The Five Best Performances of Fall for Dance

Fall for Dance is a true treasure. Where else can you see 20 works in a span of 10 days, danced by companies from America, England, France, China, Cuba, Belgium, and Australia? (And for $10 per ticket, no less.) This year’s iteration, held at New York City Center’s newly and beautifully renovated theater, brought no shortage of variety, in both style and in quality. Most remarkable to me, a first-time attendee, was the audience. I’m accustomed to the sedate atmosphere of Lincoln Center, but during my five visits to Fall for Dance, the enthusiasm was palpable. It was also refreshing at intermissions to hear several spectators — of all ages — hotly debating which of the diverse offerings were their favorites. Below, listed in order of appearance, are mine: the five performances that succeeded most in making me feel and think.

Mark Morris Dance Group, All Fours (Program 1)

With the exception of George Balanchine, no choreographer has broadened my understanding of music as much as Mark Morris. He can create an entire world within a score. All Fours (2003) is no different: Morris translates Béla Bartók’s intense, rough-edged String Quartet No. 4 into something frightening and relatable. As in most of Morris’s choreography, dualism is at work. The piece starts with a cluster of eight dancers dressed in black, whose movements are frantic and desperate. It occurred to me only days later how many of their poses are religious in nature: The mob occasionally gazes upward and presses their palms together as if praying, and recalling the crucifixion, they often stretch their arms out to the sides and lean forward slightly. They share the stage – or perhaps more accurately, compete for it – with a separate group of four dressed in white, who aim for harmony but frequently fall short. Their steps are softer but often obviously less assured. Ultimately, this divide breaks down, as the “black” and “white” dancers run in and out of the wings, repelling each other. Here Morris shows us a conflict both psychological and spiritual, between blind, mechanical faith and imperfect attempts at grace. Is this a battle between a band of mechanical religious zealots and a more “moderate” contingent? Or do the 12 dancers represent an internal conflict, inside just one man? Who knows? With Morris, the mystery adds to the excitement.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Rogues (Program 2)

Trisha Brown’s Rogues, a duet set to a recorded score by Alvin Curran, was one of the simplest dances at the festival but also one of the most honest and powerful. The style of movement is largely pedestrian: simple steps, twists, bending limbs. The two men dancing (Neal Beasley and Lee Serle) move at first in tandem, then without warning they break apart and echo one another. At times these divergences are beautiful, and at others they’re ugly. The drastic difference in the dancers’ height and physique gives the work an air of universality and a striking sense of contrast (not to mention some occasional humor). It’s honest, transparent, and hypnotic. This, somewhat surprisingly, was my first taste of Brown’s choreography, and she created it specifically for Fall for Dance. She’s one of a few New York dance makers who have eluded me, and I hope the near future affords me an opportunity to see more of her work.

Richard Alston Dance Company, Roughcut (Program 3)

On a program overburdened with props and pretensions, the London-based Richard Alston Dance Company’s performance of Roughcut provided a much-needed breath of fresh air. Set to Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint and Electric Counterpoint, it’s a display of sheer exhilaration that, contrary to its title, unfolds almost seamlessly. The mood is casual: There are no sets, and the black-and-white costumes appear to be comfortable. Dancers walk in from the wings — often past others in action — and groups form and dissolve in an instant. The energy, represented mostly through shifting weight, never seems to stop: It just changes direction, accelerates or decelerates, or moves into another off-balance body. The partnering in particular is thrilling. Anneli Binder and Nathan Goodman appear to improvise independently, but their bodies form a kind of fluid puzzle; he crouches just as she starts to kick in his direction. The musicians (a guitarist and a clarinetist) perform along with pre-recorded layers of themselves, and Alston makes great use of these structures with the playful canons in his choreography. The result — pure music and movement, stripped of pretense — is mesmerizing.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Three to Max (Program 4)

