New Yorkers in love with dancing flock to the annual Fall for Dance Festival, now in its sixth year, sometimes standing in line for hours to get tickets —$10 for any seat in the house. They schmooz, drink, and dance in the lounge that has materialized in the passageway between 55th and 56th Streets. They chat happily through the pauses that yawn between numbers. They sigh in delight when Edward Villella (“He danced on this stage—remember?”) appears to present the Capezio Award to Arlene Shuler, who, as City Center’s president and chief executive, dreamed up Fall for Dance.
This year’s festival, produced by Ellen Dennis, adds to the ongoing centennial celebrations of the birth of the Ballets Russes. In 1909, Serge Diaghilev embarked on his career of shocking Paris with short-story ballets—poetic or exotic—that mated dancing with bold designs by contemporary artists and bold music by contemporary composers. A small showing devoted to the company graces the lobby (the material was drawn from Diaghilev’s Theater of Marvels: The Ballets Russes and Its Aftermath, the stunning recent exhibit curated by Lynn Garafola that was on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts all summer). Each of the four FFD programs contains one work from the Ballets Russes repertory or a re-consideration of it.
On the first of five different programs, Altankhuyag Dugaraa, Lorna Feijóo, and a bevy of nymphs from the Boston Ballet performed Vaslav Nijinsky’s virgin venture into choreography, Afternoon of a Faun (1912), with its stunning set and costumes by Leon Bakst, its hot-afternoon Debussy music. The dancers brought out the piece’s delicate, hovering sensuality, and there was no chance that the FFD audience would be shocked by the uncompromisingly two-dimensional “archaic” movements or the orgasmic arch by the Faun as he lowers himself onto the scarf that the chief nymph has dropped.
On the second program, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal offered Noces, Dutch choreographer Stijn Celis’s take on Igor Stravinsky’s monumental choral score and the equally stunning ballet it was composed for, Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces. Celis, whose version of The Rite of Spring is in the repertory of Cedar Lake Ballet, has dispensed with the original scenario’s wedding couple, parents, and matchmakers, but he alludes to its formality, its percussive rhythms, and its harshly unromantic view of marriage. Multiple grooms gloomily haul long benches around and arrange them along opposite sides of the stage. The brides—Bridezillas in variously skewed hybrids of net wedding gowns and long tutus—enter, stomping out rhythms that acknowledge Stravinsky’s in faintly argumentative ways. Neither tenderness nor lust intrude on Celis’s powerful unison patterns, rife with hunched bodies, beating feet, martial strides, and jumps. A quartet for four men alludes fleetingly to the four little cygnets of Swan Lake. This mass marriage not only looks ritualistic; it looks compelled. The men’s makeup gives them twisted mouths and a ghastly pallor; the red-cheeked women resemble dolls. In the striking, if disturbing ending, each man grabs a woman and hoists her in a different awkward way; they look as if they’re about to make off with department-store mannequins.
Paul Taylor’s 1995 Offenbach Overtures offers a sardonic look at the kind of ballet-bouffe that Diaghilev wasn’t averse to presenting. Six naval officers and six army ones have a fairly decorous night out with some Parisian charmers. In this confection with its cleverly minimal red costumes by Santo Loquasto, red stage floor, and red backdrop lit by Jennifer Tipton, the guys are as crazy about falling into splits as any can-can girl. Taylor turns a duel into a dance competition between Michael Trusnovec (army) and Sean Mahoney (navy). While they’re cavorting airily in a satirical ballet mode and discovering they’d rather be in love than fight, their seconds (Robert Kleinendorst and Jeffrey Smith) are wrangling pugnaciously.
Maurice Ravel, who composed his Daphnis and Chloe for Diaghilev’s original choreographer, Mikhail Fokine, wrote Boléro for a ballet that former Ballets Russes choreographer Bronislava Nijinska made in 1929 for the company started by Ida Rubenstein, who’d enthralled Parisians in Fokine’s Sheherazade and Cléopatre. Since then, countless orchestras have played it, and a number of choreographers—notably Maurice Béjart—have grazed on those repetitive patterns that build inexorably, like slow-cooking sex, to a braying climax.
Ohad Naharin’s B/olero from his 2008 Project 5 is set to a version of Ravel’s music by Isao Tomita, who’s noted for his synthesizer re-envisionings of famous classical pieces. The opening melody sounds as if it’s being played on a musical saw. At FFD, only two performers from Batsheva, the Israel-based company that Naharin directs, ride the simmering scores. Iyar Elezra and Bobbi Smith are remarkable. Their short black dresses (designed by Alla Eisenberg) may look like cocktail party attire, but these are fierce, forthright women, without affectations. In my mind, I see them with their legs planted widely, their knees bent. From that base, and in unison, they swing their arms, legs, and bodies—grabbing the space, thrusting into it, gathering it in. Even in their strongest moves, their joints seem as well-oiled as their muscles. They may wilt, or strike clichéd “feminine” stances for a second, but they always recover and—together or separately—finish the course.
