When I was at Fall for Dance, I saw an ad for the upcoming programs and one of them was a NYC edition of the Vail Dance Festival where Damian Woetzel is the artistic director. Woetzel was a principal dancer for the NYC Ballet and I’d seen him years ago. He leapt across the stage and at such a distance and height and seemingly being able to hang in the air for a few seconds that the entire audience gasped. Now he’s the director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and selects the dancers for the Vail Dance Festival. He has dancers perform new works and old works that haven’t been seen for a long time; the dancers go into unfamiliar territory. Many of the dances and dancers looked fun but I was hesitating because I’m so used to the inexpensive Fall for Dance programs but at the last minute I decided to buy tickets. The cheapest were way up in the balcony or rear mezzanine or all the way off to the side in the lower mezzanine or Grand Tier. But I was excited to see the Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC wherever I’d be sitting. It was a chance to see many of the dances that had been performed at the Vail Dance Festival through the years.
Before going to New York City Center, I stopped off at Fonda for a delicious special Mexican meal that they’re featuring this month for Day of the Dead. Unfortunately, it was more food than I expected to be eating and between all the food and the two drinks, I was full and ready to go to sleep. I didn’t see all of the first piece because I drifted off a few times. Luckily, it was repeated the second night.
Choreographer George Balanchine’s Apollo with music by Igor Stravinsky (Apollon musagète) was first performed in Paris in 1928. For the first night of ReMix, Apollo was supposed to be played by Herman Cornejo but he was out due to an injury. Robert Fairchild, who was scheduled to dance Apollo on the second night, substituted. Unfortunately, that meant I couldn’t compare the two Apollos. Since Fairchild was in two other dances the first evening they switched the program slightly – making the second dance the sixth and vice versa. In the Playbill there was a short paragraph by Woetzel for each piece. Woetzel said for ReMix he wanted to bring the piece back to City Center as it had been performed in the 1950s with the introductory scene (Apollo’s birth) that had been eliminated after Balanchine’s many revisions. Fairchild has danced Apollo with the NYCB but never with the opening scene. It opens with Leto (Kaitlyn Gilliand) sitting on top of a platform, which has stairs leading up to it, writhing in pain, holding her stomach, spreading her legs wide open, and spinning her head around. Finally, Apollo is born, as he steps out from below the platform and into the light. He is wrapped in white cloth and two handmaidens (Amber Neff and Unity Phelan) unwrap him with Apollo spinning around to help. He’s dressed in white tights and shoes and is bare-chested. The young god of music is visited by the three Muses – his half-sisters by Zeus. A lyre is handed to the Muse of song and dance, Terpsichore (Tiler Peck); a tablet to the Muse of poetry, Calliope (Isabella Boylston); and a mask to the Muse of mime, Polyhymnia (Misa Kuranaga). They dance together and alone, each teaching their younger brother. Each Muse also dances with Apollo. At the end, Apollo, now a young man and with a one-shouldered cloth around his torso, walks up the stairs to the platform followed by all the women in his life. He stands still at the top as if posing for a statue. It was a wonderful dance, both light and funny, with generous applause for all and the strongest applause for Peck and Fairchild – both principal dancers for the NYCB and married in real life. Conductor Kurt Crowley (Hamilton) did a wonderful job. I can’t tell you how happy I was that all the dances included live musicians. It makes such a huge difference in the enjoyment of a dance. The musicians were the Catalyst Quartet and the FLUX Quartet joined by Logan Coale (double bass), Emily Popham Gillins (violin), Mario Gotoh (viola), Clara Kennedy (cello), Laura Lutzke (violin), Grace Park (violin), Miranda Sielaff (viola), and Emily Daggett Smith (violin). Original lighting is by Ronald Bates, who worked with the NYCB and died in 1986.
All photos are from the City Center site. This photo is of Herman Cornejo.
After the 30-minute piece, instead of the short pause planned there was an intermission. This gave Tiler and Fairchild a chance to catch their breath before their duet, Balanchine’s Divertimento Brillante, which had its premiere in November 1967 at the NYS Theater in Lincoln Center. This time the musicians were on stage – Cameron Grant of the NYCB Orchestra on piano and the Catalyst Quartet. The music by Mikhail Glinka, who was Russia’s first national composer, is based on themes from Bellini’s La Sonnambula. It was a typical ballet with Peck in a princess pink tutu and crown and Fairchild in a princely shirt. As always, they were flawless and a joy to watch. Woeztel noted that Peck was his partner in his last two years at NYCB and he thought this rarely seen dance was perfect for Peck at Vail this past summer. This was Fairchild’s debut in this piece.
