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Making a List

It’s the end of the year! How did we get here? I don’t think I’m alone in the impression that January was just yesterday. Twenty twenty-three was the year in which things began to feel normal again for those of us who spend a lot of time at the theater. Theaters were full, and audiences were happy to be there. Along the way, there were performances that made me particularly glad to be there, surrounded by people, all breathing the same air and experiencing the same thrill. Here are a few of those moments, in no particular order.

Mira Nadon and Chun Wai Chan in George Balanchine’s “Apollo.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

There was Mira Nadon’s début as Terpsichore, alongside Chun Wai Chan’s début as Apollo in Balanchine’s eponymous ballet at New York City Ballet. Nadon was playful and confident, and, above all, supremely awake, responsive, alive. I was especially struck by the way she watched and listened to her partner. When he playfully chased her across the stage, she looked back to make sure he was still there. When she offered Chan her arm in that wonderful moment in which Terpsichore perches on Apollo’s knees, she looked squarely into his face, as if inviting him to join her.  Chan, meanwhile, gave a very full interpretation of the young god, acting out the role rather than simply dancing it. It was a refreshing approach at a company where acting is generally frowned upon. It worked for him. Earlier in the season, Nadon gave a characteristically bold, ebullient performance in “Emeralds.” In a short time, she has become one of the company’s most exciting dancers. 

Also at New York City Ballet: Both Tiler Peck and Sara Mearns gave potent performances of the central ballerina role in the grandiose and grandiloquent “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” Peck was a whirlwind and more natural and expansive than I’ve seen her in a while; Mearns was commanding and dramatic. During both performances, the audience seemed to hold its breath, in awe of the prowess of the ballerinas onstage.

Joseph Gordon and Tiler Peck in George Balanchine’s “Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

American Ballet Theatre also produced some enthralling moments of dance, in particular a performance by one of the casts of Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.” Gillian Murphy and Daniel Camargo created detailed, witty accounts of the lead roles, two fairies, Titania and Oberon, involved in a marital spat. Their disagreement at the start of the ballet, and the sensuous pas de deux at the end, perfectly encapsulated the humor, understanding of human nature and tenderness that Ashton possessed in greater measure than any other ballet choreographer. Jake Roxander, as Puck, was electrifying, executing huge jumps that clung to the air and generally performing as if it were his last day on earth. Camargo, too, is a special dancer, though one with a much quieter, more introspective presence. He has the knack of bringing out the best in ballerinas. Dancing with Catherine Hurlin in “Giselle,” the two produced a magical effect, as if they had become one mind, one organism. Hurlin, a natural actress, shaped the role of Giselle so that it seemed to become an extension of herself. It made the ballet feel modern.

I was delighted and enthralled by the strangeness and inventiveness of Christopher Williams’s “A Child’s Tale,” a suite of dances based on Ukrainian folk tales about Baba Yaga and other spirits drawn from Slavic lore, at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Through costuming and an almost naïf movement language, Williams created a compelling, mysterious, frightening world. A foundling boy was attacked, only to be saved by a house spirit, townfolk prayed for protection, and a sorceress ran across the stage on chicken legs. 

Christopher Williams’s “A Child’s Tale.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

Another show that left a powerful afterimage was Shamel Pitts’s “Touch of Red,” danced in a subterranean space below the stage of New York Live Arts. In a square ring that suggested a boxing arena, two men, Shamel Pitts and Tushrik Fredericks, grappled, pushed against each other, and collided in a dance that suggested aggression, tension, love, and release. It was a performance of searing intensity.

Bijayini Satpathy returned to New York with two shows, “Abhipsaa” at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and “Sita Haran” at Fall For Dance. Satpathy has an uncanny ability to connect her movements so they become a kind of energetic continuum, whose momentum sweeps you along like a wave. You follow the drama of the dancing intently, as if the characters in the stories were there in front of you, running through the forest, flying overhead, bursting with longing or fear or joy. In “Sita Haran,” she embodied six different characters from the Ramayana: male, female, human, demon, animal. In the blink of an eye, she was transformed.

Toward the end of the year, a group of dancers from across the African continent, assembled by the Pina Bausch Foundation, performed Bausch’s 1975 “Rite of Spring” at the Park Avenue Armory. (The show was part of Van Cleef & Arpels’s new festival “Dance Reflections.”) Bausch’s “Rite” has been seen in New York before, and it is always compelling. That score! Here, though, the combination of the cavernous space of the Armory, the pile of peat on the ground, and the total abandon of the dancers, came together to create an even greater impression than usual. Sitting in the tiered seats, the audience could see the dancers’ faces, feel their individual humanity. You could watch each person and trace his or her trajectory through the dance (and through Stravinsky’s score). The brutality of the situation Pina so viscerally depicted was counterbalanced by the beauty and abandon of the dancers.

It was a year of extraordinary dancing.

United Ukrainian Ballet at their US debut of “Giselle” by Alexei Ratmansky. Photograph by Mena Brunette

It was also a year of terrible conflict and suffering. The continuing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and later, the war in Gaza, cast a pall over everything. How Israeli and Palestinian culture will be transformed by the current horrors nobody knows. One response to the Ukrainian conflict was the creation of the United Ukrainian Ballet, a company of exiled dancers based in The Netherlands. In February the company performed “Giselle” in Washington D.C., at the Kennedy Center. The performance was deeply moving, both because of the touching directness with which the story of the ballet was depicted, and because of the sadness of the context in which it was performed. This collective of dancers, from companies and schools all over Ukraine, is yet another manifestation of the humanity, stoicism, and artistic potential of the Ukrainian people. We can only hope that one day they will be able to go home, rejoin their companies and families, and move on with their lives. 

And on that rather dispiriting note, I wish you all a better, and more hopeful 2024.

Marina Harss

Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.



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