Every year, City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival offers true medley programming, with hit-or-miss results. But the fifth and final program of this year’s festival was strong from start to finish. Talented young Roman Mejia (New York City Ballet’s newest soloist) kicked off the show by stepping into “Fandango,” a gypsy solo Alexei Ratmansky choreographed for Wendy Whelan in 2010. It has also been danced before by Sara Mearns, but Mejia is the first male to take it on. It was somewhat reworked for Mejia—the women did not perform such aerial manèges—but many of the steps were left unaltered and they were clearly made for pointe shoes. The effusive audience whooped and clapped most for the manliest bravura passages, but what Mejia did with the more feminine choreography was the most interesting. There was a passage of walks forward on demi-pointe to a tendu flourish that reminded me of the Dewdrop Fairy, and also a sous-sous/Italien changement diagonal that was unusual on a male in flat shoes. These cross-gendered moments added to the intrigue of the dance and let Mejia’s natural charisma shine in new ways.
“Fandango” shared more than a few points in common with the next ballet on the program, Justin Peck’s “Bloom.” Both pieces were accompanied live onstage by the excellent Brooklyn Rider String Quartet. And both were presented jointly by the Vail Dance Festival, where Damian Woetzel serves as Artistic Director. Mejia and Herman Cornejo (who performed in “Bloom”) are also dancers with much overlap: they are both compact, explosive, and dashing. And both are slightly reminiscent of Woetzel onstage, though he had a more delicate bone structure and height. And Woetzel had a slightly detached magnetism, while the other two are more ardent and immediate. But all three share the uncanny ability to command their longish tresses as much as they do their pointed toes and their fast-spotting necks. I can’t believe I’m writing about hair again, but this odd detail speaks to a larger point about how, through Vail, Woetzel has sought to develop artists he feels an affinity for, and he has mentored them well over the years.
The other headliner in “Bloom,” Tiler Peck, was Woetzel’s final dance partner at the NYCB and his longtime protégé. She taps into his ability to bend time and to float so calmly in her pirouettes it is as if she is standing still. Here the apprentice has surpassed the master, though for shaving off fractions of seconds, it probably helps that she dances on pointe and Woetzel did not. Anyway, Damian Woetzel was the Kevin Bacon of this program, with even fewer than six degrees of separation in any direction. He also seemed closely connected to the FFD spectators as he stood and excitedly cheered for each piece, which was charming.
Peck and Cornejo were a star-studded pairing, and they did not disappoint . . . me. The ravenous FFD crowd was somewhat stumped by Justin Peck’s “Bloom,” however. They couldn’t easily figure out where to clap. This is because “Bloom” was the antithesis of a flashy festival pas, pulling its punches instead of hammering each showy nail into the coffin. In fact, it is a clever inversion of Balanchine’s “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux,” which lampoons gala showpiece duets (as I have elucidated before in Fjord Review) even as it behaves like one.
Tiler (I’m going to use some first names here because she and the choreographer share a surname, though they are not related in any way) and Cornejo entered from opposite wings and circled each other before meeting on center for three steps and a taking of hands, just as “Tchai Pas” begins. Caroline Shaw’s score overtly quoted the Tchaikovsky music at this moment and elsewhere, but then subverted it delightfully otherwise—as did Justin’s nuanced choreography. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s costumes also engaged in a push/pull with the Balanchine masterwork. When Cornejo first appeared, it seemed he had his unitard on backwards—the boatneck hit so high on his throat, and the deep V was so sharply cut down his back. But this was all part of the “Tchai Pas” funhouse effect, and when he whizzed through impressively quick á la seconde pirouettes it gave the illusion of the original costume.
Most wonderful though, was how Justin scrambled and riffed on Balanchine’s ideas. Some sections were almost literally inverted: like Tiler’s off-balance entrance and fouettés in the coda, as well as the odd attitude front position she assumed several times. This latter move was a near exact reversal of the move in “Tchai Pas” in which the ballerina does a double stepover pirouette into a kneeling position and the man holds her hand while extending his leg back in attitude. The image is fleeting in Balanchine’s work, but the inverse was used here in major moments. In “Bloom,” Tiler stuck her leg up so quickly that the crowd could not believe that it was an ending pose. Hilarious.
Other sections were more thematically reversed. Cornejo’s solo music began with plucked strings which seemed to beg for pointe shoes; then it morphed into male solo oompah vamping for the last couple of bars. It sounded like it was just beginning instead of wrapping up, but the steps had been substantial throughout. Conversely, Tiler’s solo music consisted of long chords, over which she picked at the floor like a dervish, coming to an abrupt stop at the end in about the same way as in “Tchai Pas.” Like Balanchine before him, Justin played with classical conventions and audience expectations. “Bloom” was an excellent, intellectually engaging piece—particularly if you knew the source material. It was also a devilish thing to show at the FFDF. It was as if Tiler and Cornejo, two of ballet’s biggest rockstars, had appeared together for one benefit concert and refused to play any of their hits.
Luckily for the crowd, Ayodele Casel’s “Where We Dwell” closed out the program with polish and some very big tap moments. But she too toyed with conventions. In one section, five diverse women stood in the front panel of the stage in stark spotlights. It was the Chorus Line audition setup, but these women were not competing against each other. Instead, Casel used this framework to make a point about inclusion. Each woman demonstrated her unique abilities solo, and then in harmonious counterpoint to the group as Crystal Monee Hall belted a soulful version of “This Land is Your Land.”
Hall, who also composed the music, was sensational throughout the piece. One of my favorite parts was when she sang “Work Me Over” while Casel sat on a stool and listened. Slowly, Casel started to tap her feet and dance in her chair, like she just couldn’t help herself. Then she took a mic and started literally scatting out the sounds that her feet were making while Hall took a breather. Suddenly, Hall took back over on vocals and Casel let her feet fly free from the tether of her own narration (the speed of her tapping easily quadrupled). The combined power of both women unloosed in their elements gave me chills.
John Manzari was another standout. He experimented with his ample wingspan in a beautifully ruminative solo—tapping as he was slowly falling or lunging in different directions. But the FFD crowd seemed happiest when Casel was part of a trio pounding out complex time steps to Hall’s iteration of that perennial tap classic: “I’ve Got Rhythm.” It’s an old formula but a good one. As Hall crooned, I thought: who could ask for anything more?
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