Here’s what you can get for $60 besides a medium-fancy dinner for two or a saucy haircut: six performances featuring 28 dance companies from around the world. This is the fifth year that the Fall for Dance Festival has priced every seat in the house at $10, and the box-office line stretches up the block. Before and after each performance and during intermission, you can meet your friends, drink, and nosh in the adjoining atrium. Why would any serious aficionado hesitate?
In the packed house on last week’s first night, I settle in for a typically variegated bill: two familiar New York–based companies, a group from Thailand with a world premiere, and 12 men from the National Ballet of Canada. Each section of Shen Wei’s Map (2005) charts the several ways a movement principle can be presented and developed. The resulting designs are far more orderly than the array of chalked and partly rubbed-out ones on Shen’s blackboard backdrop (the choreographer is also a skilled painter). In the first excerpt, “Rotation Map,” the 14 fine dancers, dressed in pants and T-shirts, roll in canonic patterns across the floor, making visible the tides of Steve Reich’s The Desert Music. Another section is all about easy bouncing, thrusting the pelvis forward and back. In still another, “Internal Isolations,” dancers stand clustered, their backs to us, letting visceral sensations sneak out through their shoulders or spines, causing them to shift and ripple. I’m enjoying these excerpts more than I enjoyed the full-length work three years ago. Shen is especially adroit at popping individuals out of the throng and at showing how a sequence builds and changes as people join it or drop away.
Some New Yorkers may remember Pichet Klunchun from French choreographer Jérôme Bel’s wonderful Pichet Klunchun and Myself at Dance Theater Workshop last year. In that cross-cultural dialogue in words and movements, we learned how Klunchun tries to balance a present-day sensibility with his reverence for Khon, the classical dance-drama of Thailand, a style in which he is a master. Very, very slowly, four women enter his Chui Chai from either side of the stage to join two others already there. As they step, lifting one knee and placing the foot down with soft precision, their hands create flowers in the air. In their golden clothing, they look like temple statues come to life, their heads tilting slightly to the side as if from the weight of their tall crowns. But they move like ships, sailing over the waves of Sinnapa Sarasas’s music for percussion and nasal flute. Even before they finally reach their separate pools of light, their shimmering costumes cast firefly reflections around the theater. Exiting, they weave rapid gliding steps around Klunchun, who walks on as if following a dream. He’s wearing dark pants and a T-shirt, but he executes with deep, serene concentration the beautiful movements of the one remaining woman. When she leaves, his movement becomes looser, following more adventurous paths through his body. Yet, as the women process across the back of the stage and out of sight, he joins their line, tracking tradition—honoring it—even as he seeks to venture from it.
Fire, from Larry Keigwin’s Elements, seems tighter and more pointed than when the full-evening work debuted this past summer. The FFD audience loves it, and I love it. Keigwin gets better all the time at treading the fine line between loveliness and wit—both of which are enhanced by his very musical phrasing. He can go from bright steps and tacky “flame” gestures—set to Handel’s glorious countertenor aria, “Al Lampo dell’armi,” and energetically performed by a trio in circusy outfits—and then clump Jenn Freeman, Nicole Wolcott, and Julian Barnett in front of an imaginary bathroom mirror, unhappily examining their morning faces to a Chopin nocturne. Wolcott thrashes and preens desperately while Patsy Cline sings Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” and to cap it off, all three dance to “Walk It Out” (so big on YouTube that even the Teletubbies take it on). The dancers project plenty of hip-hop attitude (Barnett is a sulky riot), but slyly, Keigwin has shaped and rhythmed the steps with style and panache.
The evening ends on a darker, more heroic note. A dozen men in semi-uniform march and fall to Bohuslav Martinuo ‘s powerful Military Mass. Jiri Kylián’s 1980 Soldiers’ Mass is at its best in the canonic maneuvers that express not only attack and retreat but frighteningly formalize falling and dying. Individual fears and misgivings—like those expressed by Zdenek Konvalina, one of several soloists—seep from the drills but always return to them. The men of the National Ballet of Canada don’t present Soldiers’ Mass with the disciplined clarity of the Juilliard students who performed it so beautifully in 2007, but it chills the heart nevertheless.
The dance whirl has begun. See you around.