The Decade's Best Dance

Gordon, Rudner, Monk, and more—remembering the finest work of the past 10 years

Remember Y2K? Some people feared that computers worldwide would crash when confronted with the millennial change from 1999 to 2000. But the crash that did change everything happened a year and nine months later, and we've been in an intricate dance ever since with terrorism, torture, greed, and misinformation. As of January 2009, faint hope slipped in on the arm of Barack Obama.

In the prevailing, corrosive climate of uncertainty and double-think, to hold forth about the best dances of the decade seems like hubris. I can't prophesy what monuments will stand or who belongs in the pantheon of all-time great artists. I can only recall what dance experiences have delighted, amused, stimulated, or moved me most strongly—the ones that have lodged, still resonating, in my memory.

Among these is Borrowed Light by Tero Saarinen, who honored his wintry Finnish heritage and the spiritual life of American Shakers in a shimmering weave of dancing, live singing, light, and shadows—especially powerful in the piece's 2007 pre-BAM performances in the wooden barn theater at Jacob's Pillow. When I think of juicy, bone-deep dancing, I also flash back to that spring, when I sat in a huge studio at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (a fine contribution to the decade) drinking in the sight of 16 fascinating women laying out Sara Rudner's four-hour Dancing-on-View (Preview/Hindsight). Ohad Naharin's fervent, movement-rich, profoundly humane Mamootot—performed here in 2005 by members of his Israel-based Batsheva Dance Company—enthralled the spectators seated on two sides of the huge studio in the Mark Morris Dance Center. Morris's own V (2001), to Robert Schumann's Quintet in E-flat, remains a stunning example of this prolific choreographer's imaginative musicality. And, speaking of musicality, Savion Glover has shown us what creative daring and two feet can do to bring subtlety to tap virtuosity.

A Finn meets the Shakers: Tero Saarinen's Borrowed Light
Jack Vartoogian
A Finn meets the Shakers: Tero Saarinen's Borrowed Light

Alexei Ratmansky's Russian Seasons for New York City Ballet in 2006 thrilled Gotham's balletomanes. Who'd have guessed then that this director of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet—who had also performed with the Royal Danish Ballet and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—would turn out to have such an original vision of dance and such a gift for presenting dancers as part of a community? And that he'd stick around?

As soon as the curtain came down on Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out (2002), I wanted to see it again, preferably right away. It's not often that such heroic, soul-satisfying dancing erupts on Broadway (Billy Joel must have thought he'd died and gone to heaven). And here's a small-scale downtown work to fall in love with: Fräulein Maria, Doug Elkins's sweet, hilarious, beautifully constructed 2006 take on The Sound of Music (it just ended what's become an annual Christmas run).

Some performances have honored and illuminated dance's history. Two one-time-only events left imprints on this city in very particular ways. One was Meredith Monk's Ascension Variations. Last March, Monk and her singer-dancers and instrumentalists—their music resonating across the ramps and in the lobby of the Guggenheim Museum—wove images from the epic first part of her Juice (presented there in 1969) into her 2008 Songs of Ascension. The other event was the hours-long, free memorial for Merce Cunningham (who, with Pina Bausch, was one of dance's great losses this year). In the vast Park Avenue Armory, musicians and dancers, past and present, performed excerpts from his works in a glorious three-ring circus, while thousands of mourner-celebrants strolled and embraced and watched, marveling.

In Copenhagen in 2005, hundreds of critics and historians swelled the audience for the third week-long Bournonville Festival to see the handful of still-existing ballets among the many created by August Bournonville in the 19th century (the city was honoring the joint centennial of Bournonville and his chum, Hans Christian Andersen). Despite some updating of these ballets, the perfume of Romanticism still clings to them, especially when you experience them in the city that spawned them, performed by artistic descendants of dancers in Bournonville's home company, the Royal Danish Ballet.

Less ephemeral was the release here of Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller's marvelous 2005 film Ballets Russes (now on DVD), one of the best—maybe the best—dance documentary of its kind. It's packed with archival footage of great performances by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which regularly toured this country from 1935 until its demise in 1948, as well as with appearances by a host of its former stars, including Frederic Franklin, Irina Baronova, Nathalie Krassovska, and Tatiana Riabouchinska—many of them still sprightly, and all of them with delicious tales to tell.

Three works tackled political issues with particular power. David Gordon's 2004 Dancing Henry V brilliantly twisted together Shakespeare's hawkish play and the moral dilemma into which George W. Bush's Mid-East agenda had landed us. In 2008, Montclair State University's Peak Performances (an admirable series developed in this decade) sponsored the only East Coast performances of the U.K.'s DV8 Physical Theater in Lloyd Newson's To Be Straight With You, a hair-raising dissection of anti-gay violence in supposedly tolerant Britain and among cultures that criminalize homosexuality. Bill T. Jones's stunning 2005 Blind Date premiered at Peak Performances in the wake of the 2004 election—probing, among other things, the evils done in the name of religion.

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