Now between each piece there was a short pause. During both intermissions we heard Hamilton’s “Wait for It” and “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” along with Joe Cocker’s “Feelin’ Alright.” People keep pulling out their cell phones during the pauses but they were very short. After the first one wouldn’t you realize that there’s not enough time to check your phone? Instead the rest of the audience had look at lit phones throughout the theater while the first few minutes of a dance were happening. So annoying. What’s so important that it can’t wait until intermission?
Woetzel came out during the first intermission to thank us for being there, to thank the sponsors, to ask us to thank the sponsors, and to thank City Center. He also explained about the Vail Dance Festival and how ReMix came together.
The third dance, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s Fandango danced by Sara Mearns was an absolute delight. Again the musicians – this time FLUX Quartet, Scott Borg (fantastic guitarist), and flamenco dancer Elena Heiss, standing in the back playing castanets at the end, were on stage. They entered playing their instruments so that they looked like a traveling band that found a place to stop and perform. Heiss had other duties besides the castanets. Hearns entered wearing a black lace shrug over a blue dress with a black lace overlay. After Hearns’ entrance and first steps she danced around the musicians and took off her jacket and placed it on Heiss. Later, Heiss handed Hearns a tambourine, which she tapped and played along with the cellist. The piece was flamenco reinterpreted as ballet steps. At one point, Hearns led the violinists onto center stage and clapped while they played. At the end she dramatically sits on the floor, back to the audience, and bends back towards us. It all had the look of a chance encounter, which is how Ratmansky staged it. The music was by Luigi Boccherini and costume by William Ivey Long. The dance premiered at Vail in August 2010, commissioned by Woetzel with Wendy Whelan in the lead.
There was a darkened stage for the beautiful and heartbreaking This Bitter Earth. Usually performed to a recording of a remix of Dinah Washington singing Clyde Otis’ “This Bitter Earth” and Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight,” for Thursday night we heard a live version sung by Kate Davis standing alone in a corner on the front left side of the stage while spotlit and the Catalyst Quartet upstage on the right side. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and danced by Isabella Boylston and Calvin Royal III, I was stunned by the beauty and sadness of Boylston and Royal’s pas de deux. They dance and fall and move together with such grace. Boylston was wearing a simple blue leotard and Royal was in black leggings and sleeveless shirt. This piece premiered at Vail in August 2012.
The very short pause before Balanchine’s Élégie performed to Stravinsky’s Élégie took many in the audience by surprise. The stage was dark and Carla Körbes entered and sat in the middle of the stage in the dark and Daniel Panner (viola) stood in the corner upstage on the left. Suddenly he was playing and she was dancing. The end was a surprise also because she simply bent back, facing the audience, while he continued to play and the spotlight slowly disappeared. No one was sure if they should clap. Balanchine created this dance for his muse Suzanne Farrell and it has not been seen in NYC since its June 1982 premiere at the NYS Theater. Körbes wore a white dress with bell sleeves and was more beauty and grace in a beautiful piece.
The last piece before the second intermission was brought about by a suggestion by Woetzel to Michelle Dorrance to develop a dance with dancers from a variety of styles with her “tapping as the motor to drive the machine.” Stagehands brought out a small wooden floor on a dolly, set it down, and Dorrance came out and started clapping and tapping. She continued to clap throughout the piece – that rhythm was the only music. Melissa Toogood came out in a white shirt and black skirt and danced around the board in bare feet. Robert Fairchild came out and did some ballet spins and steps. Who I thought was Lil Buck (because that’s who is credited in the Playbill) but turned out to be Ron “Prime Tyme” Myles went jookin’ all around and on the board with Dorrance. Then Fairchild returned wearing tap shoes and tapped up a storm with Dorrance. The other dancers continued to come out and leave and then all four were dancing together. It was fun, fast, and exciting. The piece is called 1-2-3-4-5-6 and is credited as improvography by the artists and developed by Dorrance and Woetzel. It had its premiere at Vail in August 2016.