Judging from reactions in the audience and on Twitter, Ohad Naharin’s Three to Max was one of the festival’s more divisive offerings. Yes, it’s strange, disconnected, and often defies explanation, but when performed by the talented dancers of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, it’s always engrossing and human. At first it resembles a commercial for the Gap, with its cast staggered throughout the stage, dressed casually in jeans and colored T-shirts, but it quickly becomes surreal. A tall man tosses around a petite woman, and then the tables turn: She holds his waist as he girlishly saunters around her in a circle. In a striking scene of accumulation, a group performs a series of steps – twisting, crouching, and dropping to the floor — out of synch while an odd voice counts to 10 in an invented language. There’s mundane dancing — something resembling “The Chicken Dance” makes an appearance — as well as movement that isn’t really dancing at all: boxing, flopping on the ground like a fish, turning an imaginary key in an imaginary lock. Three to Max could easily descend into silliness, but it never does. Hubbard Street’s dancers move with complete clarity and earnestness, giving us lives and relationships — violent, serene, awkward, funny — distilled into a few fleeting moments.

New York City Ballet, Polyphonia (Program 5)

Polyphonia easily counts as one of Christopher Wheeldon’s most remarkable ballets, and the eight dancers representing New York City Ballet did it absolute justice. Combining sharp technique and an abundance of artistry, they danced as if their lives depended on it; I’m hard pressed to remember a more exciting recent performance by the company. Set to selections for piano by Gyorgy Ligeti, Polyphonia begins and ends with the four couples on stage, moving alternately in unison and in canon, the shadows projected on the wall behind them bringing their classical poses into sharper relief. In between are a series of brief episodes, “romantic with comic twists,” in the choreographer’s words. In the first pas de deux, Wendy Whelan surrenders herself to Tyler Angle, sighing into pliés on point and appearing fragile throughout. Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar traverse the stage in a dizzying waltz punctuated by subtle interludes of just a few seconds. Adrian Danchig-Waring pursues Brittany Pollack in a cartoonish chase, which she ends with a simple flick of the wrist. Lauren Lovette, replacing Sara Mearns in Saturday’s performance, brought an attractive vulnerability to her duet with Chase Finlay. All in all, it was a good night to be a New Yorker.

“As If By Chance, All Kinds of Stuff All Over the Place”: William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space

Time is a strange force. As a child, I remember listening to Prince’s “1999” on the radio and thinking how remote that year seemed. It was the future: distant, unimaginable, unimportant. Fast forward to December 31, 1999: I’m 15 years old, stuck at home watching my sister while my parents enjoy a night out on the town. It occurs to me, while “1999” plays repeatedly on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, how quickly those years passed. Now, in the final weeks of 2011, the song baffles me more still: Was 1999 really more than a decade ago?

William Forysthe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space, performed last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, poignantly tackles that sense of displacement and confusion, showing us life’s fragility, humor, and horror along the way. (As if speaking directly to me, it also, at one point, quotes “1999.”) The work isn’t an easy ride, but it’s one that pays off. Although theater trumps choreography here, the Forsythe Company’s 14 incredible dancers bring astounding clarity to their distorted movements, which start at the body’s center and move outward to the limbs. At 27, I might be too young to ponder my own mortality as Forsythe does here, but his hyperreal collage demonstrates how ephemeral and arbitrary our world is and persuades us to take nothing for granted.

Outer Space is a series of vignettes, most of them outrageous reworkings of familiar characters and scenes. In one, a German scientist asks “What’s the matter with matter?” His sermonizing is difficult to follow, but he leaves us with the powerful but simple notion that everything is connected. There’s a ping-pong match that bends time and erupts into a violent break-dance. Yoko Ando sprints on stage to conduct an impromptu 80s-style aerobics class, manically jumping from side to side and at one point shouting, “Beyoncé stole my choreography!” The dancers shift in and out of their roles, making it difficult to identify them. One who’s consistently easy to spot is Dana Caspersen, who repeatedly slips into a schizophrenic monologue that’s funny and frightening, playing both sides in a conversation between a B-movie villain and a housewife he’s terrorizing. (“I hope this isn’t being inconvenient for you,” she growls, squatting and impishly turning out one leg. Then, transforming into the housewife, she stands rigidly in place, arms at her sides with palms parallel to the floor. “No, of course not,” she replies in a squeaky Minnesota accent.) Forsythe punctuates this extreme theatricality with quiet solos and duets, showing a more delicate side of humanity.

