Fall for Dance: Opening Night

Fang-Yi Sheu and Craig Hall in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Five Movements, Three Repeats”, photo by Erin Baiano

The ninth annual Fall For Dance festival opened on Thursday evening at City Center with the usual fanfare.  The atrium next to the theater buzzed with excitement, and plenty of people without tickets waited near the box office for last-minute cancellations.  The festival’s three-week season, its longest ever, features artists and companies from around the world, with each program including a variety of genres.  For a dance novice, it’s the perfect way to sample a diversity of dance.  For seasoned dancegoers, it can be immensely satisfying or utterly frustrating – depending on which night you attend.  The opening night had some wonderful moments, but overall none of the four pieces offered the thrill that you hope has audiences roaring with excitement.

In the opening piece, Transformation in Tap (a world premiere), choreographer Jared Grimes uses a voiceover and brief several vignettes to show his journey to mastering tap.  Alone on a raised platform, he starts with an intense rawness and aggression.  Later, with the help of four dancers, he demonstrates his attempt to add hip hop and contemporary movement to his technique, along with precision and elegance.  By the final sequence, he was beaming as he danced to Sammy Davis Jr.’s rendition of “Lady is a Tramp”, but I missed the fierce intensity of his opening tapping.

Choreographer and dancer Jared Grimes in “Transformation in Tap”, photo by Ernest Gregory

Christopher Wheeldon’s Five Movements, Three Repeats was one of the more enjoyable and experimental Wheeldon ballets I’ve seen in a while.  The work features four dancers – former Martha Graham dancer Fang-Yi Sheu and three from New York City Ballet – in an ensemble, two pas de deux, and a solo for Ms. Sheu – all set to music by Max Richter and Otis Clyde.  The ensemble movement included slight variations with lighting and spacing, and each section ended with an abrupt blackout.  The complexity here was absorbing, while the two pas de deux offered their own intricacies.  The contrast between Wendy Whelan on pointe and Sheu, who was barefoot, allowed for varied vocabulary.  Yet Ms. Sheu, in her pas de deux with Craig Hall, looked unfettered, free to explore a wider breadth of movement than Whelan and Tyler Angle in their duet.

Four years ago I saw Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon’s Shutters Shut on a Wheeldon program at City Center.  After seeing it again on Thursday, my feelings about it haven’t changed. It’s still witty, weird, and wonderful.  Danced by Astrid Boons and Quentin Roger of Nederlands Dans Theater, the piece uses Gertrude Stein’s recitation of her poem “If I told him: A completed portrait of Picasso” (1912) as its score.  The rhythm is rich and undulating.  Wearing black and white leotards and heavy makeup, the dancers move sharply across the stage.  They seem aware of the absurdity of their movement, its peculiar score, and how mesmerizing they are to the eye.

The British company BALLETBOYZ presented VOID, a US premiere described in the program as “an adrenaline-fueled frenzy of exquisite dancing”.  It was anything but exquisite. A gritty, black and white image of a London street was projected on the back of the stage, which was also filled with fog and harsh, white lights.  The scene looked dangerous, but as soon as the ten men appeared, all suspense disappeared.  As they rushed around the stage – some in hoodies while others were shirtless – the audience waited for a climax.  But all that was shared was angst and melodrama.  There was little actual dancing.  It was a dismal end to the evening. Let’s hope that next year’s festival opening isn’t so lackluster.

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