In New York City, it’s not just gaudy leaves that usher in autumn; it’s Fall for Dance, a bonanza for dance lovers short of cash, as well as for anyone who’d like to sample unfamiliar work from around the country and around the world. This year’s festival—the third that New York City Center President and CEO Arlene Shuler has engineered—offers 30 companies on six programs spread over 10 nights. $10 gets you in (assuming you can get in—this is a hot-ticket event).
That the shows abound in startling, even unnerving contrasts is both edifying and part of the fun. On opening night, the curtain descends on the whirl of spectacular costumes that characterizes Heaven and Earth by the Korean folkloric Yi-Jo Lim Sun Dance Company and rises a few minutes later on a empty, harshly lit stage onto which walk a plainly dressed man and woman from the Dutch National Ballet, ready to tangle in the hostilities of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Before After. Only an intermission separates the pent-up fury and political turmoil of Bill T. Jones’s 1990 Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin (excerpts) from the fluid peace of Trisha Brown’s 1983 Set and Reset, in which the only voice heard is that of Laura Anderson on tape. After that, in Matthew Neenan’s 11:11 (excerpted), members of the Pennsylvania Ballet exhibit the kind of contemporary virtuosity that Brown’s dancers shun.
Yi-Jo Lim seeks to preserve Korea’s cultural traditions, while also making us aware of movements, patterns, and devices that provide theatrical appeal. This he does with taste and skill, although his own ever-present grin (he is the leading performer) detracts from Heaven and Earth‘s more serene moments. In dancing meant as a conduit between the two titular realms, the many performers change costumes several times. Whether wielding banners, waving fans, flourishing bundles of white streamers and green branches, they turn the stage into a brightly-colored, mobile flower bed. I’m moved by the exquisite subtlety of some of the movements—the little upward flicks of the dancers’ hands, the way they rise and settle into their soft-footed steps as if gentle breathing were impelling everything they do.
The most arresting thing about Ochoa’s duet to a score by Mark van Roon is the quiet, dramatically charged suppleness of Julie Gardette and François Rousseau. I’m not referring just to their limber bodies, but to their responsiveness to changes in the emotional weather. The choreographer delineates the last moments of a relationship via uncomfortable physical encounters, although occasionally she includes a movement that seems more for display: Rousseau kicks Gardette where she lies on the floor, then flies into a gorgeous leap. Anyone who didn’t see Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin /The Promised Land at its three-hour BAM debut 16 years ago might be puzzled by the wriggling, hoarse-voiced lineup of company dancers past and present. Garbed in black tees, buttocks-bearing trunks, and muzzles, they stomp while executing fierce gestures that do—and don’t—match the numbers shouted out by Jones and Andrea Smith. In Jones’s original take on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Civil-War-era novel, those marchers were the dogs pursuing the runaway slave Eliza. Here, they could be soldiers following senseless commands. In the Last Supper scene, while the horns of Julius Hemphill’s Sextet resound, numbers are again shouted, and seated cast members build an accumulating sequence of gestures as they travel along a line of chairs. Erick Montes dances naked on the table and is caught as he falls into a crucifixion pose. Finally, Jones delivers to the back wall a raging, ironic sermon that trounces, however, obliquely, the state of our government and society.
Trisha Brown is not a trouncer. What she provides is a model for the kind of community we’d like to live in, although it rarely stays still. Set and Reset dates from the period when Brown was making what she calls “unstable molecular structures.” After Robert Rauschenberg’s set (a huge cube and two tepees with enigmatic black-and-white videos of city life sliding across them) rises to hang overhead, and Anderson’s music bursts in, the stage becomes a place of tranquil, yet daringly shared visions. Melinda Myers flashes into movement close to the wings; you barely see her before she’s gone. But centerstage, Sandra Grinberg and Leah Morrison echo her, stitching her dancing into their own designs. Your gaze has to fly around to catch all the silky, delectable correspondences, the fluidity with which movement courses through the splendid performers’ bodies, and the startling ways in which near collisions are deflected.
Rufus Wainwright’s gently weird songs, heard on tape, inspired Matthew Neenan to create a breezy, frolicsome dance for a large cast of Pennsylvania Ballet dancers. The program includes only five sections of 11:11 (it must be very long). The women wear soft slippers and summery white dresses that catch the breeze. The choreography is pretty and smartly organized—although, as in a dance for four women to Natasha, it can be bland. Neenan matches Wainwright’s lazy-voiced wit in a few surprising ways. In Vibrate, James Ihde partners Julie Diana in ways that seem, unaccountably, to please her; he hoists this lovely, fluent, unaffected dancer and swings her legs like a bell clapper, drags her along the floor, and, in the end tosses her into the air and offstage (where more solicitous arms are on hand to catch her). Another fine dancer, Riolama Lorenzo, duets with Francis Veyette while two women sit smoking on a bench and watch. It turns out they’re her chums, just waiting for her to finish with the guy so the three of them can go for a chat. It wouldn’t be the first time life (or art) imitates Sex and the City.