Pop culture references from times are peppered throughout, giving the work a vague sense of nostalgia. Lyrics from songs by Cat Stevens, Prince, and Nina Simone — but most frequently Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” — find their way into the performers’ conversations and the score. Adding to the sense of accumulation, the stage is covered with balls of rolled up blocking tape, gathered from the company’s past performances. They resemble meteorites, and the dancers appear to be improvising as they throw, kick, and collect them.

The work sometimes confuses and overwhelms, but its finale ties it together. In soothing tones, Caspersen lists what we lose with death: “No more parties. No more party planning and saying, ‘Let’s have margaritas,’ and then forgetting to buy the ice.” She turns to the dancer seated beside her and touches her hand, then her leg. “No more of this,” she says, “or this.” The simple gesture has two meanings. For Forsythe, death halts his work: Never again will he touch or shape a body. And to the rest us, the body is equally precious: It’s our tool, our vessel, our voice. (In other words, it’s more than just matter.) By this point we’ve become endeared to the Forsythe’s cerebral chaos, and we’ve seen plenty of ourselves in his surreal choreography. Caspersen begins to step backward. As the lights dim, she fades from view. Suddenly it’s over.

Taking Its First Step Without Wheeldon, Morphoses Brings Luca Veggetti’s Bacchae to the Joyce Theater

This year marks the start of a new chapter for Morphoses, the company founded in 2007 by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Lourdes Lopez. After Wheeldon stepped down last year, Lopez opted for a new collaborative model: She would invite a new resident artistic director each year to choreograph a work on her dancers. The first of these guest directors is Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti, whose Bacchae — a 50-minute abstraction of Greek drama — was given its world premiere by Morphoses at the Joyce Theater this week. The cast of 11 should be commended for their focused performances, but Veggetti’s choreography mostly bores, and the staging is pretentious and overwrought. It makes the myth less mythic.

For a company founded on ballet, Morphoses dances surprisingly little of it in Bacchae. There are few classical steps — an occasional pirouette or arabesque — but the ensemble choreography is drawn largely from martial arts. The arms are used often and fluidly. The dancing is often undeniably attractive — at times even mesmerizing, especially when the cast seamlessly moves in and out of patterned formations — but it becomes repetitive and says little. (Frances Chiaverina fares better in her solo, manipulating time and making every strange step matter. Her subversive duet with Adrian Danchig-Waring, in which she turns and carries him, also holds an odd allure.) At other times, the choreography becomes downright grating, such as when four women swing bamboo rods into the air and slam them into the stage. (The resulting sound was so sharp and invasive, I kept involuntarily flinching and closing my eyes.)

More puzzling, there are few indications that The Bacchae — the Euridipean tragedy about Pentheus’ death at the hands of his mother, Agave, whom Dionysus drove mad — has inspired the choreography. (That could be forgiven, naturally, if there were evidence of any real inspiration.) Martha Graham reportedly once told Paul Taylor, “The abstraction of an orange is orange juice.” Watching Bacchae, we struggle to taste the orange. Not until the final seconds, when Chiaverina (presumably Pentheus) steps ominously toward the others (the Bacchic worshipers) and the stages goes black, are we able to make a clear connection.

If Bacchae‘s choreography is bland and vague, its staging is what sinks it. Some of it’s empty affect: At the center of the stage sits an illuminated platform, and black curtains line the sides of the stage, shimmering as if in a breeze. Why? Because it’s pretty, I suppose. Veggetti attempts to incorporate text, as well, but it only confuses the drama further and adds another layer of pretension. The dancers take turns standing in the theater’s aisles to recite cryptic combinations of words (“mountain … seduction”), and an invisible woman recites an equally cryptic and pointless phrases with the aim of frightening us. (Instead, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to the voiceover in “Thriller.”)