Jookin’, which I mentioned earlier, is a street dance from Memphis. Sometimes called gangsta walking, g-walk, buckin’, tickin’, or choppin’, it is usually performed to crunk music and was created by the group G-Style. Jookin’ as practiced by Charles “Lil Buck” Riley uses a lot of different street styles including liquid dancing or a common two-step that changes into a spin on the sides of his feet or on his toes. Lil Buck @ City Center: A Jookin’ Jam Session choreographed by Lil Buck, Myles, and Woetzel is a wonderous piece of work with Lil Buck and Myles jookin’ to live classical, pop, and world music. Because I thought Myles was Lil Buck, I was confused throughout the set because I couldn’t understand why Myles was getting such great solos. It wasn’t until I got home and saw the famous Spike Jonze YouTube video of Lil Buck dancing “The Swan” (Camille Saint-Saëns) to Yo-Yo Ma that I realized my mistake. The piece on Thursday night opens with the curtain down and Lil Buck dancing to a recording of “Gangsta Walk” (Young Jai) out of the audience and jumping onto the stage from the left. Then Myles comes out of the audience from the right and jumps on the stage and the two exchange moves and dance together. They’ll throw the next dance to each other with hand gestures. Their dancing was amazing – spinning around on their toes while wearing sneakers, dancing on the sides of their feet, turning their feet backwards, making their entire bodies liquid with their arms and legs moving as if they had no bones. Dances are performed fast and in slow motion. There are funny bits and times when they include the audience by asking them to clap. From the time they entered until they left I never stopped smiling. Lil Buck and Myles are cousins so you can feel their connection and Lil Buck studied some ballet and you can see the influence on his steps. The curtain lifts and there’s a stage set with several platforms and steps leading up to the highest platform. I hoped that the platforms would be used a lot but they only came into play for one dance. We also get to see the musicians – Sandeep Das (tabla, box drum, vocals), Kate Davis (acoustic bass, piano, vocals), Eric Jacobsen (cello), Grace Park (violin), Cristina Pato (gaita, piano), and Wu Tong (sheng, flute, vocals). (Since there were a lot of dances, I may get some of this wrong as to what happened and who was performing.) Pato played two traditional Galacian songs (“Muiñeiras” and “Jota de Pontevedra”) on the gaita (Galician bagpipes) while Lil Buck and Myles danced in front, around, and with her. She was walking back and forth in red high heels and the dancers were playing off the sounds of the gaita. Some of the steps were like a jookin’ version of Irish stepdancing. Next, Park steps forward and performs “Violin Partita No. 3 in E Major” (Johann Sebastian Bach) and Lil Buck and Myles dance along to the classical piece while having fun with Baroque dance. Das plays the tabla and sings while everyone watches. Then Lil Buck starts dancing to what I think is another tabla song or may be part of the original. From the wings, someone steps out tentatively carrying his cello. He’s welcomed by Lil Buck and joins the group. It’s Yo-Yo Ma. Ma and Das perform “Part Zero” (from Playlist for an Extreme Occasion by Vijay Iyer). Wu sings “Swallow Song” (Kazakh folk song arranged by Zhao Lin) and he has an absolutely beautiful voice. He’s been playing a type of Chinese mouth organ, which I later found out is the sheng, a mouth organ made of metal, wood, or a gourd with a blowpipe and at least 17 bamboo or metal pipes extending from the top of the bowl. The symmetrical arrangement of the pipes represents the folded wings of a phoenix. Wu and Das perform improvisation of “Extreme Sheng Music” with Das on the box drum. Lil Buck and Myles would watch the musicians and then get up and start dancing. Davis went over to the piano and performed her “One Way Ticket” while everyone watched. Then just before she began her “I Prefer Not to Fly,” Lil Buck walked over and sat next to her on the piano bench. After she started the song he got up slowly and his steps looked like he was trying to fly but something always brings him back to earth. At one point he spins around and around on his knees and almost takes off like a helicopter. For “Budget Bulgar” (Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin) Lil Buck and Myles dance a “Memphis Hora” that combines jookin’ with a hora. Wu improvises on the flute for “BaWu Solo” and at one point Lil Buck returns, shirtless, and climbs the steps to the highest platform. He does some steps in slow motion and slowly walks down the series of platforms until he is downstage and squatting with his body folded down onto itself. Pato starts playing the piano and then Ma comes in on cello and the audience titters a bit when they realize it’s the music for the famous dying swan dance. His arms flutter and he rises. He moves around the stage slowly. At the end he’s up on the lowest platform and squats down and then takes one leg and puts his head under it and brings the other bent leg next to the first. It’s like he has no bones. It’s a beautiful version of “The Swan.” The last song is “Ascending Bird” (traditional Persian melody arranged by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei) and everyone played including two new people on violin and viola. Lil Buck comes back out in a new t-shirt (Bob Marley on the front) and he and Myles dance around and play with the musicians. It ends when Lil Buck runs across the stage and makes an in-the-air somersault. Some steps are obviously choreographed but the music left room for improvisation by the dancers. This piece premiered in NYC in 2013 and it obviously changes as the musicians change. For the bows, Lil Buck brought Woetzel out and after each person took a bow, Lil Buck and Ma took their bows together. They had also hugged each other each time Ma played for Lil Buck – there’s real affection there.
By Carene Lydia Lopez