I have no doubt that City Center’s annual Fall for Dance Festival—with its enticing ticket prices (all seats $10) and mixed-bill programs—lures many people to check out live companies they mightn’t otherwise bother with. The two-week feast also makes the array of works available to those who fell for dance long ago but may not have deep pockets. The atmosphere in the theater and in the pass-through gallery to 56th Street before and after the show is hot and happy.

Programming the 20 groups from the U.S. and abroad must have been a ticklish business. Balance, contrast, companies’ schedules, and who knows what else had to be considered. The opening night offered a typical mix: a New York premiere by a master choreographer (Merce Cunningham’s 2007 XOVER), a piece by a gifted up-and-comer (Andrea Miller’s 2008 I Can See Myself in Your Pupil), an example of another country’s traditional style (Odissi expert Madhavi Mudgal’s Vistaar), and an iconic contemporary work performed by a top-notch company (Miami City Ballet’s production of Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section” from her 1982 The Catherine Wheel).

XOVER is Cunningham’s next-to-last work, and to see it after his 2009 death for the first time reminds us that when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company is dissolved, as decreed, after its two-year Legacy Tour ends, we will no longer see his dancers performing the pieces he made on them. Who in the theater on opening night didn’t feel that wrench?

The Miami City Ballet in Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section”
Alexandre Dufour
The Miami City Ballet in Twyla Tharp’s “The Golden Section”

Details

Fall for Dance Festival
City Center
September 28 through October 9

I don’t want to make too much of this, but there may be reasons why Cunningham chose his tricky title, instead of calling the dance Crossover. We can’t know what was on his mind (he’d rather we didn’t anyway), and certainly the work is rife with dancers crossing the stage from time to time like hustling city pedestrians who just happen to know a lot more interesting steps than we do.

Much of the time, you see only four performers onstage, working fairly close together, even though the cast numbers 13. Quartets are the starring structure—sometimes broken into two duets—and people keep replacing one another in them. It’s as if there’s an invisible, revolving X hovering just above the stage floor, with a dancer always anchoring a corner. I can visualize the long duet danced by Julie Cunningham and Daniel Madoff, with its beautiful and ingenious counterbalances, as a series of three-dimensional, interlocking crosses.

All Cunningham’s superb dancers are volatile in terms of speed and the particularly Cunninghamesque spatial awareness that gives them the look of sleek animals—ready to charge or flee in less than a second. But their deep lunges and high tiptoe strides, their flashing legs, and even their oddly canting, twisting torsos have a calm precision. They need it to navigate this world. XOVER reunited Cunningham with contributions by two of his first collaborators, Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage. Rauschenberg was still alive to supervise the transition of his striking red, white, and black art work to a backcloth and to decree plain white unitards to set it off. Cage, Cunningham’s seminal music director and longtime companion, died in 1992.

And it’s the melding of Cage’s Fontana Mix (rendered by David Behrman, John King, and Takehisa Kosugi) with the composer’s Aria, delivered by Joan La Barbara, that creates an atmosphere suggestive of the Tower of Babel toppling amid shards of language. La Barbara is a phenomenon. Her voice creaks, caws, laughs, floats into melody, spits phrases out into the shifting rumble that the other musicians are building. The dancers smile at times. Who’s afraid of such a witty sorceress? Even though she’s temporarily presiding over a company whose lifespan is now limited.

Cunningham’s swift, serene angels yield to the eight members of Miller’s Gallim Dance in her adaptable I Can See Myself in Your Pupil (the 15-minute version). Nothing calm about these dancers. Or elongated in terms of straight legs and pointy toes. As the title announces, the performers are interested in what the myriad spectator eyes are reflecting back at them. In their wild, raggedy finery, to the music of Balkan Beat Box, they charm us, then stop to check the effect they’re having. They work low to the ground, stamp, stagger, stumble, fall, and throw themselves around with beguiling fervor. Like Paula Alonso in Miller’s Wonderland (seen in August at the Joyce), Troy Ogilvie shows off with excruciating attempts to walk in a backbend or hop along in a squat, yanking herself forward by one leg. Her act is both hilarious and alarming; in the end, she collapses in a tangle, as if her limbs were melting.

The ambiance is not just of a show but of a folk-dance fest gone awry. The women lip- synch (or maybe really sing) the words the Israeli group is shouting out. Two men swing tall Caroline Fermin back and forth, each grabbing one of her arms and one leg. Francesca Romo and Andrew Murdock court and squabble lustily.

Miller seems to love creating images of fierce abandon and ungainliness within order, and to make us both laugh and sympathize with the dogged, stumblebum performers—all the while relishing them as the virtuosos that they are.

I regret not ever having seen Mudgal, a noted exponent of India’s Odissi form, in a substantial solo. She is featured only briefly in Vistaar, melting back into her ensemble of four finely trained women. Accompanied by six musicians (flute, sitar, percussion, and vocals), the women move through the lissome, seductive poses of the style, sinking into the sensuous songs, or stamping and flashing their limbs and glances to the rhythmic chanted syllable.

The steps are traditional, but Mudgal’s simple group choreography is not. The women may move one at a time, then stop. One of them begins to travel in a curving path amid her motionless colleagues; each, as she passes, joins the line until all are snaking through the space. The effect is of lovely temple statues coming to temporary life.

Miami City Ballet, directed by ex New York City Ballet principal Edward Villella, is an adventurous company whose members are beautifully coached in the Balanchine works that form the bedrock of the repertory, yet game up for any challenge. “The Golden Section” asks a lot of them. Yes, they must be able to bring off multiple pirouettes and soaring leaps and fast, exacting footwork. But often these erupt out of nowhere or twist in unfamiliar ways. Women approach being lifted by their partners like pole vaulters racing toward the barrier. When David Byrne’s epochal score begins, and the curtain opens on Santo Loquasto’s gold silk rainstorm of a backdrop, shimmering in Jennifer Tipton’s radiant lighting (re-created by John Hall), you wonder, can these dancers conquer this dance?

It’s not a certainty. Patricia Delgado, the first on stage, is, like most of the women in the company, a skinny little thing. Giving her best to the rough-edged athleticism with which Tharp both masks and magnifies finesse, Delgado looks at the outset like a rambunctious 11-year-old, spiky and quick-witted, trying to stay on top of bronco choreography.

There are two things to be overcome by anyone who saw this dazzling piece of work danced by Tharp’s own company as a finale to her 1992 The Catherine Wheel. “The Golden Section” can never have quite the impact it had when the squabbling, imperfect characters who peopled The Catherine Wheel reappeared, garbed in gold and transmuted by the power of their dancing into heroes, into angels. I wept back then with the exhilaration of it. And so did many others. The other stumbling block is that no dancers can better—and few can achieve—the juicy power and dynamic complexity that Tharp’s company of those years projected. Still, the dazzling choreography takes no prisoners among the valiant. Nor does the music. The build is inexorable. The stage heats up. Sweat gleams. “Oh, what a day that was!” sings Byrne. And Miami’s golden dancers ride to victory.

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