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New York's Finest

Jacob’s Pillow, Vail, Saratoga, Kaatsbaan, Lake Tahoe, Nantucket, Fire Island. There are numerous summer festivals that feature world-class dancing in gorgeous natural landscapes around the US But the Battery Dance Festival, now in its forty-second year, is one of the few to offer soft grass and warm breezes as well as the glinting edges of the New York City skyline at sunset. So many Broadway shows and ballets set to Gershwin try to approximate this setting via backdrops and elaborate lighting, for good reason: it is breathtakingly beautiful. But there’s nothing quite like the real thing. 

Performance

42nd Battery Dance Festival

Place

Rockefeller Park, Battery Park City, New York, NY, August 18, 2023

Words

Faye Arthurs

Adriana Ogle & Toru Sakuragi and friends in  “Softly as in a Morning Glow—extended set.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The Battery Fest is also wonderfully accessible. If you can get yourself to the Northern tip of Rockefeller Park, you can plop your butt down anywhere on the grass for free—no advance registration, no waiting in line, no fussiness. Bring your kids, bring a picnic, snap pics, film the show on your phone—it’s all fine. You can scan a barcode for a comprehensive online program, or visit the thorough website, or you can also simply listen as each dance and the pertinent casting is announced between numbers. It’s the most easygoing festival around. Since Covid, the shows have been livestreamed for free as well. If you sign up for one program at home, you get access to them all for 10 days past the event. I enjoyed the spellbinding August 15th performance, featuring all Indian dance, at my home a week after it happened. And I took my family to see the final performance of the week in person, on what might have been the most beautiful evening of the year. My unruly little sons jumped and danced along at times and then ignored the stage completely for their toys and snacks at others. Nobody minded, and I was thrilled by the opportunity to casually expose them to many different styles of dance while enjoying a lovely summer night right on the water.

The program began with the NYC premiere of Adriana Ogle and Toru Sakuragi’s “Softly as in a Morning Glow—extended set,” which was billed as a “living piece.” Ogle began choreographing this dance in 2012; it has been expanded and amended numerous times since then. DJ Nkosi Edwards cued up tunes by John Coltrane, Cab Calloway, and Freddie Hubbard for four tappers—Addi Loving, Ogle, Funmilayo Sofola, and Tommy Wasiuta. The hoofers also danced a cappella. The vibe was old-timey and joyous. I liked the Wizard of Oz heel clicks. In one section, each dancer took a turn soloing while the other three tapped in supportive lockstep behind them, as breezy as a Motown backup trio. Amanda Treiber’s “Wind-Up” showcased another blithe quartet—but this one sported pointe shoes instead of taps. New York City Ballet’s Victor Abreu was joined by Alexis Branagan, Guilia Faria, and Monica Limo of the New York Theater Ballet for larkish flocking and flits to piano preludes by Ryan Anthony Francis. Branagan performed a particularly sprightly solo. These first two works were pleasant and complementary.

Sully Malaeb Proulx and Connor Mitton of Citadel + Compagnie in James Kudelka’s “Soudain L’Hiver Dernier.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The fourth and fifth entries were more obviously similar, as festival manager Amy Santos noted in the pause between them: “They are beautiful companion pieces about being deeply connected to another person.” Both were pas de deux for men in casual pants and button-down shirts in muted tones. The first, James Kudelka’s 1987 work “Soudain L’Hiver Dernier” (Suddenly Last Winter), was set to Gavin Bryars’s sublimely droning “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.” This 25-minute composition (which also serves as the score for William Forsythe’s ravishing “Quintett”) features the looping of an anonymous British homeless man shakily singing a single stanza, to which Bryars overlaid brass and string harmonies. Citadel + Compagnie dancers Sully Malaeb Proulx and Connor Mitton moved through a series of arm circles, linked elbow hangs, cantilevered low lifts, onerous carries, and fraught embraces—all of which fractured and recombined, sped up and slowed down. These gestures were potent against the hypnotic repetition in Bryars’s score. The work really did approximate a long winter of routine and relationship ups and downs—demonstrating the fine line between tedium and grace. Proulx and Mitton were beautifully stoic, and the piece was further bolstered by the fact that it ran during the shadowy shift into nightfall. 

The opposite was true for its counterpart. The placement of Boca Tuya’s “Like Those Playground Kids at Midnight” immediately afterward was more harmful than helpful, though I understood the temptation to juxtapose them. If “Soudain L’Hiver Dernier” was about a harsh winter before a breakup, “Playground Kids” could have been the same couple’s steamy meeting the summer prior. Omar Román de Jesús danced his own choreography, which was set to assorted tangos by Piazzolla and Gabriel Faure, with Ian Spring. Though the vocabulary was more erotically charged and the tempo was zippier, the piece was too visually similar after such a long, intense ride. More contrast was called for.    

Bruce Wood Dance's “In My Your Head.” Photograph by Steven Pisano

The third and seventh works on the bill, both contemporary, were uneven. Bruce Wood Dance gave the NYC premiere of “In My Your Head,” a rousing group piece to blaring Radiohead. The cast of 12 was talented and choreographer Joy Bollinger had a strong grasp of structural composition, nimbly moving her cast around to every shift in the music. But there was something slightly off about the tone: it was too pat and pop-chic to fully tap into Radiohead’s angsty disillusionment, cheapening the overall effect. It was way too on the nose when the cast ran around the stage looking lost and confused while Thom Yorke crooned “what’s that?” in “Paranoid Android.” But this dance had high lifts and long floorwork sections, making its interactions with the skyline interesting. When the dancers lay on their backs and made beach balls with their raised arms, it was as if they were bearhugging whole skyscrapers. There were also several helicopters circling during this number, which enhanced the mechanical edginess of the music. The final moments were also cool due to the setting: the group lined up against the back of the stage and banged their heads against an imaginary wall. In the open air, without a wall or a backdrop, it looked like the dancers were hitting their heads against a windowpane in a penthouse with panoramic views.

The closer, “Wind in the Olive Grove,” choreographed by Saeed Hani and performed by Battery Dance, began with a few dancers wearing stick harnesses and spinning very slowly—shades of Jerome Robbins’s “Watermill.” But it quickly turned into an overeager tweak-fest and stayed that way until the sticks returned to make raft imagery at the end. I appreciated the attempt to craft art about the Syrian crisis, but it would have been better to end with the penultimate number: the brief and sensational solo by Reuel “Crunk” Rogers, who flipped and spun to the track “Hale” by Dan Bay & Idd Aziz while sporting harem pants, glitter, and shiny metallic arm coverings. Hailing from Curaçao, this was his third appearance at the festival. His self-invented mashup of breakdancing, tumbling, hip hop, and urban dance was a big hit with the crowd yet again. In a marvelous twist, he brought genres of dance that generally haunt the bellies of windowless, airless, underground clubs out to meet the glittering city sky. 

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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Rachel

Always a fan of your writing—thanks for taking us there.

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