Fall For Dance Festival Review: 30 Years of Getting to Know Dance
Fall For Dance Festival Review September 27, 2023 | New York City Center – New York, NY, USA
80, 30, 20.
Not a random collection of numbers but New York City Center’s slogan for their 2023/2024 season. 80 years ago, City Center opened its doors as Manhattan’s first performing arts center. 30 years ago, marks the first performance of the theater’s Encores! series. And 20 years ago, the Fall for Dance Festival presented affordable access to dance at just $20.
Today, every ticket is still $20 (plus a $10 fee) solidifying the festival as “the best deal in town” as City Center CEO Michael Rosenberg told a pumped-up Wednesday night crowd.
Each program (five in total across the ten-day festival) presents a panoply of dance, stitched together by a similar end goal – moving the audience through movement – but each number remains different enough that one can taste multiple genres in a singular evening.
Fall For Dance Festival Review
Ballet British Columbia, an established contemporary dance company from Canada, opened the show with Crystal Pite’s heart pounding, sweat inducing The Statement.
On center stage stood a large oval table and looming above, a domineering SPAM tin shaped object of equal length to the desk, which would float up and down as tensions increased.
Acting like an oppressive interrogation room lamp, Tom Visser’s crisp lighting provided stark white brightness and harsh shadows. Everything beyond the perimeter of the table was engulfed in darkness.
Dressed in typical office garb – suits, ties, button-down shirts – four dancers swirl frantically around, under, and across the board room table. Every step is instigated by written word in the form of an office conversation from four voice actors, authored by Jonathon Young, and music by Owen Belton.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God”, says a voice.
A dancer drags her forehead across the desk four inches to the right on every “God”, her head shifting away from one hand and towards the other, back hunched and knees bent to get into the awkward angle.
Two of the dancers represent innocence, accidentally being in the wrong place and time, another dancer is a sort of proctor character, surveying the conversation and keeping things “on record” while the fourth dancer is introduced as “the guy” who will mend the situation.
The voiceover script is tense as the guilt jumps from person to person, but it is Pite’s steps, a mastery of perilous shapes mixed with physically breathtaking sweeps and swirls, that solidify the pressure.
The script and choreography urged some audience laughter as well, like when a dancer jumped up on the table profoundly saying “No!”, the dancers stared at him expectantly, until he backed down, “Sorry, sorry”.
Originally premiering in 2016, The Statement stays relevant even given that most of the audience likely hasn’t been in a board room with other people since 2020. Its stark shadows, grim humored script, and frantic choreography give it the edge of an off-Broadway theater piece that Ballet BC delivered with vigor.
Normally a program with two intermissions makes me yawn but I would have waited through a 45-minute intermission just to see, and hear, Conrad Tao and Caleb Teicher’s Rhapsody in Blue.
As the lights brightened, a grand piano and a square floorboard with an accompanying chair split center stage. Tao sat on the piano bench and Teicher in the chair. The iconic first notes of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue echoed from Tao’s fingers as the dancer sat observing and enjoying the delicate tones.
When the music inevitably picks up in rhythm, Teicher rises to dance.
The piece feels like a celebration honoring the relationship between music, musician, and dancer – amplified by Teicher’s tap shoes, making the dancer both a percussionist and a focal point of movement. Teicher keeps their gaze on Tao, every tap of their shoe complimenting the piano notes and in return, every piano note reverberating back at Teicher, a pas de deux of sound.
While Teicher took on the typical embodiment of the physical role in a dance piece, Tao was physically expressive as well. His interpretation of Gershwin’s classic leaned into the natural whimsy of the score through comical pauses and conversation-like call and response moments between the keys and metal taps.
And when Gershwin’s bluesy, unofficial American theme song demands speed and volume, Tao raises his shoulders and his head swings back to deliver his entire physical force onto the now raucous black and whites beneath his hands.
The choreography is a mix of impressive podalic fury, jazzy expressions electrified through outstretched arms, and witty humor like when Teicher leaves the tap board to make a lap around the stage, pausing to touch Tao’s head a-la Duck Duck Goose.
Between impressive comedic timing and fancy work, Teicher also plays with physical feats, toying with the audience. At one moment they moved from a standing bow yoga pose to the reverse, holding their foot in front of their nose, and then performed a spectacular one-legged wing jump (an advanced step where the feet slide sideways and spank the floor on the outward and inward motions – typically done on two feet).
Teicher culminates the cheeky number with rapid and successive “over the top” steps (one foot hovers about the ground while the other jumps over it) to match the final trilling notes of the colorful score. The audience erupted in cheers and a standing ovation.
Buttoning up the program was the large group number Oh Courage! by Tony award winning choreographer Sonya Tayeh featuring the Gibney Company. The human experience felt most prevalent in this piece, urged on by the poetic callings in music by The Bengsons.
In their song Oh Courage, no doubt the titular inspiration, Abigail Bengson cries out
“help me help me
my bones are outside of my body”.
The dancers make guttural expressions to match, fists clench their stomachs and throats like a poison has tainted their innards. Or they lift their shoulders and puff out their chests, walking like juiced up versions of Frankenstein’s monster.
It’s that fine line between pain and pleasure, beauty and beastly that humanity seems to teeter on and where art delivers a message in which the audience can feel both.
Tayeh’s steps live in that precarious in between which allows a richness and freedom for the dancer to explore.
The Gibney dancers are daring and curious, bringing bold sensibilities to the movement and delivering precise abandonment at every opportunity.
Where they found themselves constrained was in the set design: an accumulation of speakers in a corner of the stage flanked by four posts of neon lights. Dancers weaved through or stood on the speakers, leaving their lower limbs rigid. Although perhaps the restriction was an intentional juxtaposition as it allowed suspension amongst the turmoil.
At 30 years old, the Fall for Dance Festival continues to stay true to its value – making a variety of dance accessible to NYC. And City Center remains the place to be if you know dance or if you want to get to know dance.
Featured Photo for this New York City Center 2023 Fall For Dance Festival review of Ballet BC Dancers Anna Bekirova and Justin Rapaport. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Nadia Vostrikov is a former television actress and dancer for Boston Ballet II, Alberta Ballet, and numerous freelance dance companies. She currently works as a Digital Marketer in NYC. (Photo by: Katrina Cunningham)