Falling for Dance, Again

Programs 4 and 5 of this year's Fall for Dance showcased curator Sanford Takashi's fresh curatorial approach, pairing classical and neo-classical ballet with modern dance, contemporary favorites such as tap and hop and international ethnic dance presentations The results were mixed, although always exciting. Program 4 (November 3-4) the more successful of the two, started with a breathtaking display titled Agwa by CCN de Créteil et du Val-de-Marne/Compagnie Käfig, a French-based troupe of young Brazilian dancers led by artistic director Mourad Merzouki. The eleven performers all have stage names such as "FAXOLA", "SORRISO" (smile) and PITT: they mixed in elements of break, hip hop and capoieira as they danced around, over and in between hundreds of plastics cups of water to music by AS'N. Towards the end of the piece, they balanced the cups high in the air and continued to amaze as they sent out waves of youthful enthusiasm across the stage. The performance was also indicative of the gulf that exists between audience and critical response, as they received by far the most enthusiastic applause of the night, in spite of the fact that the choreography itself was rather basic, a series of sketches rather than a unified whole. Similarly, during Program 5 the following night Maurice Chesnut's remarkable tap also received the loudest applause --audiences are no doubt increasingly influenced by shows such as Dancing with the Stars.

The Chinese Tao Dance Theater, represented here by choreographer Tao Ye, Duan Ni and Wang Ho, contrasted starkly with their Brazilian counterparts. To hauntingly repetitive music by Steven Reich, one of the women twirled a bamboo stick with increasing velocity while standing under a ray of light. The other two dancers, one male and one female, both in long robes and holding hands, then performed square patterns over and over again, as they progressively increased speed until they virtually flew across the stage. Here everything was about precision and repetition, a zen-like meditation on the mind/soul dichotomy. Beautifully cut back and white costumes by Tao Ye played with notions of gender and contributed greatly to the overall effect.

After the intermission, a rather lackluster Royal Ballet of Flanders presented The Return of Ulysses, choreographed by Christian Spuck, to music by Henry Purcell and a cute, if somewhat cloying, selection of songs from the '40s and '50s. Seven handsome suitors dressed in black all vied for Penelope's affections, but the sad Greek princess -- danced to perfection by the fiery haired Eva Dewaele -- would have none of them. The men at times infused humorous elements into the dance such as quickly flicking their hands together behind their backs as they approached Penelope, but it was the sylph-like Dewaele, lithe and dynamic as she rejected one suitor after the other, who stole the show.

The night was capped off by another marked change of pace as the women of the Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba performed Pa' Cuba Me Voy, a mix of flamenco, ballet, Afro-Cuban and African rhythms and movement. The mixture of classical elements and point work with flamenco and ballet adroitly fused with the live music, led by singer Jose Onell Carbonell. The presentation was heartfelt and majestic and the dancers displayed obvious pride in their culture and traditions.

As I alluded to before, Program 5 the following night was somewhat less successful. Maurice Chesnut's tap piece Floating, performed with Zoe Eliot and Kyle Wilder displayed great technical prowess. At times Chesnut did indeed seem to float on air, but we've seen this type of straightforward tap presentation -- each dancer on his own small podium with a showcased lead -- too many times before for it to really enthrall. Interestingly enough, the highlight of the night was the NYCB's presentation of Christopher Wheeldon's 2001 Polyphonia set to 10 piano pieces by György Ligeti. Wheeldon is a choreographer of mixed talent but these pieces, which rely heavily on body placement, angles and dancers' flexibility, are a testament to the fact that good ballets are still being created and that the art form is in any case perfectly suited to postwar modernist music. It was a particular thrill to see the über-talented Wendy Whelan on stage, but Tiler Peck, Lauren Lovette, Brittany Pollack, Amar Ramasar, and my favorite stars of recent years Chase Finlay and Tyler Angle matched her move for breathtaking move. Wheeldon's choreography was as precise, odd and mystifying as Ligeti's score.

Unfortunately, obscured, half-baked, and witless are some of the adjectives that come to mind when describing the Liz Gerring Company's 2010 piece Lichtung/Clearing, which followed after intermission. The lighting and use of long, wide strips of fabric which hung down from the ceiling (care of setting designer Ursula) were indeed mesmerizing, but the presentation was an otherwise sorry mess, with a small coterie of attractive and barely clad boys and girls sprinting around the stage and executing bland unisons to Michael J. Schumacher's electronic sound composition. While the lighting did show off the sets to strong effect, it also obscured our views of the dancers, which defeated the ostensible reason for attending dance in the first place. (I was sorry to miss the last piece of the night, Alvin Ailey perform Maurice Bigonzetti's spirited 2008 Festa Barroca, set to music by Handel.) Mixing so many styles and dance idioms in one program can be jarring at times, but the approach at least has the merit of showcasing companies and dancers in new progressive ways -- which is sure to bring back audiences year after year.