Stereotypes: Dissected and Assembled.

by Leigh Witchel

The closing program for Fall For Dance went according to formula: except adding a big name commission to the mix of modern and classical.  It included several dances that reinforced the formula, as well as one that picked it apart.

David Hallberg’s return to the stage has been an extended celebration and Mark Morris got in on it. Like many dancers after a long injury, Hallberg has returned changed: still a danseur noble, but one with a drier sense of humor. He’s a one-man lesson in style, and Morris both explored and punctured that in “Twelve of ‘em,” an extended solo to Britten’s molecular “Twelve Variations for Piano.”

Mark Morris is not a subtle man, and the clues that we were in for a tweaking were all there: the pianist, Colin Fowler, in a hoodie, butt spread out before us on his piano stool, a takeout coffee cup on the piano. But the work began in silence with Hallberg in a perfect fifth position. Isaac Mizrahi dressed Hallberg in a riff on Sophie Fedorovitch’s designs for Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations,” the off-the-shoulder tunic, only with a plain gray shirt under the white cloth. And Hallberg wiped his face on it in between variations.

Colin Fowler and David Hallberg in “Twelve of ‘em” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

The pianist played the first brief variation, and on the end of the phrase, Hallberg bowed to us, tendu front, head down to the floor, as in “Symphonic” his palms flat as spatulas. And then we discovered the end of the phrase was also the end of the variation, as they all stopped abruptly.

The next variation was a cascade of notes to which Hallberg moved terre à terre. For the following he ran with tight high side to side steps as if he were pacing through tires in an obstacle course, and so on, in a mix of what a great male dancer would do onstage and what he might do as a joke. There was more than a hint of irony throughout. As usual, Morris thought he was funnier than he was.

But Morris is as smart as he thinks he is (or at least smart enough), and his dissection of the music probed into ballet’s conventions. The work closed with a final diminuendo and a repeat of Hallberg’s opening tendu pose with his head bowed: offering part of himself and hiding another.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “Solo Echo.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

“Solo Echo,” the Crystal Pite work Hubbard Street Dance Chicago brought, was chock-full of contemporary stereotypes: First to mind, a duet where one person stopped another by putting his hand on her forehead. Second, snow. It’s one of the most reliably beautiful stage effects there is, but it’s becoming as predictably overused as setting a dance to Arvo Pärt. Don’t hate the snow, hate the choreographer.

And the choreography. Pite’s vocabulary is why dancers love her work. The phrases roll down to the floor and back up, the dancer is in constant motion in long phrases. It’s nonstop, circular, fluid – it has to feel great down to your sinews to do it. It’s also uninflected, like a choreographic lava lamp that oozes at the same tempo for hours. Move, roll, up, circle torso, down, circle body, roll. There were so many circles in “Solo Echo” you wished for a straight line. After a while, it was as repetitive and numbing as a snowfall.

Originally made in 2012 for Nederlands Dans Theater, the work was mostly to melancholy Brahms cello music, but opened in silence. It’s not subtle, nor always musically sensitive – a guy duckwalked to the Brahms. The advance billing is of “Solo Echo” says that it’s about “a dying man [. . .] left alone to reckon with his life—alone except for seven different echoes of himself, danced by seven different dancers.”

Good luck on getting that from watching. Pite has trouble getting what’s in her head on to the stage. There are hints (people drop to the ground) but you’d need supertitles. If those were seven different aspects of a man, with Pite’s lava lamp vocabulary, they all seemed alike

The second movement had more snow and all seven dancers formed a snake that pivoted and curled, rearranged and reformed – yet more damned curlicues and circles. Everyone ran, grappled, and raced, often one against the group, until the snake reformed and one by one the dancers slipped through the next person’s hands to collapse and back out until the last person was left crumpled.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in “Solo Echo.” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

Helgi Tomasson’s “Concerto Grosso” is as clogged with ballet stereotypes as “Solo Echo” is with contemporary ones. But I have a better ability to parse and differentiate them. Premiered in 2003, Tomasson’s utility piece was constructed to show off a quintet of his up-and-coming men.

Everyone got his moment. Esteban Hernandez, at the center in red, did repeated chains of turns. Lonnie Weeks sprung into jumps; new soloist Max Cauthorn ran skittering on the diagonal. Wei Wang unfolded skywards in a repeated inside turn and Diego Cruz chained through elegant turns with the smoothest attack.

“Concerto Grosso” is a mix of flash and style, and it comes off better when there’s more style than flash. This group, maybe because of the travel, did not always finish the phrases with ease and strained to make the line. It looked hard and exposing – which it is, but we weren’t supposed to notice.

Wei Wang, Lonnie Weeks, Esteban Hernandez, Diego Cruz and Max Cauthorn in “Concerto Grosso” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

And the final stereotype of the festival – the big closer. Danza Contemporanea de Cuba brought George Céspedes’ “Matria Etnocentra,” which ended the evening with a pounding hammer of a bang, and plenty of martial clichés. Twenty four dancers in t-shirts, fatigues and combat boots stood in silence in a tight formation. Twenty three ran away, leaving one to do a solo. Thudding, portentous music by Nacional Electrónica started. A pair of dancers walked on, stood facing us, and walked off. This repeated and built to threes. The group gathered and marched with their arms held defensively in front of them.

The whole thing proceeded with thudding aggression for movement after movement, adding merengue and capoiera partnering, but mostly feeling like precise military exercises designed to intimidate an opponent. In the final movement the cast changed from white to shirts in vibrant red, white and blue shirts – the colors of the Cuban flag, and ours as well. It was thrilling and threatening, and that stereotype of the corps as a proud, nationalistic army probably said the most about the current mood of the world right now.

Copyright ©2017 by Leigh Witchel

Fall for Dance Program 5
New York City Center, New York, NY
October 13, 2017

Cover: Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in “Matria Etnocentra” Photo © Stephanie Berger.

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