Christmas Candy

Treats Wholesome and Otherwise

We know this world pierced by beams of smoky light and besieged by crashes of electronic music. Its denizens are beautiful, fierce, and obsessed with sex. Women wield legs like pincers. Usually we never find out why they're so het up; they just are. Many companies think they need at least one dance that shoots audiences this apocalyptic vision.

During its 40th-anniversary season at City Center (continuing through January 3), the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater unveils Lettres d'Amour by Redha, a French African choreographer. His imaginative decadence creates startling variations on the theme of spirito-sexual unrest. The male dancers wear long, sleeveless coatdresses over practically nothing, which gives them the air of renegade monks. Two masked men pulling at their clothing look to be mortifying the flesh. Another guy handles a woman's foot as if it were holy.

The stage is a hotbed of slow, weird activities in which your eyes may pick out, say, men lounging about like lotus-eaters, licking their arms. Everyone watches everyone else. When Bahiyah Sayyed and Benoit Swan Pouffer aren't tangling spectacularly around each other, they're staring while Lynn Barre, Matthew Rushing, and Richard Witter push their way into innovative triadic embraces, or watching Witter turn his hands into crabs and his arms into broken wings while a countertenor sings (the music ranges from Arvo Pärt and Benjamin Britten to Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors).

Doomed lovers: Glenn A. Sims hoists Linda Cáceres in the new Lettres d'Amour.
Paul Kolnik
Doomed lovers: Glenn A. Sims hoists Linda Cáceres in the new Lettres d'Amour.

Ours not to question what this doomed eroticism means. Do not ponder whether being pinned between four wheeled-in spotlights with fans attached makes Renee Robinson a martyr; admire her beauty, her blowing hair with the light shining through.

The Ailey dancers— including Linda-Denise Evans, Solange Sandy Groves, Linda Cáceres, Jeffrey Girodias, Glenn A. Sims, and Edward Franklin— perform the piece with superb sensuality and intensity. I'm puzzled, though, by the company's dancing in a squeaky-clean revival of Ailey's Streams. They're gorgeous, but don't phrase the movement or play with dynamics. You see every step separately, and it's like hearing someone play scales.

Among the annual crop of ballets about growing up amid capering candies, The Yorkville Nutcracker, in its third miniseason at the Kaye Playhouse, is a sweet and cozy specimen. Guest artists with New York City Ballet pedigrees (I saw Lourdes Lopez and Jock Soto as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier) spice up the proceedings, but choreographer Francis Patrelle also crams in scads of children from Ballet Academy East. Teensy prancing reindeer! Even tinier pages! Small toddling angels!

The party takes place at Mayor Strong's mansion in 1895 New York (Gillian Bradshaw-Smith and Rita B. Watson designed, respectively, the good sets and costumes). The guests are foreign consuls and their families, in traditional attire. The nimble dancing doll (Philip J. Spencer) brought by the magician-uncle (Donald Paradise) wears a coonskin cap. Despite a majestic Queen and King (Deborah Wingert and François Perron), the snow scene has the frosty cheer of a Currier and Ives skating party in Central Park; fashionable teens skim around and— as in Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs— a boy skater (the gifted Jonathan Porretta) spins and spins. In this family entertainment, the Nutcracker is no little girl's dream lover; he's her brother— nice at last.

Sara Bumpus and Vincent Paradiso are winsome as the siblings. Courtney Conner has a bright turn as the maid. As an Arab, Marcello Pereira bundles up his legs in convincing Nureyev-style jumps. Patrelle suits the steps to the various levels of proficiency so that everyone from kids to pros comes out a winner.

Spectators at the collegial Improvisation Festival/New York are likely to have spent the day tumbling around in contact improvisation workshops. At a Judson Church performance, Eva Karczag cools their souls. Once in Trisha Brown's company, now teaching in Holland, Karczag's both serene and wide-eyed, womanly and somehow innocent. She has honey in her joints. Folding at the hips and knees to sink floorward, she moves her haunches as plushly as a cat, yet can run like a child. Warren Burt and Chris Mann, her collaborators in de-orbit burn, enmesh her with stop-and-start taped sounds; one of them talks into a mike, high and fast and garbly. ("language is when you correct the grammar of your oppressor," advises the program.) The sounds might as well be buzzing flies Karczag's learned to cope with. Their sandpaperiness only increases her calm.

Improvising, she wraps herself in a large thought, pauses to consider, then focuses on small details, like fanning herself with one hand or shifting her weight. She's a very quiet dancer. The sounds provided by her colleagues may rouse her subtly, but only deepen her silent resonance.

Karczag's sensibility was formed during the '70s; Nicholas Leichter came of age in the '90s. Think fast, hard, deconstructive. Perhaps influenced by hip-hop or the rapid cuts of MTV, he has become interested in breaking a gesture into a series of little jerked fragments. The dancers in his new No Closer sometimes look almost robotic in their stiffness. They call up laughter or tears as if somebody's pressed a button on their bellies.

Good Cop, Bad Cop's like a wrangle between a whore and her pimp (the wonderful Clare Byrne and Leichter) seen by strobe light, complete with silent yells and staccato assaults. She's got a ratty fur coat; he appropriates it. But he's the one who ends reaching up, crying. Life plagued by cursor freeze. In his powerful Animal Leichter goes further, turning gestures and facial expressions into a flicker of non sequiturs; a nervous man on the spot, his mind runs so far ahead of his body that voluntary gestures look like hiccups. In this fascinating solo, what could become a gimmick is profoundly disturbing.

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