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Fall for Dance Festival Opening Program

'Xover' (Merce Cunningham Dance Company)
'I Can See Myself in Your Pupil' (Gallim Dance)
'Vistaar' (Madhavi Mudgal)
' The Golden Section' (Miami City Ballet)

by Jerry Hochman

September 28, 2010 -- City Center, New York

Of the Fall for Dance performances that I’ve been able to see over the past years, last night’s opening night program was the most successful in terms of the quality and variety of the works on the program, and the execution of these pieces by the dancers.

But while I appreciated every piece performed, and really enjoyed three of the four, the performance that most lingers in my mind was the last one on the program. “The Golden Section” was created by Twyla Tharp in 1983, and first performed by Miami City Ballet this past January. It is early frenetic Tharp – essentially non-stop movement by a group of thirteen dancers (six women and seven men) to pulsating music by David Byrne, which Ms. Tharp’s choreography enhances. “The Golden Section” is not as cleverly crafted as other Tharp pieces I’ve seen, and has a tendency to look somewhat monochromatic – after awhile it all blends together. But this doesn’t matter in the least. Except for a low-key let-down of an ending, the piece, which was staged with obvious care and enthusiasm by former American Ballet Theatre soloist Elaine Kudo, is alive and thrilling to watch when it is well-executed.

At last night’s performance, it was. I have not seen MCB enough to comment on the company’s overall quality (many have already done so), but from my previous observations, and after seeing last night’s performance, the MCB dancers are superb and they gave Ms. Tharp’s dizzying choreography the energy it required. But more than that, they gave the piece an unexpected intimacy, as if the choreography and its execution by the appealing MCB dancers created an irresistible centripetal force. And as good as all the dancers were, one stood out. Sara Esty, only in the corps, is a fearless little firecracker of a dancer who moves across the stage and propels from one partner to another as if energized by lightning bolts, all the while looking like the dancer next door. [Though they do not look alike, she reminds me a bit of New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck.] I look forward to my next opportunity to see MCB, so I can see Ms. Esty and the other MCB dancers in other pieces in the MCB repertoire.

Even more energetic, and more interesting in terms of movement variety, was the performance by Gallim Dance. “I Can See Myself in Your Pupil,” choreographed by Artistic Director Andrea Miller (and adapted for Fall For Dance Festival), is a collage of movement that takes the already infectious music (which, as performed by an Israeli group called Balkan Beat Box, sounds like Balkan bluegrass) to another level. The choreography not only matches and is inspired by the music – it enhances it. And it’s very quirky and very strange and very funny and constantly entertaining. Beginning with the dancers lined up along the back of the stage, lit from the front (the lighting designer was Vincent Vigilante) so their shadows were projected and amplified behind them, the movement begins with each dancer contorting as if trying to avoid a swarm of mosquitos. The piece progresses from there through a variety of intricate group interactions and extraordinary solo contortions that I find indescribable and which look spontaneously created and impossible to replicate. It also appears to take a few good-natured pokes at ballet (including a scene that resembles Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert” as if staged at an asylum). The costumes (by Ms. Miller) added to the endearing strangeness – including outfits worn by two of the women, which looked like tutus that had been put together by an outsider artist.

But mostly “I Can See…” is exactly as described – an exhilarating suite of wildly quirky dances. It is a relatively lengthy piece, but it never sags (although the speed of the action varies), and it displays unbounded imagination, enthusiasm, and good-hearted warmth. The eight dancers, who each appeared to have more energy during that one performance than most people have in a lifetime, were brilliant and hilarious, and from my position the audience response was more enthusiastic for this piece than anything else on the program.

But the piece I found most interesting was “Vistaar.” I have not had the opportunity to see much Indian dance, so I lack any basis for comparison. And I confess no familiarity at all with “Odissi movement,” which is the style of the piece. But, as performed by Ms. Mudgal, who choreographed it, and four lovely young company dancers (Arushi Mudgal, Diya Sen, Snehasini Sahoo, and Shalakah Rai), it was both hypnotic and magical. In particular, the liquidly serpentine movement of the dancers’ arms and the in/out movement of the dancers’ hands gave the piece its overall ethereal and lyrical quality. It was like a scene from “La Bayadère,” except it was ‘real.’ Wonderful.

The evening opened with Merce Cunningham’s “Xover,” which premiered in 2007. Choreographed to music by John Cage, and with décor and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, the piece is an example of the celebrated collaboration among the three artists.

Based on the pieces of his that I’ve seen, I find Mr. Cunningham’s work to be brilliantly choreographed in terms of the bare spatial relationships and forms of movement, beautifully performed, and hopelessly uninteresting. “Xover” is more accessible than other Cunningham pieces I've seen because the typical Cunningham movement quality appears more inherently interesting in terms of patterning and the 'relationship' between the couples, though it still appeared to me to be overly academic and cerebral. There is no question that the dancers executed the piece perfectly, and if all that needed to be done was to admire the quality of the dancers, I would join in the acclaim. But movement without soul or heart creates a void which this viewer is unable to crossover.

And most of the time the piece appeared to have no connection at all to Mr. Cage’s music - which was a good thing, because the ‘music’ sounded like a random cacophony of grunts, rumbling noises, nasal and gastro-intestinal sounds, and bird chirps. I liked Mr. Rauschenberg’s backdrop collage of light and color, but it had no relationship to anything on stage – except perhaps that it looked meaningless. I would have enjoyed the piece more if it had been danced on a bare stage, in silence..

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