonishing footwork was the signature of Gabriel Missé and Analía Centurión in their own Esencia de Tango, the second act on the bill and in many ways the most spectacular. Their program (also danced by the excellent Carlos Barrionuevo and Mayte Valdes), was designed as a history of tango, starting with Missé in beautifully pleated gaucho pants and boots and Centurión in a vintage-style dress.

Whatever period they were embodying, including the 50’s rock & roll that evidently temporarily eclipsed tango, they maintained a mesmerizing level of focus and jaw-dropping speed and intricacy of footwork. Missé’s steps were as rapid and complex as Centurión’s, their feet flashing, in seemingly multiple steps per beat, around and through each other’s legs. Centurión was firmly partnered by Missé, in that dominant way of tango, yet remained her own strong presence. When one focused on their feet one saw amazingly rapid, independent footwork totally in synch. And, despite maintaining the traditional seriousness of tango dancers, they radiated a sheer, infectious pleasure in the dance.

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One Response to “Fall for Dance, Indoors and Out”

  1. Judy Arnold Says:

    Amazing… Did you see the ballets in person? I think the dancers falling three stories would be more than I could stand… I like the tango dancers myself…structured and pretty Judy

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