The second-program audience whooped and hollered for another duet, Softly as I Leave You, choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Léon (resident choreographers of Nederlands Dans Theater) and re-worked for Drew Jacoby and Rubinald Pronk of Morphoses. What’s not to love about these gorgeous dancers? They’re as strong as lions and as flexible as eels, game for anything—even a showy muddle of a piece like this. Tall Jacoby stands in a box, hitting against its walls, huddling in its corners, stretching her phenomenal legs piteously to a Bach “Kyrie.” And Pronk? He’s on the floor, in the dark, waiting his turn to ripple. By the time Jacoby (who left the box without difficulty, presumably to put on shoes) comes back onstage, he’s become a madman. Now the music is by Arvo Pärt. Alone or together, these two are troubled in a desperately athletic way—numb or shuddering, their limbs at odds with the rest of them, every high kick a reproach to fate. They end up in the box together, a bit crowded but, hey. . . He kisses her cheek. For a few seconds, you sense that this could have been moving.
For deep-down, nourishing crowd pleasing, FFD offers Tangueros del Sur on the second program and Savion Glover on the first. An excerpt from choreographer-dancer Natalia Hills’s Romper el Piso acts as a free-flowing, informal guide to tango history accompanied by terrific live music. Men dance with women in long skirts or with each other; an elegantly intense ballroom couple circa 1920 takes the floor (Paula Gurini and Mariano Bielak); a spunky, youthful pair (Hills and Gabriel Misse) bounces on; and the expected smoldering adventure for three develops. There’s a too prolonged bow-cum-encore that says, “Love me? Then love me some more” and a go-for-the-flash moment in the trio when Hills’s partner grasps her black dress and it comes off her with a single rip (not at all non-plussed by being seen in her red silk slip, she turns to Misse instead and dances on). But what’s important in this recently formed company is that the choreography avoids the overdone sexiness of many tango groups (the heavy-with-innuendo leg thrust between a partner’s calves, for instance) and emphasizes the rapid footwork and sharp twists and turns of the form. Hills and Misse are brilliant together; they dance as if the floor were a shifting terrain on which only the boldest, the most intrepid, and the most sensitive to a partner could hope to survive.
Glover’s The StaRz and StRiPes 4EvEr for NoW, which premiered in Amsterdam in 2005, is much less smart-ass than its title. In fact, it may be the sparest and most elegantly structured show I’ve seen him put on. Inspired by John Coltrane channeling John Philip Sousa, Glover (who’s credited with the score as well as the choreography) emphasizes tapping as another musical element, as well as a visual pleasure. He’s already dancing when he enters the stage, ready to add his rhythms to the ones that bass player Andy McCloud is plucking from his instrument. Glover drags a heel along the edge of the mic’d platform, testing it; before long, he’s purling tiny, intricate stitches against the floor, riding the heavier sounds as if he’s astride a cantering horse. But always he’s listening to the way the rhythmic texture changes as one musician after another enters: clarinetist Patience Higgins, drummer Victor Jones, and, finally, pianist Tommy Higgins. They groove together, take solos, work up to a hullabaloo, simmer down. Sometimes Glover takes cues from them; sometime he eggs them on. And he stands by, grinning in pure pleasure when the terrific dancers Marshall Davis Jr. and Cartier Williams show their stuff. Most of these colleagues are, like Glover, veterans of Bring in’ Da Noise Bring in’ Da Funk. Their rapport shines out as brilliantly as their virtuosity.
Martha Graham’s Diversion of Angels opened the second program. This 1948 work to a commissioned score by Norman Dello Joio re-defined lyricism as something stripped of sentiment, fiercely beautiful. Elated, bounding through space, the dancers also acknowledge those moments of hush, when everything in the universe seems to pause. The members of the company Graham founded dance it wonderfully (although it seemed slightly pressured the night I saw it). When Jennifer DePalo, streaking rapturously through in her yellow dress, flies into the air and alights (there’s no other word for it) on Lloyd Knight’s shoulder, the audience gasps. It’s not just for the skill involved, or the surprise. By “angels,” Graham meant dancers—acquainted with grief, transfigured by joy.
The week that Fall For Dance began sucking audiences into City Center, the German writer, choreographer, and performer Raimund Hoghe presented his Boléro Variations (2007) at Dance Theater Workshop (co-sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Française as part of FIAF’s Crossing the Line Festival). Emmanuel Eggermont also gave a single Saturday performance of Hoghe’s solo version of Debussy’s L’Après-midi at Danspace Project.
