Fall for Dance Ends on a High

October 10, 2016

People come from near and far to obtain tickets for New York City Center’s Fall for Dance festival. They know they will see an amazing array of dance—a total of 20 stellar companies in five programs—at only $15 a pop. Even for those of us familiar with the international dance scene, there is something new every night of this two-week festival.

Last weekend wrapped up another astounding display of radically different kinds of dance. Going the psychic distance from one to the next can be like planetary travel. For example, on the last night, kuchipudi dance artist Shantala Shivalingappa, with her sharp rhythms, spiraling fingers and slapping feet, cast a peaceful spell. Then, with barely a pause, we were thrust into the world of obsessively jabbing, combative extremities and shuddering spines courtesy of Marco Goecke’s Woke Up Blind for Nederlands Dans Theater. The difference in those two worlds gives a sampling of how vast the art of dance can be.

It’s also exciting to see a choreographer who has established a certain style, one that might seem forever indelible, do something entirely different. And so it was with Witness, a world premiere choreographed by Wayne McGregor for Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo. The pairing is an obvious choice. Their partnership in Romeo and Juliet at American Ballet Theatre last June was made in heaven. And before that, in Martha Clarke’s Cheri, they shared a dangerously addictive passion.

In Witness, a Fall for Dance commission, they had the same divine rapport but were more themselves. There was even a tiny fleck of diffidence from Ferri, which somehow made the diving, trusting lifts all the more touching. McGregor’s choreography was as inventive as ever, but gone was the aggressiveness, the belligerence that sometimes turns people off. Instead these two exquisite dancers seemed to meet, entwine or surge together by chance rather than by force, surprising us with their shapes. With the spare, silence-studded piano music by Nils Frahm and the stark lighting by Clifton Taylor (inspired by the painter Agnes Martin), there was a feeling of tristesse within a very contemporary aesthetic.

Here are some other highlights:

Airslice, photo by Perron.

Elizabeth Streb’s Airslice, the only other Fall for Dance commission, elicited daredevil spirit from the dancers of STREB Extreme Action. Its giant tilting ladder had the dancers seemingly swinging and swaying from their fingertips, hanging on for dear life it. But what brought the piece into new territory was Zaire Baptiste, the “resident DJ/music producer,” who stoked the audience (“let’s make some noise”) and gave Airslice a lively rhythmic context. The dancers were jiving with readiness, and the audience, at Baptiste’s urging, unleashed cheers and gasps at STREB’s spectacular moves.

Wendy Whelan’s new project, a duet by Arthur Pita based on songs of Kurt Weill from Threepenny Opera, launches her into an entirely different role: the sexy temptress ready to kiss or kill her tango partner, Royal Ballet principal Edward Watson. In The Ballad of Mack and Ginny they are well matched; each is a unique creature onstage. Here’s what Whelan said about Watson when she was just planning their rep: “He’s smart and thoughtful and loves to try new things…I’d like to get crazy with Ed.” In Pita’s hands, they do get crazy, in the guise of these bawdy, irony-drenched characters.

Wendy Whelan & Edward Watson in The Ballad of Mack and Ginny, photo by Andrej Uspenski

Then there was Farruquito, third generation flamenco master. Although he’s an undeniably snazzy dancer, with heel work to die for, it wasn’t until his musicians got up to dance that you felt the gypsy soul of this group.

Other international fare included Cloud Gate 2 from Taiwan, Dada Masilo/The Dance Factory from South Africa, Richard Alston from London, and the Canadian Aszure Barton. Each one was mind-expanding in small and large ways. But the real expansion came from traveling the distance from the heart of one group to the heart of another.

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