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.