Various versions of Ravel’s Boléro crop up in the recorded medley for Boléro Variations, but the piece includes other music by Ravel, selections by Verdi and Tchaikovsky, traditional boleros, popular songs, fados, and more. Doris Day’s voice is heard, so is Maria Callas’s; so are an announcer’s intermittent words about the great figure skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who danced to Ravel’s Boléro on ice.
I saw Hoghe’s beautiful and provocative Swan Lake, 4 Acts at the International Dance Festival Ireland in Dublin three years ago, so I was prepared for the poetic austerity of his collaborations with artist Luca Giacomo Schulte and for the intensity of Hoghe’s own onstage presence. In the DTW program, Hoghe says that he—a journalist, a writer of books, and, for 10 years, a dramaturge for Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal—was inspired to go onstage by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s words about “throwing the body into the fight.” He presents his small, hunchbacked body fearlessly—both on equal terms with the taller young dancers with whom he shares the stage and also, at times, as a kind of silent narrator or guide.
He prepares us for the slow pace and minimal actions of the hour-long first half of Boléro Variations by tracing the perimeter of the stage, leaning into his slow, lunging steps. The music (by Ravel, I believe) is sweet, the overhead white lighting (by Hoghe and Dimitar Evtimov) uncompromising. The other performers—Ornella Balestra, Lorenzo De Brabandere, Emmanuel Eggermont, and Yutaka Takei—who gradually join Hoghe also move quite minimally, but their every small gesture is arresting. Nabil Yahia-Aïssa was to have been there too, but to our shame as U.S. citizens, his passport was not returned to him in time by the Department of Homeland Security; a member of Hoghe’s group for a number of years, he is a French citizen of Algerian descent.
Balestra, the only woman, wears high heels and a black, form-fitting jacket over a black dress. Hoghe honors the bodies and movement predilections of his performers, and the stunning Balestra is often dreamy, side-stepping or turning slowly, her arms moving in soft curves, a half-smile on her face. The men make gestures that are more carved and angular, and are likely to hold them as they walk. While the recorded voice speaks of Torvill or Dean’s toe loops and triple axels, these people slowly, intently pace. A careful drop into a squat is a major event; Hoghe’s single entrance with a squeeze bottle of powder counts as comic relief
The second half—also and hour long—is more active. As with Ravel’s Boléro, we experience a gradual escalation. And we’re primed to notice details: precisely how, for example, Eggermont holds his arms tightly to his sides and occasionally flips his fists up as he walks in predestined paths to at-first distant piano music. His later movements, performed calmly and given the status of a ballet dancer’s lexicon of port de bras, are curiously crooked, askew. Balestra flourishes her arms in ways that suggest flamenco, Takei winds his wrists into flowering patterns.
Suddenly Takei and Eggermont get more vigorous for a few seconds, Takei downright jazzy. But there’s a slow sequence to a song uttered in a sad, cracked voice; Hoghe stands on a square of white fabric and takes his right arm out of his shirt so that De Brabandere, who has entered bearing two black bowls, can dip strips of fabric into a solution and gently mold them to Hoghe’s shoulder. They dry swiftly, and when De Brabandere removes the mold and joins the other men, who’re half kneeling, it fits perfectly over his own knee. In the sequence that follows, the men kneel in a row facing us, and slowly pour seeds or lentils from black bags into perfect circle (another form of accumulating design), except that Hoghe is also burying the shoes that he has removed (De Brabandere also pours a circle for the missing Yahia-Aïssa and lays out a T-shirt to represent him). The voice that we hear speaking is that of Anita Lasker-Walfish; she recounts—hardly believing this could have happened—a story of arriving at Auschwitz and having a conversation with the woman guard who processed her; it turned out that they both played the cello. Of those in the orchestra that formed in the camp, Lasker-Walfish survived; the guard did not.
When Ravel’s Boléro finally begins to play in its entirety, all four men, who’ve taken off their shirts, start slowly revolving. They begin with both hands together, their fingers pressing into the floor, drawing a circle. Gradually they may spread their hands apart, lift them slightly, put them down. Hoghe alone makes different kinds of thrusting gestures each time the percussive chords announce the resurgence of that inexhaustible melody. My knees ache for them, but that’s not why I suddenly feel tears forming.
At the end of the ordeal, Balestra, who has collected the men’s T-shirts (pausing for a long look at the one representing Yahia-Aïssa), brings them back (or identical fresh ones) neatly folded. The performers, dressed again, slowly begin to travel their invisible paths.
I can’t fathom all that lies beneath Boléro Variations, but I thrill to its logic, its rigor, its inevitable rightness.