The New York City Ballet’s Digital Spring Season continued this week with the premiere of the dance film When We Fell, choreographed by Kyle Abraham and co-directed by Abraham and Ryan Marie Helfant. This was an ambitious departure from the old performance recordings and Zoom rehearsal footage of the first three weeks of the season. It was also an about-face from the first ensemble work Abraham made for the company: 2018’s splashy, rap-scored “The Runaway.”When We Fell is somber and distilled. No matter which vein Abraham is working in, his singular choreographic voice and clear messaging come through.
When We Fell is beautifully shot on 16mm film in black and white and set to piano compositions by Morton Feldman, Jason Moran, and Nico Muhly. It was filmed at the Koch Theater, City Ballet’s home base. But the opening shot—of snow falling over a dark rolling sea—was a nod to the influence of nature at the site of its creation, the wintry Kaatsbaan Cultural Park this past February. But, as with the choice to film in black and white, it was also so much more. The billowy waves cut abruptly to the cavernous, sharply geometric promenade level of the empty theater. It was jarring; as global viral and political tempests raged, our cultural institutions sat unused, lifeless. Claire Kretzschmar walked casually through the hallowed space, then commenced a slow solo. She was joined by Taylor Stanley and then others, all clad in flesh-colored leotards and tights that made them resemble the Elie Nadelman statues at either end of the hall—basically nude, but censored.
The steps were spare and calm, so much so that the tension in India Bradley’s grip on Sebastien Villarini-Velez’s arm as he partnered her in a penché promenade registered as momentous. The pair did a series of stately tendus battus like in Balanchine’s “Agon.” The intensity of this opening section derived more from the texture of the shifting camera angles than the dancing, as the cast was framed by various aspects of the travertine-gridded theater. That isn’t to say that the dancing wasn’t interesting, because it was—in a streamlined, pretty way. In a companion video about the making of the ballet (that runs just a minute less than the actual 16-minute ballet) Abraham said this was a “study on form, and technique, and quality.” With a little bowing pivot step, the group ceded the floor to the talented, handsome Christopher Grant. Roaring wind took over the soundtrack as his torso gently undulated like the inky waves at the beginning. He knelt, still and intent, as the camera closed in on him.
A series of cuts to extreme closeups of the marble walls and other patches of the theater followed, to the accompaniment of the stabbing of the high piano keys—piercing and unsettling à la Psycho. The magnified travertine, porous and wavy, looked a lot like the snowy ocean scene. But it also looked moldy or diseased, a double metaphor for the tent pole horrors of 2020: Covid-19 and systemic racism. It was clever to have the literal structure holding up the building appear splotchy and sick. Then Grant appeared again, kneeling alone on the stage of the Koch, where his solo continued. To turbulent low rumblings in the piano the rest of the cast joined him in a chaos of technical ballet steps. For a long while, Villarini-Velez stood in the eye of the hurricane with his butt to the camera as his colleagues swirled around him. Before another cut to snow—but this time the staticky, filmic kind—Stanley escorted Lauren Lovette to center stage.
In the final section this pair performed a pas de deux to Muhly’s contemplative “Falling Berceuse,” which was composed during the Coronavirus lockdown. They were spotlighted from on high (by lighting designer Dan Scully) so that their shadows on the floor effectively turned the dance into a quartet. It was gorgeous, and poignant. The pas employed a lot of counterweight partnering and poses that made heart-like shapes of their shadow-puppet selves. They danced out of their circle of light at the end, and then the camera zoomed out to frame the theater’s void rimmed with the bejeweled chandelier and sconces as wind and rain noises played.
I have yet to see Abraham strike a wrong note, his range and grasp of tone is phenomenal. No one else pulls off mixing genres and influences like he does. His imagery in When We Fell is not subtle, but the dancing is, which feels balanced and right. Watch this film, it is aesthetically striking as well as meaningful—a masterful coup. Though I have come to expect nothing less from Abraham. As young India Bradley—wise beyond her years—said in the making-of video: “We’re definitely entering a new time. I feel like we’re headed in the right direction, but it’s going to take a lot of patience. But at the same time . . . a lot of impatience!” Abraham understands this toggle in his bones.
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