Years ago, during the golden age of movie musicals, Mitzi Gaynor starred in a bio-pic called The I Don’t Care Girl that contained a Jack Cole choreographed number, “Beale Street Blues.” Gaynor, a pleasant and talented performer had the misfortune to have, directly behind her in the chorus, the young Gwen Verdon. It was clear then and there that Verdon was a contender for greatness.
Program 1 of this year’s version of the New York City Center’s fabled Fall for Dance Festival ended with “The Verdon Fosse Legacy,” a stingy sampling of the choreography of Gwen Verdon and Bob Fosse staged by Linda Haberman to snazzy new arrangements of show tunes such as “Steam Heat.” Although impeccably staged, the three dancers—Georgina Pazcoguin, Zachary Downer and Tyler Eisenreich, certified Fosse acolytes all—never quite shimmered with Verdon charisma. Wearing glittery seventies-style costumes including the de rigueur hats (costumes by Bobby Pearce), they softly bumped and grinded, undulated their arms, looked coolly detached as they winked at the audience and displayed all the incredible body isolations that distinguish the Fosse style. Aside from “Legacy” being too brief, it lacked information about the sources of the choreography and identification of the music which would have helped.
The program opened with the kinetic overdrive of Elizabeth Streb’s company, Streb Extreme Action performing three of her works: “Molinette,” “Add/Pole Vaults” and “Air.” The first featured three dancers attached by their boots to a pipe high up on a scaffold. They pivoted about the pipe in various combinations and positions using inertia to return them upright positions. Streb put them through enough variations of whirling around in the air to keep interest from flagging. In the second the company’s lead dancer Jackie Carlson dithered about with a stick, jumping over it, tossing it and balancing it on her face. The final work was pure Streb. The full company bounced off a trampoline in ones, twos and threes, landing with amplified thuds on a thick, padded gym pad, much to the audience’s delight.
The theatergoers was further stimulated by Felix Hess, the Emcee/DJ who bided time by calling for sports-style waves and using a T-shirt cannon to shoot Streb shirts out into the audience, to allow for Noe España’s complex scenery to be dismantled. Andrea Lauer and Timberlake’s slick blue outfits made the cast appear like Olympic contenders rather than dancers. The music by Alexander Balanescu seemed to provide cues rather than support.
Whether Elizabeth Streb’s work is choreography or acrobatics or a hybrid of both has been debated for years. No matter. It’s very exciting in a visceral way that no other creative artist has achieved.
The final work on Program 1 was its finest. A.I.M. By Kyle Abraham presented its director’s “Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song,” a deeply moving paean to the darker meanings of love. It was choreographed to Nina Simone’s glorious renditions of six songs in which she wrapped her moving contralto around the lyrics of “Don’t Explain,” “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and “Little Girl Blue.”
The opening moments found the seven-member cast gathered in a dramatically lit upstage corner—moody lighting designed by Dan Scully—bending and reaching, dispersing only to return to their sculptural starting image.
Five heart-breaking sections followed, performed by Donovan Reed, Gianna Theodore, Claude “CJ” Johnson, Catherine Kirk and Jae Neal. The latter teamed up with Reed in a duet to “Don’t Explain,” Billie Holiday’s song about infidelity, in which the two men followed embraces with lonely separations, a telling bit of choreography dealing with their inability to part from each other. The solos were also touchingly choreographed and danced by Abraham’s finely tuned troupe.
Program 2 started off with Stephen Petronio Company’s misleadingly titled “American Landscapes.” In this work Petronio pitted his excellent dancers against a large triptych of dreary video projections (by Robert Longo, given life by Don Cieslik) and the dancers lost, because they were given choreography, lovely as it was, that did not express anything approaching the angst which the video images did.
As the dancers performed Petronio’s ballet-heavy steps, pictures of atomic bomb mushroom clouds and eco-disasters loomed above them. The nine dancers, including several guests, moved with a smoothness and agility to make any choreographer proud. A constant theme was lone dancers departing from lines and circles of performers to go off on their own in thoughtful solos. There was nothing wrong with the dancers or the dance-making except that Petronio tried too hard to make his ballet meaningful in ways that ballets cannot be meaningful, especially when paired with strong imagery that clearly expressed what his steps didn’t.
Ken Tabachnick’s moody lighting helped, but H. Petal’s too sexy costumes did not.
The Houston Ballet, Stanton Welch AM, artistic director, contributed his “Sons de L’Âme” a piano ballet in the Jerome Robbins tradition, to Chopin—played flawlessly by Vladimir Rumyantsev.
Karina González and Connor Walsh, wearing unflattering bell-bottom white tights, showed off her beautiful extensions and his flawless partnering as a couple not quite in love. Welch’s steps were lovely but lacked the psychological and emotional depth of Robbins’ works in a similar vein, although it was a wonderful vision of two talented dancers, helped by Lisa J. Pinkham’s subtle lighting.
The second program ended on a delightful note with Ephrat Asherie Dance’s “Odeon:redux,” a joyful work that combined African American and Latinx street dance with sexy Brazilian sambas. To a musical score by Ernesto Nazareth, played live by an onstage four-member band, Asherie, Manon Bal, Teena Marie Custer, Valerie “Ms. Vee” Ho, Matthew West and Omari Wiles took the City Center stage on a joyful visit to the playful and sensual world of Brazilian dance and took home the biggest ovation of the evening.
On a previous viewing of this work I noted that these dancers hadn’t quite assimilated the jaunty sexuality of the samba, but on this evening it was clear that not only had they mastered this Latin dance form but masterfully combined it with Hip-Hop and other American street dances.
Dressed in Mark Eric’s colorful costumes and lit brightly by Kathy Kaufmann, they wiggled their hips, undulated their bodies and stomped rhythmically all the while joined in the festive dance by the masterful musicians (Ehud Asherie, Eduardo Belo, Angel Lau and Jeremy Smith). Through solos, duets and flashy group dances they created a happy, energetic community right there in front of a cheering audience.
New York City Center’s 2021 Fall For Dance Festival (October 13-24, 2021)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time for both programs: 90 minutes with two pauses