The Best Dance Performances of 2017; Critical Round-Up

01/02/2018 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2018
AAADT’s Yannick Lebrun in Talley Beatty’s <em>Stack-Up.</em>
Paul Kolnik
AAADT’s Yannick Lebrun in Talley Beatty’s Stack-Up.

As I wrote last year, picking the “best” dance performances in any year is improbable. All the same, of the 102 concerts that I observed in 2017, these performances moved me most. As always, this listing is in one definitive order: Random.

Buglisi Dance Theatre in <em>Bare To The Wall</em>
Jason Chuang
Buglisi Dance Theatre in Bare To The Wall

August 2017. Buglisi Dance Theatre presented by Battery Dance Festival at Robert F Wagner Junior Park.

In any year, Battery Dance Festival can top the charts as having delivered one of the best shows. This year it was the revival of Jacqulyn Buglisi’s and Donlin Foreman’s Bare To The Wall. As I reported in my original Huffington Post review, the man sitting behind me said it all with two sentences: “That was a different level from the other companies. They were real professionals.” And how. Featuring the former star Principal of the Graham Company, luminous scarlet-haired Blakeley White-McGuireBare To The Wall illustrated the story of three constantly changing couples as they loved, grew apart, and fought across time. It’s the story of people making a life for themselves in a new world. If you want to know what it means to be in love, this piece will teach you everything you need to know.

Brother(hood) Dance! in <em>how to survive a plague</em>
Ian Douglas
Brother(hood) Dance! in how to survive a plague

October 2017. Brother(hood) Dance! at Danspace Project.

With a party and haunting vocals provided by the incredible songstress Starr Busby. That is how to survive a plague according to Orlando Zane Hunter Jr. and Ricarrdo Valentine. This was a stunning tribute to those who died too soon from a virus that sees no colour but that continues to ravage one community of colour in particular. Though the plague in question is AIDS and the pain that this duo excavates is shockingly real, Hunter, Jr. and Valentine keep their focus on what matters most: LOVE. There is an ongoing discussion regarding how to solve the crisis of under-representation in art; the obvious solution is by supporting more work like this.

Students in The Ailey School Professional Division
Eduardo Patino
Students in The Ailey School Professional Division

November 2017. Ailey/Fordham BFA Autumn Concert at Ailey Citigroup Theater.

Writing bad reviews bums me out. After seeing 20 consecutive terrible dance performances, I took a break from reviewing dance to focus on theatre. On a lark, I decided to review The Ailey/Fordham BFA Autumn Concert with the hope that it would reinvigorate my soul. It did that and more. Under the helm of Melanie Person and Tracy Inman, these kids delivered solid performances that would please nearly any director in the country. The sophomore class in particular is “hungry” and ready to dominate the dance field. Between watching Becky Brown’s swirling piece of sisterhood, Asia Bonilla and Meagan King transform into Amazonian queens, Mariah Gravelin commune with the soul of Jose Limón, and Alisha Peek dial up the sass factor to 1000, I came away reminded why I fell in love with dance in the first place. Brava!

Joe Monteleone in <em>Meditations on a Meta 0rganism</em>
Peter C. Richter
Joe Monteleone in Meditations on a Meta 0rganism

November 2017. Monteleone Dance presented by Your Move Dance Festival at Lowe’s Jersey Theatre.

Watching Joe Monteleone’s Meditations on a Meta 0rganism had me swearing out loud, “What the actual F#CK is going on?!” This one-man band of magical-thinking-made-reality has a way of illuminating the secrets buried within shadows. At Your Move Dance Festival 2017, those secrets were peeled away during his ultra-nimble stop-on-a-dime choreography and launched with jack-hammering force into our minds as he stepped into a projected video game of his own devising. Like, he literally stepped into a video game and became a part of it. Usually when a dancer stops moving, it is because the choreographer has run out of steam and is trying to eat up time. With Monteleone, it is so that you can catch your breath while he teases you with brilliant stream-of-conscious monologues. Whatever Kool-Aid he’s drinking, I want a pint.

Nadine Bommer Dance Company in <em>Sepia; The Aquarium Version.</em>
Paul B. Goode
Nadine Bommer Dance Company in Sepia; The Aquarium Version.

April 2017. Nadine Bommer Dance Company at The Bromley.

It’s a frustrating notion: you will not be able to understand every dance performance that you see. Some things, like childbirth, can only be understood by women. Case in point, Nadine Bommer’s Sepia. I watched this piece as it evolved from six dancers to three and after each viewing I walked away feeling as if I had grasped a little more of its meaning. In Bommer’s telling, Sepia is a goddess from the past who has come to the future with a message. That message can only be heard by those who know how to listen. At the concerts I attended, women sat up taller, as if they had a new understanding of life. This year, powerfully abusive men were dethroned. I would like to believe that we are in the midst of a revolution. Is that Sepia’s message? Even now, I long to hear what it has to say.

Donna Clark in Eleo Pomare’s <em>Narcissus Rising</em>.
Mansa Mussa
Donna Clark in Eleo Pomare’s Narcissus Rising.

November 2017. Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company at Ailey Citigroup Theatre.

One of New York’s hidden gems, Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company celebrated its 45th anniversary in a splendid showing of Eleo Pomare’s work. All of the performances were fantastic, but it was Las Desenamoradas - Pomare’s dance version of The House of Bernarda Alba - that sent me reeling. Pomare enjoyed using the techniques of other choreographers to tell stories that they couldn’t. It turns out that Las Desenamoradas is the greatest piece that Martha Graham never choreographed. Too few companies perform this visionary’s work. Thank God then for Alpha Omega’s continuing to shelter the work of Black creators.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting.
HANS VAN DER WOERD
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting.

