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Juilliard Dance

Published: October 20, 2016
Category: review

Fall for Dance Offers a Grand, International Finale

By Rachel Straus, MusicalAmerica.com
October 20, 2016

Shantala Shivalingappa. Photo by Hector Perez

Shantala Shivalingappa. Photo by Hector Perez

There is a popular saying that “dance is a universal language.” This statement raises eyebrows among dance anthropologists. They argue that dance is a language, like any other, and it needs to be studied in order to be understood. That argument found credence in the internationally diverse last program (October 7) of New York City Center’s annual two-week Fall for Dance bonanza, now in its 13th year.

Despite its emotional force and clarity of execution, Shiva Tanrangam, which opened the program, remained a mystery to the uninitiated. The diminutive Shantala Shivalingappa, a longtime Pina Bausch dancer, performed her 2010 solo work in the style of the ancient dance tradition Kuchipudi, named after a small town in south eastern India. Dedicated to the Hindu god of dance, Shiva, the piece unfolded through a series of angular postures and codified facial expressions (disbelief, surprise, delight) that reflected a story, as sung in Hindu by the four Indian-born musicians seated stage right. The lyrics were lost on non-Hindu speakers, but Shivalingappa nonetheless mesmerized through her musicality and precision footwork; her stamping heels often produced complex polyrhythms with her musicians. At the dance’s end, her spiraling figure became engulfed in a sea of blue light (thanks to Nicolas Boudier). Cresting and receding, Shivalingappa’s rocking movement phrase transformed her into a figure eight, the infinity symbol.

More familiar to western audiences, and better received by this one, was Wayne McGregor’s Witness, seen here in its world premiere. It was created for Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, both ballet stars affiliated with American Ballet Theater, who have great stage chemistry. (At the Metropolitan last spring, Ferri, age 53, and the much younger Cornejo reprised their lead roles in Kenneth Macmillan’s 1985 Romeo and Juliet, to rave reviews.) Capitalizing on their intense connection, McGregor presented them as lovers in a wintery landscape created by Clifton Taylor’s silver-spun lighting. Standing apart from Cornejo, as though contemplating a distant memory, Ferri is first seen alone. Throughout the ballet, Cornejo repeatedly sweeps her up into sinuous, entangled dance phrases. Yet each time they physically merge, Ferri stops the flow of Cornejo’s deft manipulations, revealing her exquisitely taught and expressive legs. Ferri’s sense of apartness is echoed in the set design. Positioned upstage right was a column of florescent lights as tall as two bodies, one standing on top of the other. Ferri, however, is drawn to a smaller, less eye-catching light, downstage left. As she reaches toward it, and away from her partner, the light turned from wintery to warm, the color of a pumpkin.

It is surprising that McGregor, lauded for his hyper-physical works, such as Infra for the Royal Ballet, made a wondrously quiet duet. The lack of big, flashy moments in Witness was underscored by New Age composer Nils Frahm’s solo piano work Immerse, which consisted essentially of the same solemn motif, repeated incessantly. Witness offered the familiar and dynamic language of ballet: multiple pirouettes (his), six o’clock splits on pointe (hers) and overhead lifts, where Ferri appeared like a will-o’-wisp thanks to Cornejo’s ministrations.

Performed by seven Nederlands Dans Theater members, Marco Goecke’s Woke Up Blind, in its Stateside premiere, impressed for the dancers’ speed, brutal agency, and facility with its auto-erotic movement style. Aram Hasler, a veteran of the dance troupe, appeared first. Highlighted by Udo Haberland’s dramatic lighting, Hasler looked like a muscle builder, whose rippling spine alternatively convulsed and froze. His violent chopping gestures underscored his chiseled physique. He brought to mind a sexy, aggressive fighter, a Superman of contemporary western concert dance. The other performers were equally riveting in their ability to shoot out their limbs aggressively, like weapons. One, Prince Credell, moved so fast that his blurred figure resembled a Kung Fu chain whip. According to the program notes, Goecke’s work pays homage to the singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who died at the age of 30, and whose warbling, high pitched voice in a recording tendered solipsistic lyrics like, “You were my only hope, silver eyes.” The program notes pronounced that the dancers are “like young lovers” who are “driven purely by longing.” Yet the dance was dominated by solos; rarely did the performers interact with each other, and so Woke up Blind, for all its force majeure, left this reviewer unmoved.

Cheng Tsung-Lung’s Beckoning became the antithesis of Woke Up Blind. Performed by ten, marvelously limber and tranquil dancers from Cloud Gate 2, the famed Taiwanese company’s junior troupe, Beckoning reinforced the value of the collective, as opposed to the individual. The choreography featured the signature style of the group’s founder, Lin Hwai-min: a looping, seamless set of phrases that resemble danced calligraphy. In the course of the over-long work, each dancer became a heterosexual couple. In the culminating moments, the ten dancers moved as one unit, their hips rocking as if on horseback, their arms striking, as though wielding an invisible scythe, turning wheat into hay. As the curtain lowered, a woman behind me said, “Thank God it’s over.” Perhaps this serene and over-long dance did not possess the “wow” factor that audiences have come to expect.

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