Fall for dance review: Splats, blue moods and go-go grooves

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Fall for dance review: Splats, blue moods and go-go grooves
Georgina Pazcoguin, a New York City Ballet soloist, on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in the Verdon Fosse Legacy’s presentation of “Sweet Gwen Suite,” part of the Fall for Dance festival at New York City Center. Stephanie Berger via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- The happy crowd attending opening night of New York City Center’s Fall for Dance festival Wednesday snaked around the block. The cause of the bottleneck was the inspection of vaccination records at the door — one of very few differences between this incarnation of the popular event and the many that came before the pandemic.

As in previous years, the festival gives value and variety: cheap tickets and five mixed-nuts programs stocked with stars and premieres, although this year each program has been streamlined down to three acts, with pauses but no intermissions. The big change from the 2020 version, which was virtual, is the return of the festival’s most distinctive feature — that happy crowd, buzzing, boisterous, eager to love everything.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., bogged down in Washington lately, looked very glad to be a special guest. His appearance at the start of the show was greeted with a roar. And his plug of his work in helping New York theaters weather the pandemic was less superfluous than when the emcee for the first act, Streb Extreme Action, yelled, “Make some noise!”

This audience needed no such encouragement, although the emcee (Felix Hess) also resorted to a T-shirt cannon and the stadium wave. In fairness, he wasn’t just jolting the already amped but covering scene changes, the dismantling and assembly of Streb’s signature machinery.

The first was a horizontal pole, about 20 feet off the ground, to which three performers are affixed by their boots. Over and over, they fall and rotate back around, a cross between cliff divers and meat on a spit, adding small variations of timing or shape.

The last device was a giant trampoline and mat. Over and over, eight “action heroes,” as they are called, bounce, fly and flop face first. The near collisions of overlapping flight build some suspense, and the shapes held at the highest points are real high points: a thrilling zero-gravity effect, acrobats briefly becoming astronauts.

But in the Streb sensibility, the emphasis is on the splat. And at Fall for Dance, every little twist on the same little idea was equally cheered.

“We do not like a quiet show,” the emcee said, and they did not get one. But they were followed by a quiet act, AIM by Kyle Abraham.

“Our Indigo: If We Were a Love Song,” a New York premiere, is set to six Nina Simone tracks. A group-sculpture opening precedes solos and a duet, but all the sections are essentially mood pieces, and the mood is indigo.

In the recent documentary “Summer of Soul,” Al Sharpton speaks about how the tone of Simone’s voice was “between hope and mourning,” capturing Black “pain and our defiance.” Abraham is more tuned into the pain. The opening gesture is defining — and common in his work — hands reaching behind backs to grab wrists, a sort of self-embrace that looks tender as a wound.

The persistence of the blues gives “Our Indigo” a sameness. But the choreography and the dancers are never less than beautiful. Most sections feel thin in the middle, stretched with sinuous vamping, but they tend to end powerfully: the floor-bound B-girl explosion of Gianna Theodore in “Little Girl Blue,” the krump-like contractions of Jae Neal in “Don’t Explain.” And the last segment is devastating: Catherine Kirk clothing herself in a garment of loose gestures that strangely and exactly capture the tone of Simone singing lines such as “She doesn’t know her beauty.”

To go from this to the final act of the program, the Verdon Fosse Legacy, was to experience the old Fall for Dance whiplash. “Sweet Gwen Suite” is a trio of go-go trios that Bob Fosse choreographed for Gwen Verdon for TV appearances in the late 1960s — or with Verdon, since the program justifiably credits them both. Taking Verdon’s roles is Georgina Pazcoguin, the New York City Ballet soloist who likes to style herself as the “rogue ballerina.”

Ably backed by dancers Zachary Downer and Tyler Eisenreich, empowered by Bobby Pearce’s period-fabulous variations on the original costumes, Pazcoguin looked at home. From the minute details of hat angle to the big roundhouse kicks and pelvic bumps, she was precise and stylish.

The salient difference between her and Verdon is that Pazcoguin takes it all a bit too seriously. Even when Verdon’s face was shielded by a sombrero, you could see the laughter in her body. Pazcoguin is harder, as if trying to prove something.

Amid the many credits in the program, it’s odd that the composers aren’t noted, since the sounds of Herb Alpert, Lalo Schifrin and Johnny Mandel are key to the groovy nostalgia of these pieces. Especially after the meandering of Abraham’s deeper work, Fosse's craftsmanship pops: the number of ideas per bar, the clearly outlined entertainment.

There’s plenty to borrow, as Beyoncé did for her “Single Ladies” video. The whoops for some moves were undoubtedly cries of recognition from fans of Beyoncé as well as of Fosse — or Verdon or Pazcoguin. But that’s what has always happened at Fall for Dance. Fan groups that would normally be separated come together, merging in the undiscriminating applause.

'Fall for Dance'

Through Oct. 24 at New York City Center; nycitycenter.org.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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