More than ever, I regret not having seen Morphoses in its earlier seasons, when it was performing Wheeldon’s choreography at New York City Center. It’s understandable — and admirable — for the company to take risks when embarking on a new journey without Wheeldon. However, I sincerely hope that the company’s next risk — under incoming resident artistic director Pontus Lidberg — pays off. As much for its sake as for ours.

On a Small Stage, Big Lessons about Balanchine: Suzanne Farrell Ballet’s New York Debut at the Joyce Theater

When presenting a ballet company to New York for the first time, it takes courage to mount an all-Balanchine program that includes Agon and the pas de deux from Diamonds. It’s even more brazen — financial considerations aside — to transpose Balanchine’s choreography to the Joyce Theater’s diminutive stage, and to have his musical ballets danced not to the usual live orchestra but taped recordings.

Yet these were the obstacles happily met by the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the Kennedy Center-based company founded a decade ago by Balanchine’s last great muse. Whether you consider their experiment a success hinges on your expectations. If you hoped for an experience like one you’d have at Lincoln Center, I’m sure you were disappointed. If you were open to learning about Balanchine and glimpsing two seldom-seen ballets (Haieff Divertimiento and Meditation) — and didn’t mind a few falls — the Joyce was the place to be.

Haieff Divertimiento premiered in January 1947, less than two months after The Four Temperaments. I hadn’t seen it before, and for good reason: It hasn’t been performed regularly here since the 1950s. I’m not sure why, since it’s a real gem: sweet, energetic, and engrossing. It moves between exuberance and introspection, following four happy couples and a lonely man who finds his own mate. Balanchine was often encouraged to revive the ballet but refused, claiming he’d forgotten it. (He said that even if he could remember it, he’d never remount it because every step had been used in other works.) Haieff is more unique than its creator would have you believe; the pas de deux, in particular, brims with simple innovation. Supported by her cavalier, the ballerina stands on point and, with her working leg, repeats an elevated rond de jambe, caressing the air behind her. The couple later faces each other with outstretched arms to create a rigid cocoon, opening and closing their fists on the beat while the woman bourrées in place. Kirk Henning and Courtney Anderson had excellent chemistry as the leading couple. There were more than a few missteps in Haieff from the soloists on Thursday, but by Saturday the quality of dancing — and the dancers’ spirits — had noticeably lifted.

Agon, on the other hand, was a ballet I thought I knew. (Correction: I didn’t.) The tension in Farrell’s dancers — particularly the men — is put to good use here, capturing Agon‘s nervous, precarious mood. (Nowhere is this clearer than in the pas de deux. As Momchil Mladenov lies flat on the ground pivoting Elisabeth Holowchuk while she stands on point in arabesque penchée, we want to cover our eyes, so close does she seem to falling.) Farrell’s dancers don’t have the technique required to show the full extent of Agon‘s formal beauty, but they work wonders in revealing its complex and bizarre musicality. Their timing differs from what you see at New York City Ballet. I think it’s better, even. The women’s claps in the “Gailliarde” are loud and aggressive. The sudden changes in rhythm are seismic. This Agon pulses with energy, alternatively frightening, funny, and sexy. It’s now easier than ever for me to recall the steps.

Sandwiched between these ballets were two vastly different works both set to Tchaikovsky. Meditation, a 1963 ballet choreographed on Farrell and Jacques d’Amboise to the first movement of Souvenir d’un Lieu Cher, is a study in grief. A man buries his head in his hands in mourning as a mysterious woman with her hair down emerges from the wings and forces him to chase her. Their partnering is marked by the off-balance turns Farrell made so moving, and Holowchuk and Courtney Anderson throw themselves into the woman’s role with exciting abandon. Far less successful was the pas de deux from Diamonds, which was dwarfed almost beyond recognition by the small stage. When the couple enters from opposite corners, they should seem isolated from one another and the audience. Instead, they met with a few easy strides. The more obvious obstacle is that Violeta Angelova doesn’t have the strength or line to pull off the ballerina role. (Few dancers do, in her defense.) She wobbled endlessly on Thursday and often appeared to be in anguish. She was replaced Saturday by Heather Ogden, a guest artist from the National Ballet of Canada.

