Since the start of the global pandemic roughly eight months ago, most dance companies have temporarily shuttered their doors. Seasons have been canceled, dancers have been furloughed, and companies have offered archival video footage as a way to entice donors.

Emily Kikta of NYCB in Sidra Bell’s pixelation in a wave (Within Wires)
© Erin Baiano

But there’s also been a wellspring of what I’d call, well, pandemic choreography. They are, generally speaking, brief pieces by contemporary choreographers that have adapted to the new normal. As they are deprived of a theater, the settings are usually the great outdoors. The need to dance outside on hard pavement makes difficult pointework impossible. Thus, pandemic choreography emphasizes sculptural posing and vaguely modern-dance-like movement. The mood is usually contemplative, as bursts of allegro dancing seem out of place in such a time.

New York City Ballet ended their Fall Digital Season with a festival of new choreography. There were five new works presented. The choreographers are familiar names within the contemporary ballet/modern dance world – Sidra Bell, Pam Tanowitz, Andrea Miller, Jamar Roberts and NYCB’s own resident choreographer, Justin Peck. All of the filming took place in different parts of the Lincoln Center campus.

Jamar Roberts’ Water Rite was barely a dance. Corps dancer Victor Abreu was submerged in the Hearst Plaza pool for less than three minutes. He flailed his limbs around and did some aquatic running. I could have watched an old Esther Williams film. 

Sidra Bell’s pixelation in a wave (Within Wires) was a collection of pandemic choreography clichés – four dancers (Mira Nadon, Peter Walker, Emily Kikta and Ghaleb Kayali) were spaced over various places in Lincoln Center. They struck a bunch of sculptural poses. The camera-work emphasized close-ups of their faces rather than their bodies. The music by Dennis Bell screeched. Thankfully it ended as soon as it began.

Russell Janzen of NYCB in Pam Tanowitz’ Solo for Russell: Sites 1-5
© Erin Baiano

Pam Tanowitz’s work Solo for Russell: Sites 1-5 had some intelligent ideas. There were ‘two’ Russell Janzens and the footage was spliced together. One version of Russell had him in sweats and a yoga mat. The other Russell is in a more stylized dance costume that includes a blue and yellow body drape. Yoga mat Russell walks around Lincoln Center while dancer Russell dances on a hilled lawn. Tanowitz’s movement vocabulary is heavily influenced by Merce Cunningham, with the trademark “Merce balances” (where a leg is extended at all sorts of different angles and held in place) and controlled body rotations. Eventually yoga mat Russell and dancer Russell become one? An interesting experiment, but (like a lot of Tanowitz’s work) more a cerebral exercise than a dance.

The most charming of the new works was Andrea Millers’ new song. The use of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara’s lovely Manifesto gave the piece a pleasant backdrop. New song used four of NYCB’s most appealing dancers – Unity Phelan, Indiana Woodward, Harrison Coll, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez. Unity and Indiana leaped around the Lincoln Center campus. There were some athletic lifts, some body movements that seemed to correspond to the music, and the piece ended with the four dancers basking in the Hearst Plaza pool. Was it a masterpiece? No, but it was enjoyable.

Taylor Stanley in Justin Peck’s Thank You, New York
© Jody Lee Lipes

The last ballet, Justin Peck’s Thank You, New York, has the most chance of staying in the repertoire. It’s set to Chris Thile’s song of the same name and most resembles something that would actually be danced by NYCB. There are four separate dancers who are filmed in different parts of NYC. The choreography strongly resembles Peck’s “sneaker” ballets like The Times Are Racing – lots of fast footwork, with the sneakers mimicking tap shoes as they moved frantically across the pavement. The use of flat streets for this ballet was smart – the dancers did not seem constrained by their surroundings. Taylor Stanley, Sara Mearns, Christopher Grant and Georgina Pazcoguin all threw themselves into the steps. Stanley and Grant were amazingly fast and graceful. It was a piece d’occasion that also had artistic merit.

The New Works Festival was a mixed bag. Personally, I’d only want to see the Andrea Miller and Justin Peck works again. But then again NYCB’s Fall Fashion Gala often has its share of clunkers. The company’s streams of Balanchine and Robbins ballets remind audiences of NYCB’s past, and the New Works Festival emphasizes NYCB’s commitment to the future. As the company has canceled their entire 2020-21 season, these digital seasons can serve as placeholders to remind audiences of why this company deserves support.

These performances were reviewed from the NYCB's video streams

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