If the Fall for Dance Festival does nothing else, it provides New York with 10 days out of the year where City Center contains a palpable air of excitement. As City Center fills to the brim it seems barely able to contain the frenzy within it spilling onto 55th Street and the temporary Lounge FFD next door. Doubtless many audience members walk away disliking some of what they've seen as part of the goal is to provide varied programs that combine audiences of different dance styles. But overall it is a win-win situation as companies hope to expand their audiences who in turn are forced to broaden their horizons. This year some of the programs have been more successful than others at achieving this, but the attempt alone is a noble one and should be commended. The program on October 4th was safe but the performances were more than worthy of the hungry eyes watching it.
As the curtain lifted on a stark stage and a barren metallic tree sitting slightly off to one side, the audience settled in and braced itself. Two dancers entered in silence, the female wearing a black leotard and the man in black pants and a fitted black shirt. Random words were spoken and sung in Hungarian as the percussive Ligeti score began. The words seemed chosen based on their sound alone and Karole Armitage's "Ligeti Essays" matched this experiment by simply pairing movement to those sounds. Her approach is as minimalist as her task and was reflected in the basic set and costumes. It helps that the dancers in Armitage Gone! Dance have extraordinary physiques and the ability to deliver her abstract shapes with rare clarity and pure lines. The origin of the movement is always evident whether the thrust begins with a knee, an arm, the head, or the torso itself. The dancers moved with resistance to create a lush musicality, drawing out the completion of each line just in time to move onto the next. Armitage changed moods through movement alone whether from the use of speed to the manner in which the dancers walked on and off the stage in the silence between sections. The changes were abrupt, extreme, and so abstract they were comical at times. In the peaceful final movement, the dancers entered from various corners of the stage with all but one holding a lantern. The mood was of serene hope as dancers provided the light. Light would continue to play a symbolic role in works throughout the evening but it was especially appropriate that the light here was carried and manipulated by the dancers themselves.
"Inventing Pookie Jenkins" was a tutorial in theatrical use of surprise, though one that could easily have been about 1/3 the length that it was. Kyle Abraham began this solo kneeling upstage in a pool of light, his torso bare in a white skirt that gathered around him. He began with slow, rounded upper body movements in silence. As he repeated the phrase the movements became larger and more forceful each time as they began to match the sounds of police sirens and gun shots that gradually increased with intensity. It was an admirable example of how an abstract phrase of movement can develop meaning based on execution and accompaniment. His movement ultimately brought him to his feet where he suddenly picked up a boom-box that had been hidden in darkness, strutted into a new pool of light across the stage, and settled into his new street persona. The intense bass of Dizzee Rascal's "Respect Me" began to thump, and Pookie Jenkins was invented. Abraham's movements became hip-hop based, street-wise and impressively executed as the lyrics "People are gonna respect me if it kills you" blasted throughout City Center. Near the end, Abraham lifted his boom-box, placed it once more on his shoulder, and made shout outs to "shorty" and the like in the first few rows before strutting offstage. The solo may have seemed frivolous without Abraham's crisp, forceful execution.
Christopher Wheeldon's duet "After the Rain" closed the first half as a preview of his new company called Morphoses. It was performed by Wendy Whelan with her hair loose in a nude leotard, bare legs and ballet slippers, and Craig Hall who was bare-chested in loose white pants. They danced to a commonly used score by Arvo Pärt where a dreamy repetitive piano line is punctuated with individual notes soaring above it. Wheeldon's work accompanied those accented notes with instances of release so breathtakingly executed that the audience gasped at simple gestures such as the touch of a hand, the meeting of legs, or the arch of a back. The glory of Pärt's music is that it seems to capture the fragility, hesitation and beauty of an ecstatic moment. The dancers echoed this as they moved in total harmony complementing, supporting, leaning and lifting as they took that instance of complete euphoria and made it last the length of the piece. "After the Rain" was a much-needed calm for this buzzing New York audience that was awed when moments of light seemingly pierced through the slow, hazy movement. Although it was disappointing to see one of Wheeldon's well-established crowd-pleasers in the festival (though not surprising given the upcoming inaugural season of Morphoses), the duet served as a lovely reminder of how powerful clarity can be.
The end of intermission brought five women in white running through the house and up onto the stage in front of the curtain to perform Trisha Brown's "Spanish Dance." To Bob Dylan's "Early Morning Rain" they stood across the stage in a row all facing stage right. Slowly the dancer furthest stage left began moving upward from her feet, pulsating in a simple hip-swaying motion as she inched forward to the music. Still from the bottom up, she raised her arms slowly until they were above her head. She continued until she literally pressed up against the dancer in front of her who seemed to catch the bug and began the same simple phrase until she in turn nudged the next dancer into moving. This continued until all five women were pressed up against one another in a pulsating train, arms raised and inching off stage. They almost made it there when the lights went off and the music came to a stop. Short, humorous and unpredictable in its predictability, "Spanish Dance" was a frivolous morsel of delight.
The final and most spectacular piece of the evening was the premier of "Martinete y Solea" performed by Noche Flamenca and Soledad Barrio. In the first movement, Juan Ogalla and Antonio Rodriguez stood in their own pool of light performing first in impressive unison and then into their own solos. The crisply executed rhythms of their feet were built upon by a group of clappers, stompers and snappers (called palmas) in the dark stage behind them. The dancers' movement was at once fresh and traditional, abrupt and sweeping, subtle and sensational, refined and passionate. After this display of machismo the stage darkened. Soledad Barrio filled a pool of light as four male voices overlapped and harmonized as if in prayer as they walked towards her in shadow. With a simple gesture she reached forward and followed her arm out of the light. After a pause the rhythmic complexity mounted once again as the musicians took their seats. One guitar and multiple voices were layered over the palmas. The anticipation mounted as Barrio prepared to tear the stage apart. At first her bursts of motion and footwork were short but they reached a thrilling cadenza where her body floated above her dazzling footwork. In her feet were passionate, unbridled, and grounded movements while her body floated above fascinated, sweeping, emotional, elegant and dignified. It was an almost literal depiction of the contrast between the animal and spiritual elements of humanity. In Barrio's turns, her ability to maintain her body's arch while spinning around it on such an extreme angle was outdone only by the speed in which she was able to execute them. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect was the interplay between Barrio and the musicians around her. The spontaneity and energy they conjured was contagious as the audience responded in turn fueling the performers even more. Their encore was the perfect finale to the evening as Noche Flamenca stomped arm-in-arm into the light that was beckoning them offstage.