It’s late September: the air is crisp, the kids are back at school, and the Fall for Dance festival is ensconced at City Center for two weeks of grab-bag programming at bargain-bin prices. I chose to attend Program 3 of this year’s fest because it featured the live premiere of Jamar Roberts’s “Morani/Mungu (Black Warrior/Black God),” which premiered virtually during the Covid-adapted FFDF of 2020. Arriving 5 months after George Floyd’s death and overtly tackling the struggle to simply exist as a Black person in America, I found this solo incredibly moving at the time. I’ve wanted to see it danced live for two years now. Roberts himself danced the streaming premiere, but he has since retired from performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to be the troupe’s resident choreographer. Until just recently, the FFDF casting of this solo was a mystery, and I wondered who would be able to fill Roberts’s giant shoes (well, bare feet). James Gilmer, a rising Ailey star, was eventually tapped for the honor. He did not disappoint. Nor did “Morani/Mungu,” which proved once again to be a knockout, both physically and emotionally.
Gilmer and Roberts are cut from the same, unusual cloth: towering and muscular, yet Gumby-like. They look like redwood trees but move like willows. But where Roberts channeled Zen placidity in “Morani/Mungu,” Gilmer went for stoicism with a hint of suppressed rage. Both approaches were effective. This time around I was struck by how strictly the choreography followed the melody line in each of the three musical selections: “Black Is” by The Last Poets, “The Drum Thing” by John Coltrane, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Nina Simone. Roberts’s steps hug tight to the song lyrics, without enacting them literally—save for when Gilmer did vigorous marching arms while scooting on his butt when The Last Poets referenced “a march in Alabama.” (But only his top half was literal: his seated position and inchworm pace of forward motion provided biting commentary, suggesting the slow progress of protest—maybe even its futility.)
Only twice in the fourteen-minute solo did I notice the steps responding overtly to the backbeat: when Gilmer sort of rhumba-ed for a second in the opening number, and when he did a sequence of rolling, dolphin-tail floorwork to piano trills in the Simone finale. In the Coltrane segment, his steps coasted along with the long, wavering lines of the saxophone. When the number turned solidly into a percussion solo, he followed the drumming’s larger arcs, resisting breaking into steps in rat-a-tat eighth or sixteenth-note segments. In this solo, Roberts positions the dancer in the musical spotlight and holds him there, not letting him slip into the background noise. It is a sly way of making the audience focus on the man behind the movements at all times. It’s a wonderful piece; I’d like to see it many more times.
Next, the San Francisco Ballet performed Jerome Robbins’s “In the Night.” Surprisingly, it was the ballet’s first duet that shone brightest in front of the starry backdrop. This pas de deux is often the weak link of the three, but Elizabeth Powell and Joseph Walsh danced it as passionately as if they were doing the tumultuous third pas. They made the awkward splits, rear-end spins, and swan poses of the floorwork section cohesively expressive. One of my favorite aspects of the FFDF is the surprising way in which the pieces speak to each other over the course of the show. When Walsh knelt and bowed with his elbows stuck out behind him, he echoed Gilmer in “Morani/Mungu.” It was fascinating that the same pose could read as both defiant resignation and romantic surrender.
The Spanish flamenco dancer María Moreno and the Spanish singer María Terremoto closed out the evening in “Tangos & Alegrías”, which was significant because it was the first time in three years that international acts have been included in the festival due to Covid restrictions. The curtain went up on Moreno in a sequined, fringed jacket and flared chiffon pants in a lone spotlight. She resembled an Elvis impersonator. Later she changed into an opposite look: a voluminously ruffled coral bata de cola. But even when she changed into the frilly lobster gown, she maintained her unique, weighty style. Flamenco dancers are always grounded, but Moreno seems to have a sprawling, subterranean root system. Her base of operations is a demi-squat, her pelvis hinged slightly back with her shoulders curved forward in counterbalance. With her ruffly dress billowing outward, I thought of the slightly menacing, tentacular ooziness of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Whenever Moreno commenced a heelwork section, she would look down, pull up her skirts, and act a little surprised to find feet underneath. I loved her vibe, I wish her choreography had been better. She had a neat bag of tricks, but she cycled through them instead of seamlessly integrating them.
Terremoto performed a long vocal number while Moreno changed costumes. Her voice was nice, but she wasn’t absorbed in her own performance enough to cast a spell. She kept untangling her hair from her microphone and yanking her mermaid dress back down, she even coughed a few times. With Moreno, however, intensity of focus was never an issue. She locked onto the audience and never let go. At one point she stood perfectly still—feet together, hands out—exactly as Gilmer had in “Morani/Mungu.” Though the move implied “look at me” in each work, Moreno struck the pose as if she was the master of the universe—she was outright demanding applause. Gilmer did it humbly, asking the audience to fully consider his personhood. These uncanny overlaps and stimulating contrasts are what make me look forward to Fall for Dance every year.