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Gentlemen’s Club

Not for the first time at the Fall for Dance Festival, now in its 20th year, Chippendale’s emerged as the theme of the night. There were 32 male dancers across the three works on the festival’s third program, 31 of whom danced shirtless. There were just 3 women in the entire show; all kept their tops on. None of the pieces presented—encompassing ballet, hip hop, and traditional Hawaiian dance styles—were overly sensual. This was an uncanny costuming coincidence rather than an erotic special. (Though my pregnant Hawaiian date kindly pointed out the many fertility hulas in the closing piece.) Yet, aside from the stark imbalances in gender and body coverage, FFD’s Program 3 was a wide-ranging and well put-together show.

Performance

Fall for Dance Festival, program 3: Houston Ballet in “Clear” by Stanton Welch;

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, October 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Houston Ballet in “Clear” by Stanton Welch. Photograph by Steven Pisano

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The Houston Ballet, which has been under the co-directorship of Julie Kent and Stanton Welch AM only since July, brought “Clear,” a work representative of the duo’s longer affiliation. Welch choreographed this dance on Kent in 2001, when she was a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater. This gesture of solidarity in artistic leadership bodes well for the troupe, though Kent’s role as the lone woman in the wolfpack in “Clear”—danced here by Houston Ballet principal and former ABT soloist Yuriko Kajiya—still feels like an afterthought. In 2001, this technically flashy romp to Bach showcased a strong crop of men at ABT that included Angel Corella, Maxim Belotserkovsky, and Marcelo Gomes. Impressively, Houston had the depth to pull it off, with Eric Best, Naazir Muhammad, and Harper Watters confidently holding down the ballet. The veteran Kajiya was like their den mother, intruding every so often to demonstrate some nondescript, choreographically unnecessary pointework. This program could have used more women, but this dance didn’t need the one it had. Welch gives even the traditionally feminine showstoppers, fouetté turns, to his male lead. They were done around-the-world style, spotting all four walls of the theater in turn. Best nailed this trick and other feats cleanly and buoyantly.

Houston Ballet in “Clear” by Stanton Welch. Photograph by Steven Pisano

The world premiere of GhettOriginal Productions Dance Co.’s “Jam on the Groove 3 for 30,” followed. This FFD commission was a recreation/expansion of sections from a 1995 off-Broadway hip hop production. Choreographer Adesola Osakalumi, himself a former B Boy (aka D’Incredible) and performer in the piece, staged it and supplied additional choreography.  The opening section, Concrete Jungle, was made in response to the Rodney King beatings. Smoke filtered through can lighting from above, sirens punctuated the soundtrack, and the backdrop flashed sayings like “back in the day” and “no justice just us.” The large cast performed some unison hip hop moves, then splintered off into solos in their specialty areas including breakdancing, popping, and locking. It was powerful when these displays of individual prowess and artistry were cut off in one instant, when they were all gunned down at the end. One man survived and kept on air drumming, keeping the beat alive.

The second section, Portrait of a Freeze, featured three men and one woman (Victor “Kid Glyde” Alicea III, Anthony “YNOT” Denaro, Carmarry “Pep-C” Hall, and Sammy “Samo” Soto, all terrific) in colorful track suits, giving off 90’s, In Living Color vibes. (The costume styling was by Naana Badu, the lighting by Kate Ashton, the music by Steffan “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente and Antoine “Doc” Judkins.) The quartet walked in and curled up in balls on the floor to make a box in the front right corner of the stage. The dancers sprung to life at different moments, again showcasing personalized skill sets, like a game of Four Square in which they volleyed virtuosic passages instead of a ball. This format belied how hip hop dancing is not designed for the European theater format, it is born of the grids on playgrounds, and its steps commune more deeply with the blacktop than with a seated audience. The inherent rejection of the venue’s viewing principles made it feel even more radical and refreshing. It was cool to watch this after the ballet entry too, as these are opposing genres. In ballet, dancers try to defy gravity and hold onto the air. Hip hop, conversely, is all about establishing roots.

GhettOriginal Productions Dance Co.’s “Jam on the Groove 3 for 30.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

I am always amazed at how much physical opposition is involved in breakdancing too: it is so grounded, but it appears weightless. The dancers’ knees melt away even as they scoot around on them. Crablike movements are created with jellyfish appendages. The dancers project the image of hardness while liquifying their own joints. These contradictions are dazzling, and they carried over into the third part, Moments in Motion, in a different manner yet. It was in this section that the men ditched their tees and jackets, the better to show how engaged their stomachs were too in the subtleties of popping and locking. Sometimes movement rippled up through their bodies and along their spines in waves, sometimes it was fragmented into rapid snapshot isolations, creating a strobe effect without any lights. I love that this genre encompasses such small-scale, pinpoint precision as well as the explosive, uncontained energy of certain African dance styles, demonstrated in the first movement by Jai’Quin Coleman. Though this genre is perhaps best viewed standing around in a circle on a ball court, it is still wonderful to behold it in a theater. Osakalumi said in a promotional video: “when we first did this work, places like City Center, other performance spaces, would not have maybe been open to presenting it.”   

Kaleoolakaikahikinaokalā in “Hawaiki (The Homeland).” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The Kaleoolakaikahikinaokalā troupe’s world premiere, “Hawaiki (The Homeland)” was another example of a genre not naturally suited to the stage format, yet it was also a welcome addition to the FFDF.  The piece began with chanting and a few men kneeling on a raised platform at the back corner of the stage, they drummed with their right hands while engaging in incredibly detailed, gestural storytelling with their left hands. All the while they hinged back and forward and raised and lowered themselves to the music they were making. This drum dancing was a form of seated, noho, hula. Then long lines of men in loincloths with huge bows at their waists and garlands of leaves in their hair (by Kumu Hula Kaleo Trinidad) formed to perform standing, luna, hulas in the kahiko, or traditional, style—meaning before any encounters with Western civilization. This was not the long grass skirt, ukelele, and steel guitar hula-ing that most Americans would think of first; that would be the auana hula, or “drift” hula—as in hula that drifted from the ancient ways.

This homeland hula was surprisingly militant, with lots of stomping and jogging and toe-heel enunciations. Some sections incorporated boxing moves, like the men were battle dancing. At times the piece resembled a Punch and Judy puppet show. The dancers’ hip motions were rather violent and often stopped abruptly, as if cut off midsentence. In contrast to extensive soloing of the hip hop troupe before, the Hawaiians remained in tight unison throughout the work, even as the tempo erratically quickened and slowed, led by the ipu heke (double gourd) drummer in the corner. Their chanting shifted dramatically too; they played with both the volume and quality of their voices. A sudden switch to a reedy falsetto had the audience chuckling. Though this was all in contrast to the mellifluous swaying of the more well-known auana hula style, their dancing evoked tidal motion nonetheless. Tiny, detailed movements of their hands, ankles, and gazes were offset by the side-to-side or front-and-back rocking formations of the group as a whole. 

The most surprising aspect of this performance was when the dancers broke into a solemn chant during their bows, interrupting the applause of the reliably boisterous FFD crowd. For once, they went silent. But then the cast grinned and flashed the hang loose symbol. The audience, fittingly, erupted like a volcano.     

Faye Arthurs


Faye Arthurs is a former ballet dancer with New York City Ballet. She chronicled her time as a professional dancer in her blog Thoughts from the Paint. She graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in English from Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and their sons.

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