There have been grumblings (some from established critics) that the Farrell Ballet wasn’t ready for this New York season. I understand that opinion — I’ve admittedly never seen more missteps in a ballet performance — but I’m very glad they came. “Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery,” Martha Graham once famously said, and that was happening almost constantly at the Joyce for both the company and its audience. In her selection of the program, Farrell honors Balanchine’s legacy and gives us ample food for thought. (Agon continues to haunt me, and I lament that I won’t see Haieff again anytime soon.) Even to a relative novice like myself, her gifts as a teacher and interpreter of Balanchine are clear, and it was a pleasure to look on as her dancers unlocked his magic. To watch them was a privilege and a thrill.

Smoke & Mirrors at BAM: Beijing Dance Theater Presents the U.S. Premiere of Wang Yuanyuan’s Haze

Superficial beauty abounds in Haze, Wang Yuanyuan’s new work for the Beijing Dance Theater that had its U.S. premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival this week. There’s the spare but evocative set design by Tan Shaoyuan, with its billows of smoke, floating lanterns, and textured backdrops, which are all complemented tastefully by Han Jiang’s lighting design. You also have the score, which combines music by Henryk Górecki and the Norwegian musician Biosphere to produce a dramatic mood that’s both traditional and contemporary. And then there are the talented dancers, who give a marathon performance that combines elegance, athleticism, and conviction.

Haze has many strengths, but interesting steps, alas, are not among them. Perhaps most famous to Western audiences for designing the opening ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Wang claims Haze “addresses the unsettling effects of recent economic and environmental crises” in China, yet the sleek choreography is almost entirely devoid of humanity. Haze — which is divided into three all-too-literal depictions of “Light,” “City,” and “Shore” — aims to explore the uncertainty of our times, but it’s the choreography’s purpose that ultimately seems most uncertain.

The most glaring problem is a reliance on a misused — and overused — device: The stage is covered with thick sponge mats intended to throw the dancers off balance, heightening the sense of uncertainty. It’s an intriguing idea, but in practice the 17 dancers never once come close to achieving the desired effect. They seem utterly self-assured, moving with razor-sharp precision and dancing in unison with little difficulty, so the mats are rendered an empty gimmick. It’s a tired gimmick, too. Yes, it’s striking when, in the first five minutes of the piece, three women fall backwards into the foam in a self-sacrificial gesture, but after 70 minutes — and what feels like at least 200 identical falls — any meaningful effect is lost. And when the men’s take their biggest leaps, the mats make it seem as though we’re spectators at a gymnastics competition.

The most powerful moments in the choreography — indeed, the only powerful moments — are those that appear to embrace chance. At the first chapter’s end, a cluster of men and women bask in a single spotlight, jumping at different times to pull themselves closer to its warmth. For the first time, the dancers are vulnerable and individual, finally freed from slick geometries and boilerplate steps. Later, in the second chapter, they all play a game of tag. (Paradoxically, in this version of the game, being “it” seems preferable. Everyone else is frozen in place: lifeless and trapped.) Still, when taken together, these passages fail to make a strong statement about contemporary affairs, or anything else.

Haze wisely ends with its most stunning image: The dancers, staggered through the stage, stand still while basking in a pure white light, gazing hopefully into the sky as a heavy snow falls. (Or is it ash? Smoke continues to billow from behind.) It’s one of many moments in the performance that becomes etched in the memory, but its beauty has nothing to do with time, movement, or storytelling; in other words, it has nothing to do with dance. Wang’s collaborators deserve credit for their contributions, to be sure, but Haze lacks a heart. Its staging is smoke — literally and figuratively — and mirrors.