“The Devil in the Detail,” “Esencia Tango,” “The Bright Motion,” Fé Do Sertào”
Richard Alston Dance Company; Gabriel Missé and Analia Centurión; Sara Mearns and Casey Herd; DanceBrazil
New York City Center
New York, New York
September 25, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright 2013 © by Michael Popkin
For its 10th anniversary feast of low-cost dance for all, Fall for Dance, New York City Center’s annual smorgasbord, put a hearty geographical mix on the table. Ranging from the nouvelle cuisine of contemporary British dance, to the rice and beans of Brazilian proletarian theater, the program stopped for snacks on the way: tango in Argentina and New York City for ballet. It was indeed mixed fare, serving every taste from lowbrow to high, but with something to please just about everyone.
Richard Alston’s “The Devil in the Detail” (a 2006 work from Sadler’s Wells that had its New York premiere) opened with a lighthearted series of dances to seven Scott Joplin rags. The mood of the work, like the lighting, was bright. Jason Ridgway played piano as ten casually dressed, very attractive dancers skipped their way through a series of numbers that looked more like a single flowing composition than individual pieces. Joplin’s rags ran together too as soloists or couples entered and exited the stage, and larger ensembles formed and dissolved. The movement was light; glimpses of beats and ballet cabrioles flashed by in a modern dance context.
Where Joplin’s rags varied their petit allegro tempi by introducing changes of pacing and tune, Alston used those modulations to create antithesis in the dance. Using period music but in no sense a period piece, it recalled Paul Taylor’s sunny works, but had none of Taylor’s topical humor or irony. Alston's work was satisfied with being a series of harmonious dances, and an appetizer for what came after.
In contrast to Alston’s lack of historical comment, Gabriel Missé and Analía Centurión’s “Esencia Tango” (essential tango) was ostensibly a staged history of the Argentine dance in scenes that showed tango’s roots and development. But you didn’t want to take that too seriously. The brilliance of these celebrated artists carried the piece, not in spite of its narrative, but in a way that made the narrative irrelevant. The scenes ranged from a flamenco-inspired gaucho number, to a steamy nightclub scene from the 30’s or 40’s, to a more decorous tango from the 1950’s where the weaving steps had become stereotypical and middle class. Transforming himself from gaucho to a slightly reserved businessman as the tango changed its social tone, Missé showed himself a gifted actor and character dancer in addition to being an unforgettable virtuoso of the form.
A younger couple (Carlos Barrionuevo and Mayte Valdes) alternated with Missé and Centurión in these scenes. The two men had a macho fight over Centurión that left the older Missé with her when it was over. Valdes steamed up the stage in a red top and slit black skirt. The flow of sumptuous costume changes and deep red theatrical lighting enlivened things further.
Unexpectedly, Missé and Centurión did a jitterbug to Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” to show the start of the contemporary era. Another treat was the celebrated JP Jofre playing the bandoneon (a tango squeeze box) live on stage, often to introduce changes of scene. Recorded background music then backed the middle of most of the pieces.
If all this sounds a little hokey, it was. But that made no difference. Missé is a great performer and the twenty-five minutes or so of “Esencia Tango” indeed provided an essential: a close-up, first-hand experience of a great dance artist at work.
Justin Peck’s short commission, “The Bright Motion,” for New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns and Casey Heard of the Dutch National Ballet, was just as much a star vehicle as the prior tango for Missé. The short, slight work that capitalized on Mearns’ extraordinary dramatic presence provided an impact far beyond its length. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung dressed Mearns in a tight white bathing suit leotard, slashed through around the bodice and shoulders to provide sleek shapes. The score – Mark Dancigers’ piano composition “The Bright Motion II” played live by Cory Smythe – recalled Debussy Etudes. Heard turned Mearns in arabesque on pointe. But instead of penchées, the arabesques had her first using her extension and then leaning out, reaching ever more for the wings as the music swelled. Mearns has a gift for seeming to carry music through herself; Peck’s simple choreography displayed it to full measure. Going progressively deeper through her back, and longer into her arms with the progress of each musical phrase, it felt as if her body was breathing the score.
If the works for Gabriel Missé and Mearns exploited the qualities of two extraordinary dancers, DanceBrazil’s “Fé Do Sertào” wound up the evening with an ensemble piece where individuals mattered very little.
The work was thematic. Translated from the Portuguese, the title means “Faith Hinterland” but “Faith Homeland” better conveys its sense. The dances in dark, moody lighting looked like a series of scenes from the life of the Brazilian favela. A trio played Brazilian folk music on multiple instruments. Without being narrative, the scenes conjured up the impression of specific places: a slum where the ten dancers seemed oppressed, reaching again and again for the sky and just as often being forced back down; or, in another musical passage with a droning background, a mosquito infested jungle or shantytown. Early on there was little dancing; but after a brilliant male solo, an infectious samba stomp for the ensemble ended the work while a pair of men sparred in capoeira moves downstage left. The martial arts looked like an expression of irrepressible human spirit. All this would have been trite if it hadn’t been so naïve and sincere. But the honesty of the piece let it register as art and refreshing art at that.
So as the crowd went spilling out after the show into a cool night in the street, four widely ranging works had catered to a range of tastes and experience just as wide. There’s a world of dance out there, the program seemed to say, as varied as the city crowd and as the world of nations and cultures. And all this on just one evening, with four more Fall for Dance programs, equally varied, still to come.
Photos courtesy of New York City Center, from top to bottom: Gabriel Missé and Analìa Centurión in “Esencia de Tango;” dancers of Richard Alston Dance Company in “The Devil in the Detail;” Missé and Centurión in “Esencia de Tango;” dancers of DanceBrazil in “Fé Do Sertào.”