Fall for Dance – New works by Michelle Dorrance, Kyle Abraham, Sara Mearns and Honji Wang, Mark Morris – New York

David Hallberg (with Colin Fowler) in Mark Morris’s <I>Twelve of ‘em</I>.<br />© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
David Hallberg (with Colin Fowler) in Mark Morris’s Twelve of ‘em.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

Fall for Dance new works
Michelle Dorrance: Myelination (Prog A)
Kyle Abraham: Drive (Prog D)
Sara Mearns and Honji Wang: No. 1 (Prog D)
Mark Morris: Twelve of ‘em (Prog E)
New York, City Center
3, 7, 11, 14 October 2017

Fall for Dance: A Few Premieres

Since its inception, in 2004, the Fall for Dance festival has gradually evolved from its original form – a kind of slot machine of dance styles and companies – to something more thoughtfully-planned and forward-looking. Each year, the selection feels less random if, thankfully, it has kept its main feature, the low, low ticket prices. There is more ballet, and, this year, less regional or folk dance – a shame, from my perspective. More familiar names fill the lineups. And, increasingly, the programs feature premieres of new works, commissioned by the festival itself. The five programs included no less than four of these world premieres.

I caught all four: an expanded version of Michelle Dorrance’s Myelination, Kyle Abraham’s Drive, the Sara Mearns and Honji Wang collaboration No. 1, and Mark Morris’s solo Twelve of ‘em for David Hallberg. They seem to fall into two categories, on the one hand the artistic statements, and on the other, the experiments. Myelination and Drive fall into the first category, Twelve of ‘em and No 1 into the second. What’s the difference? Well, the first type consists of works that could have been created outside of the festival context; they represent yet another facet of the choreographers’ regular fare, and could easily become part of their respective company’s rep. (And probably will.) The second type is more ephemeral, and more risky: it offers an opportunity for a particular dance or choreographer to stretch his or her horizons, to try something out and see what happens.

The experiments push the artists in interesting ways. Morris’s Twelve of ‘em for the elegant American Ballet Theater principal dancer, is a suite of very simple, limpid dances set to Benjamin Britten’s “Twelve Variations for Piano.” It would have looked better in a more intimate theater, and had it not had to follow Crystal Pite’s hyper-stylized, high-gloss, and manipulative Solo Echo, danced by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. It’s a quiet, sometimes eccentric piece, whose poetry unfolds unevenly and gradually. Morris’s sometimes dopey humor – he has Hallberg crouch and run in mincing steps and make funny faces – caused titters in the theatre. This was not what people expected to see the noble, elegant David Hallberg doing after two years away from the stage.

David Hallberg in Mark Morris’s Twelve of ‘em.© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
David Hallberg in Mark Morris’s Twelve of ‘em.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

The theme was Greek; Hallberg wore a short tunic in white (by Isaac Mizrahi) and moved with a simplicity that was reminiscent at times of Morris’s Socrates. The approach was, as always with Morris, pure music visualization. If the music was staccato, so were the steps; if the melody descended a scale, so did some part of Hallberg’s body. Hallberg and the pianist, Colin Fowler, were partners in crime, taking cues from each other. Fowler was somewhat preciously dressed in a long white sarong and gray hoodie, and shoeless.

Gradually, the choreography ceded to the purity of Hallberg’s line: the beautiful elevation of a leg, the youthful profile, the clean, elegant use of the arms. But Morris seemed to take some pleasure in making him look silly. Hallberg was game, but didn’t yet fully own the material – he wasn’t completely in on the joke. The titters surely didn’t help. But it was fascinating to watch him relax his balletic presentation and just move. Twelve of ‘em show us a new view of Hallberg, and I hope to see it again, preferably on a smaller stage.

Honji Wang and Sara Mearns in No. 1.© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
Honji Wang and Sara Mearns in No. 1.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

No. 1, a collaboration between the France-based hip-hop artists Honji Wang and Sébastien Ramirez (known collectively as Wang Ramirez) and the New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns, went even further afield. The duet, choreographed by the hip hop duo for Wang and Mearns, fell into a dangerous category: the cross-genre conversation. Two highly developed artists from different disciplines attempt to find middle ground. Usually both genres suffer. And, in fact, as choreography, it was not particularly interesting, full of clichés of the “can you do this?” variety. Ideas went back and forth like a tennis ball. The ballerina and the hip hop artist imitated each other, experimented with partnering, stood together at a ballet barre. Wang even hung off of it, like a kid at recess. But the rapport between them, and their mutual fascination, proved engrossing on its own terms. Wang is a silken, cat-like mover, and an exceptional mime; Mearns is a powerful stage presence who revels in anything new. The energy between them was strong and real, and that felt worthwhile. Their encounter may yet lead to something interesting.

Dorrance Dance in Myelination.© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
Dorrance Dance in Myelination.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

The other two works, Myelination and Drive, were, as I said before, more typical statements from these two New York-based artists. The vision of tap put forth by Dorrance in Myelination, a modified version of a 2015 piece, was expansive and generous, as is always the case with this artist. Dancers of different styles (including a hip-hop dancer and a tall, slinky tapper who would look right at home with the Blue Man Group) came together within an intelligent, supportive structure of entrances and exists, solo and group numbers. Each dancer had his or her moment, but also took part in the whole. One of the tappers even went off to join the band. The main weakness of Myelination is its loud, monotonous, rock-electronica score, which competes with the tapping, rather than supports it.

Abraham.In.Motion in Drive.© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)
Abraham.In.Motion in Drive.
© Stephanie Berger. (Click image for larger version)

If Abraham’s Drive felt like a departure, it was because the choreographer has of late been working in a more openly political vein, exploring themes of police brutality and the epidemic of long prison sentences for black men. Drive is closer to a pure dance, set to a house-music score by Theo Parrish and Mobb Deep. And yet, it channels a feeling of self-awareness and even anger that is very much of the moment. It doesn’t aim to please, but does so anyway. The vocabulary is a fluid hybrid of club dance, hip-hop, voguing and martial arts. The attitude is urban, direct. Gestural motifs echo across the work. One, in particular, stands out: a cleaning-of-the-hands motion that seemed to say, “I’ve had enough, I’m out of here.” Two women share a strong, supportive, amicable duet; they greet each other with friendly hand gestures and a whispered secret, like people standing on any corner in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Abraham is a stylish, highly formal dancemaker, but his dances have a touch of real life and grit to them, and it’s that quality that captures our attention.

Premières offer no guarantees, but fundamentally, their value lies in expanding our ideas about an artist or a dance style. So they are worth the risk even when, as sometimes happens, the audience seems befuddled by them.

About the author

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a free-lance dance writer and translator in New York. Her dance writing has appeared in the New Yorker, The Nation, Playbill, The Faster Times, DanceView, The Forward, Pointe, and Ballet Review. Her translations, which include Irène Némirovsky’s “The Mirador,” Dino Buzzati’s “Poem Strip,” and Pasolini’s “Stories from the City of God” have been published by FSG, Other Press, and New York Review Books. You can check her updates on Twitter at: @MarinaHarss

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