Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Unexpected Combos

Misty Copeland in Ash. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Now 16 years old, Fall for Dance’s audience has lost some of the mania that was a given years ago, with viewers shrieking and whooping for, improbably, ballet dancers doing fouettés. But after the first act of 2019’s opening night, which included a solo for Misty Copeland choreographed by Kyle Abraham, the latter was returning to his house seat, and got a standing ovation from the intermissing crowd. After a shy wave and a smile, he was followed by his lighting designer—who also got an ovation, if less fervent. Such is the crowd at New York City Center’s FFD—taking ownership of the art form onstage and in the enthusiastic house.

In her solo, Ash, Copeland flitted and spun in short, cursive phrases punctuated by poses that articulated her muscular, curving limbs. The stage was bare except for a big lighting rig which held a spotlight trained on her. She wore Bartelme + Jung’s costume of a gold panné leotard under vertical widths of chiffon that poofed out as she moved, evoking a jellyfish pulsing through the water. Her aspect felt private, internal, and not directed at pleasing the audience, though that’s exactly what she did.

Caleb Teicher has been working independently for many years now, while performing with Michelle Dorrance’s troupe. He’s one of several tappers who have been fortunate to work with the Dorrance during the explosion of her popularity, but whose own careers may also have been overshadowed somewhat by the same token. Teicher is now being seen in similar broad-reaching venues as Dorrance’s company, and presented Bzzzz at FFD. Beatboxer Chris Celiz provided the soundtrack (by him and Teicher) as he wandered around the stage, exchanging nods and jokes with passing dancers. Between the tapping and his vocalizations, the range of sounds was truly impressive. Teicher’s style is polished and audience friendly, with an appealingly presentational aspect. The Thom Brown-length fitted pants or tights contributed a dash of chic to this tight, entertaining suite.

Musa Motha and Thabang Mojapelo of Vuyani Dance Theater in Rise. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Vuyani Dance Theatre of South Africa performed Rise, choreographed by Gregory Maqoma in a unique blend of contemporary African dance, made even more modern-feeling by Thabo Pule’s graphic lighting and rehearsal-style costumes. Some of the motifs felt conventional—a series of energetic pull-out solos intimating the awesome power of the individual—while the singular skill of Musa Motha, a dancer with one leg who performs with a crutch, astounded. So much of what New York knows about African dance hews to traditional forms, but Vuyani shows what’s happening now—blending some traditional notes with a fresh take.

The other program I saw was similarly diverse, with modern icon Beachbirds by Cunningham leading off. The current standard bearer of the style is CNDC D’Angers of France, led by Robert Swinston, which fortunately has made regular sojourns to New York to display the style as it should be done. Beachbirds was no exception. It is perhaps one of Merce’s most representational dances, or at least its title, as the movement is comparable to other works without such a leading moniker. Like birds, the dancers hold still on one leg, pulse or flick their “wings,” and ignore, pair up, or nudge other dancers in ways that imply unspoken avian communication. Marsha Skinner’s sea coast-worthy lighting and graphic white and black unitard designs set the perfect stage for this gem.

Also evoking a warmly nostalgic tone was Geoffrey Holder’s Come Sunday, danced by Ailey alum Alicia Graf Mack. Originally set on his wife, Carmen de Lavallade, to songs sung by Odetta, the medley summoned faith, work, gratitude, and defiance with bold, simple moves and the understated eloquence of Mack’s never-ending limbs; she becomes the movements, instilling in them a purity. 

Caleb Teicher and company in Bzzzz. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Madboots Dance, based in New York, performed For Us, a duet by Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz performed by David Maurice and Austin Tyson. Athletic, full-out, expressionistic phrases—runs, arm whirls, jumps—ended up with the pair falling into one another in exhaustion. This became a slow dance as they unwound black gauze wrapping their hands, as fighters might wear, and eventually led to a kiss.

Fall for Dance’s annual commissions are always eagerly anticipated, even if they sometimes fall short. Such is the case with Unveiling, by Sonya Tayeh, which featured Robbie Fairchild (late of NYCB and Broadway) and ABT’s Stella Abrera and Gabe Stone Shayer. Moses Sumney created the sound while onstage—beatboxing and layering samples to impressive variety. Fairchild began the piece clutching Sumney’s chest while standing behind him. Tayeh’s expressionistic movement features elastic torso ripples, articulated arms, sweeping penchés, and hunched shoulders. 

In a plank position, Fairchild pushed himself backward in a sort of rite of penance. He lifted Abrera, skimming her toes on the stage as he spun her. Her leg extensions and crooked arms evoked a sculptural Martha Graham style. Shayer entered in that reverse plank move, and he and Fairchild linked up and cartwheeled together. By this time, the wrought movement—emotional, but why?—began to feel forced, and wasn’t helped with the lack of the use of stage depth, and the stark white lighting by Davison Scandrett. But seeing these beloved fixtures of the NY ballet world up close, experimenting in new material, is reward in itself.

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