Falling for dance again

Yi-Jo Lim Sun Dance Company
Dutch National Ballet
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Trisha Brown Dance Company
Pennsylvania Ballet
City Center, New York
September 29, 2006

by Tom Phillips
copyright ©2006
by Tom Phillips

If the aim of City Center’s season-opening program was to present as wide a range of dancing styles as possible, it succeeded right off the bat. Before the first intermission, we had witnessed a Korean harvest dance in floor-length traditional costumes, a topless European couple in the throes of estrangement, and a naked Christ-figure, at a Last Supper on a red tablecloth decorated with giant dice. It was a bracing start to the third annual Fall for Dance Festival.

Opening night featured five companies in all, two homegrown, two from overseas, and Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Ballet, making its first New York appearance in 20 years. Artistically, the highlight was the city’s own Trisha Brown Dance Company, performing her classic “Set and Reset” from 1983. This was the New York school of aesthetics at its height, a piece of multiple minimalism with eight fluid dancers in near-monochromatic costumes, two floating pyramids and a cube (by Robert Rauschenberg) used as screens for random black-and-white film, and a driving, pinging score by Laurie Anderson that kept the whole project moving like a mini-metropolis. 

Why did it remind me of a visit to the old Museum of Modern Art, the institution that in effect narrated the story of modernity itself?  Maybe it’s because this collaboration between Brown, Rauschenberg and Anderson proves again that dance can be abstract without being boring, that the interpenetration of sound, form and movement is mystery and miracle enough. 

The dancing highlight of the evening was a brief pas de deux by Julie Gardette and Francois Rousseau of the Dutch National Ballet. Titled “Before After,” it’s meant to be a glimpse into the moment when a relationship is ending. At first it was hard to believe that a couple moving so seamlessly together were heading for a split. But then the emotional tone changed from struggle to anger and rejection, until they abruptly stripped off their shirts and he walked off, leaving her kneeling and shuddering alone. The plot was thin, and the sound track of natural-sound snippets got annoying after the first few loops.  But the dancing redeemed it all.  This was true contemporary ballet, acrobatic lifts and spins with fully extended limbs and elegantly pointed feet, in slippers.

The same sort of notes were struck, but in a comic-ironic vein, by the Pennsylvania Ballet, in “11:11”, choreographed by company dancer Matthew Neenan to a string of recorded songs by Rufus Wainwright.  The opening pas de deux by James Ihde and Julia Diana got a laugh at the end, when he simply chucked her into the wings and walked off the other way.  And throughout the five-song cycle, quirky surprises in the choreography  matched the mocking tone of Wainwright’s goofy, whiny vocals. This is a world-class dancing company in the Balanchine style, with nothing but strong, athletic men and lissome, technically confident women.  It was particularly good to see the wiry energy of Riolama Lorenzo, once of the NYCB corps, who has grown into a commanding principal dancer in Philly.  But the tendency of both the choreography and the music to undercut itself seemed to limit the impact of the dancing. 

The program began with an exotic, big-budget spectacle, a world premiere by the Yi-Jo Lim Dance Company of Korea, entitled nothing less than “Heaven and Earth.”  Underneath the colorful, elaborate costumes and the special effects of fog and moonlight, this was basically a charming troupe of folk dancers, dominated — maybe too much — by their leader, Yi-Jo Lim. His favorite formation seems to be himself, surrounded by a circle of pretty girls.  At the end of the climactic harvest dance, they all fall prostrate at his feet as he hoists a banner high.

If this grated on anyone’s social sensibilities, all was later set straight by a rousing excerpt from “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company.  Jones and his motley crew raged against the machine, to the sounds of simulated chain gangs and torture victims, and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech read backwards.  It ends with the Last Supper as a lynching party, with the naked savior being hounded unto death.

I’m not an expert on Jones’s “victim art,” but I have noticed that it is popular among upper-middle-class white audiences. I think it answers to a deep need among such audiences to be assured, however speciously, that they’re not part of the problem. If they pay for and applaud this kind of random rant against oppression, performed by a reassuringly interracial troupe, they can’t be classed among the oppressors, right? This may explain the grateful standing ovation from many in the mostly-white audience at City Center. But not everybody stood. 

The Fall for Dance Festival doesn’t bat 1.000, but who does?  By any measure it is a hit. It’s an inspired, well-financed and well-organized bid by New York City’s arts establishment to build a new audience for dance in the 21st century – a cause none of us could find fault with. And its taste is catholic enough to include all kinds of artists among its thirty companies. This year the season has been expanded from six to ten performances, and the price for every seat in the house remains a heavily-subsidized ten bucks. The festival continues through October 8. 

Photos (from top):
Trisha Brown's "Set and Reset." Photo by: © Naoya Ikegani/ Saitama Arts Foundation.
Dutch National Ballet in "Before After." Photo by: Julie Gardette and François Rousseau

Volume 4, No. 35
October 2, 2006

copyright ©2006 Tom Phillips



©2006 DanceView