December 2017. Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.

Though there was no official choreography listed, watching Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct altered the way I heard Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato's "Symposium", a piece I thought I knew well since I selected ABT’s performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s rendering as one of 2016’s best. Seeing it conducted by Nézet-Séguin at Carnegie Hall, I came away with a new hearing. Balanchine famously said “See the music, hear the dance”. Under Nézet-Séguin, they are one and the same.

In an exclusive interview, Jeffrey Khaner - Philadelphia Orchestra’s Principal Flutist - shared this with me:

He’s very present with his body. He reacts to what’s happening in the orchestra. If someone plays something well, he’ll smile or he’ll wink. He’s not in his own little world up there waving away and hoping that everyone’s going to follow. The expressions and feedback that he provides just by the way he looks... He looks to me like he’s having the best time of his life while he’s conducting.

In other words, New York is VERY lucky to be inheriting this mensch as the Met Opera’s new Music Director.

Cameron McKinney and students at The Ailey School as part of the New Directions Choreogaphy Lab
Nicole Tintle
Cameron McKinney and students at The Ailey School as part of the New Directions Choreogaphy Lab

November 2017. Cameron McKinney at The Ailey School.

Sylvia Waters, Charmaine Warren, Christine Dakin, Sarita Allen, Melanie Person, Lakey Evans-Peña, and David Parsons were all in the room to witness Cameron McKinney’s first showing of his work for Robert Battle’s New Directions Choreography Lab. Breaking away from his usual style - “Japanese culture through a hip-hop lens” - McKinney unveiled a party of concert house dancers celebrating across the globe from the favelas of Rio to the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was radical, joyful, unpredictable, and- technically not something I should be writing about since this was a private showing. But it was also one of the best performances of 2017 so I’ll say it: Somebody somewhere should commission McKinney to codify and set this piece on their company.

Diana Winfree and Lyvan Verdecia in Michelle Mananales’ <em>Con Brazos Abiertos</em>
Paula Lobo
Diana Winfree and Lyvan Verdecia in Michelle Mananales’ Con Brazos Abiertos

December 2017. Ballet Hispánico at The Apollo.

Something started happening to my face while watching Ballet Hispánico perform Con Brazos Abiertos. I couldn’t breathe and my eyes started to go blurry. “Am I having a stroke?”, I thought. I was crying. Even though I am not Mexican, Michelle Manzanales’ tale of being caught between worlds spoke directly to me. Like the best choreographers, her story transcends all walls. With humour; con brazos abiertos; by daring to air the painful thoughts you buried within your bones. That is how Manzanales has crafted her story. There is a moment when Diana Winfree picks Lyvan Verdecia up on her back as if to say, “If I can’t have you, then at least I can hold you.” When Verdecia switches places without even looking at her, it feels like the meaningful conversation that we all wish we could have with our gruff fathers.

December 2017. Andrew J. Nemr at Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

In this "feel everything" tour-de-force Andrew J. Nemr finds deep meaning behind virtuosic showmanship in his personal treatise on love and growing in a world of deep racial divides. Caught between numerous worlds as the son of Christian Lebanese refugees from Beiruit, Nemr grew up physically bullied and ostracized as a “terrorist” and "sand-n_gger" in the otherwise safe confines of New Jersey. Tap dancing became his refuge. Denied solidarity with his peers, Nemr found mentorship and a second family with Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover, and Gregory Hines. Andrew Nemr: Rise To The Tap is a heady look behind the scenes of tap royalty with an incredibly talented and humble guy that leaves you feeling, that despite the pain, everything is going to be alright.

AAADT in Talley Beatty’s <em>Stack-Up.</em>
Paul Kolnik
AAADT in Talley Beatty’s Stack-Up.

December 2017. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre at City Center.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is phenomenal in Stack-Up, Talley Beatty’s concert-jazz rendering of a night at the disco. Though it belongs decidedly to the 80’s, this multifaceted look at adult delights encapsulates the night life of any era. If you’ve ever attended a party you will recognize yourself in this work because Beatty has populated it with ultra-specific characters who have existed since the beginning of time. Crafted around a number of exciting effects - including a booty shaking lip-sync and endless lines of turning, high-kicking dancers - Stack-Up turns on the drama when a drug-peddling loner injects an unsuspecting party-boy with heavy psychotropics. Imagine The Red Shoes, only with Black people, better music, and filled with social commentary relevant to any era and you’re halfway there.

BONUS COMMENTARY: Each year, I question why my colleagues release their “best of” selections before the year is entirely through. In light of recent developments, I am happy that I waited. Though it is technically 2018, I’m filing this under the best of 2017: Peter Martins has stepped down from leading New York City Ballet because of the continuing investigation into his alleged misdeeds. I have never met Martins, but over the past 10 years I have worked and spoken with 6 former members of NYCB who - unprompted and with everything to lose - confided in me about terrible things they claim to have suffered at his hands. I do not know if any of these allegations are true. But here we are in the year 2018 with a sudden regime change at one of the most important dance companies in the world. I hope that Lourdes Lopez is the next director. And please make 2018 the year that this nonsense CEASES. In case you didn’t know it: The Future Is Female, and she’s kicking @ss.

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