In 2018 modern dance choreographer Kyle Abraham made his first work for New York City Ballet called The Runaway. It was his first piece for a ballet company. The Runaway featured a hodgepodge of music from James Blake to Jay-Z to Kanye West. The heart of the ballet was a series of astonishing adagio solos for Taylor Stanley, who effortlessly blended breakdancing idioms with classical ballet adagios. It soon became a runaway hit for NYCB.

Claire Kretzschmar of New York City Ballet during the filming of When We Fell
© Erin Baiano

It therefore wasn’t surprising that Abraham was tapped to create a new work for NYCB’s 2021 Digital Season. When We Fell was created through a three week “bubble residency”. Eight NYCB dancers quarantined themselves with Abraham upstate at Kaatsbaan Cultural Park to rehearse and then the final product was filmed at the now-empty Koch Theater. So, did lightning strike twice? Is When We Fell going to be the pandemic choreography keeper that will be performed regularly once all this is over? Not exactly.

When We Fell was shot in a deliberately dark, black-and-white video with the dancers far away so it was actually hard to determine who was dancing. It was definitely an artistic choice but a rather pretentious one. Abraham chose three pieces of music (Morton Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos, Jason Moran’s All Hammer and Chains, and Nico Muhly’s Falling Berceuse) that seemed unconnected – whereas The Runaway had a hip-hop/R&B theme, When We Fell doesn’t have the same cohesion. The inspiration for the ballet seems to be the famous Elie Nadelman statues that are on either end of the Koch Theater promenade. The dancers resemble those statues come to life. At least that’s my interpretation.

Claire Kretzschmar, Taylor Stanley, and Jonathan Fahoury of New York City Ballet in When We Fell
© Film still by Ryan Marie Helfant

The ballet is in three sections. The first (to Morton Feldman) could be a Merce Cunningham Event. It’s set in the gorgeous promenade of the Koch and includes a lot of long balances with the leg extended and still. In this section soloist Claire Kretzschmar stands out for her serenity and strength. For the second and third sections the action moves to the Koch stage. The choreography for the Jason Moran section is very much like Justin Peck – fast and frenetic, with plenty of turns and jumps. The final section to the Nico Muhly score is a slow, languorous duet between Lauren Lovette and Taylor Stanley. It’s probably the best part of the piece – very peaceful and beautiful. Lovette and Stanley dance together but are filmed in separate spotlights, perhaps to emphasize the loneliness of the pandemic. The camera then focuses on the house lights of the auditorium.

Lauren Lovette and Taylor Stanley of New York City Ballet during the filming of When We Fell
© Erin Baiano

This ends up being an above average piece of pandemic choreography; of all the pieces I’ve seen, only Kyle Abraham’s to be seen (for City Center’s Fall for Dance), Alexei Ratmansky’s Bernstein in a Bubble (for ABT) and Justin Peck’s Thank You New York (for NYCB) are works I’m eager to revisit post-pandemic.

The better part of When We Fell is a documentary (see below) about the creative process of this work. The eight “bubble” dancers talk frankly about the difficulty of staying in shape and remaining motivated as theaters are still shuttered and their lives are on hold. India Bradley says how difficult it is to spend extended time on pointe. Taylor Stanley’s adorable Shiba Inu has a nice cameo!

But the documentary gives a hint as to why so much pandemic choreography has been so forgettable. Many pieces seem to be collaborations between the choreographer and the dancer, without consideration for the live audience... since there is no live audience. There are no ballet masters supervising and giving suggestions. One realizes how important that immediate feedback is to the creative process. Hopefully, the promenade of the Koch Theater will soon be full again with living statues – dancers and ballet devotees.

This performance was reviewed from the NYCB's YouTube channel