by Martha Sherman
When City Center opens its “Fall for Dance” cornucopia each September, the dance season has begun. The format has become routine – large and small pieces, classic and more contemporary work, and always some international work in the mix. The festival hasn’t gotten any more daring, but it continues to bring high-quality work to a broad, diverse audience. It also continues to commission new work – and anywhere that happens in this resource-starved field, it’s a good thing. Production values improve every season, with Program 1’s live music a highlight.
The first program of five on offer this season included one energized world premiere, a Fall for Dance commission by Michelle Dorrance, and a winning solo by South African dancer/choreographer Vincent Mantsoe. The Trisha Brown Dance Company offered a Brown duet in tribute to the choreographer, who died earlier this year. Miami City Ballet opened the program and season, swapping out an FFD commission by Troy Schumacher (that was, apparently, not ready to be seen) for a well-known staple of MCB’s repertoire, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia.”
The gorgeous Ligeti score of “Polyphonia” was played live by pianist Francisco Rennó. The work, Wheeldon’s breakthrough as a choreographer, is both beautiful and familiar. In its ten lush dance movements, the accomplished dancers easily moved through the energized pairs and groupings with their customary precision. Through high, controlled arabesque turns, the ballerinas sunk to a bended knee, then straightened with deceptive strength.
Wheeldon’s unusual lifts and pairings were first seen in this work and remain interesting. In an pairing early on in the work, Tricia Albertson flew into Reyneris Reyes’ arms. He grabbed her at waist height, her legs fluttering from her prone body as if swimming lightly through the air. Both lay on the floor, as Reyes lifted her from his back, and her legs split: a moment of underwater ballet as seen in the open air. Wheeldon’s early work sits well on this distinctly musical troupe. In one of the movements, the music popped like joints colliding, and the dancers’ knees and hips made the music tangible, before their hands climbed up their waists to re-exert some control. “Polyphonia,” easy on the eyes and ears, and danced by pros, was as safe a bet to open the show and the season as a curator could make.
Mantsoe’s solo, “GULA,” started with a whistling bird call offstage, and the whistling and clicking of the bird sounds he produced were his score for much of the solo. Projecting those sounds up to the top balcony at City Center was only a small part of his skill; the rest was the differentiation in his shifting shoulders and back muscles and his expressive neck and head moved at a frenetic, energized pace. His body moved in long, crooked strides when he chose, whistling all the while – the control of breath and muscle were masterful. A shaft of light from above was like daybreak illuminating the jungle darkness of the stage before Mantsoe’s deliberate recession, slowly unwinding himself, like a bird wandering off into the forest.
It took a few minutes of watching Trisha Brown’s 1995 duet “You can see us” to realize that one of the dancers (Cecily Campbell) is actually unseen, her back to the audience for the entire performance. The duet started as Brown’s 1994 solo, “If you couldn’t see me” – with Campbell dancing Brown’s original part, never turning around. The addition of the second dancer (Jaime Scott) in parallel, shifted the audience’s perspective, rounding the seen and unseen, seeing all of the dance, no side unhidden. The movements themselves, typical of Brown, were not extravagant, but were beautiful in their detail and precision. Each squat, swinging arm, or flexed foot was offered in parallel, the front and the back, moving in easy circles and mirrored frames. This loving, simple tribute to Brown,suggested that there was more than one side to the iconic choreographer.
The most compelling work was saved for last. Dorrance, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and Bessie award-winning choreographer/performer, packed a wallop in the world premiere of “Myelination.” Crediting two additional choreographers, Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Matthew “Megawatt” West, the piece jagged from one style to another. Sometimes it focused on silky movement and bodies sliding up and down from the floor in knee-bent hip-hop street spins, sometimes on the wildly frenetic rhythm and cacophony of rapid toe-tapping, accompanied by claps and punches. This was a tap extravaganza, laced with both hip-hop and drama, Dorrance’s specialty combination. She is the foremost exponent of this shifting, hybrid style, a tiny motor of a dancer who commands the crowd.
The solos and duets weren’t linked, but offered a variety show of possibilities, and the excitement in the audience was as much about those surprises as about the technical virtuosity of the group. Each scene was rife with personality, and sometimes stories – a little soft-shoe romance, a competitive neighborhood duel or the inner explorations of personal challenge and stretch. The terrific onstage band shifted and layered the rhythms to accompany whatever was required, with music by PRAWN TIL DANTE, Donovan Dorrance (Michelle’s brother ) and Gregory Richardson. By the close, the diverse troupe was one, all the personalities and stories wrapped into a driving, pounding explosion of sound and movement. Sure, FFD programs usually end in a raucous finale, but like any good yet familiar recipe, if the ingredients are of high quality, the outcome can be delicious.
Copyright ©2017 by Martha Sherman
Fall for Dance Program 1
New York City Center, New York, NY
October 2, 2017
Cover: Dorrance Dance Company (with Gregory Richardson, Bass) in “Myelination.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.
City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival runs through October 14.
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