The crowds at New York City Center’s Fall for Dance festival don’t applaud politely; they roar. So what happens in the absence of a live audience? In this case, at least, it creates a space to shine a brighter light on the poetics of dance.
Monday night’s virtual program, the second of two this year, provided many bright moments. And, similar to the first program, the City Center commissions, here by Kyle Abraham and Dormeshia, were the dances with the most resonance. They were also complete works; the older selections were excerpts, starting with three solos performed by New York City Ballet dancers from George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” (1970).
The Balanchine is set to songs by George and Ira Gershwin, and in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” Ashley Bouder was her usual peppy self as she bounded through the nonstop jazzy kicks and jumps — spinning across the stage as if she had been on one for the last seven months. (No dancer has.) And Tiler Peck, radiating a sexy sophistication, was even more enthralling in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” as her musicality teased out playful new aspects of the solo. But in “My One and Only,” Brittany Pollack, given the unenviable task of following Ms. Peck, had a mechanical air; whenever she was in a tricky spot, she just smiled extra hard.
Two other City Ballet dancers, Adrian Danchig-Waring and Joseph Gordon, a real-life couple, performed the duet from Lar Lubovitch’s “Concerto Six Twenty-Two.” As part of the digital programming, Mr. Lubovitch said that the work, created in 1986, was a response to the depth of friendship that he witnessed during the AIDS crisis. Architectural and spare, this meditative duet, with its exploration of weight-bearing partnering, was a portrait of dignity.
Still, it was good to see a dance with more bite. Mr. Abraham, returning to the festival with another solo for a ballet dancer — last year, it was Misty Copeland — showed how skilled he has become at mingling the ballet vernacular with other forms, from hip-hop to West African movement. In the new solo, “to be seen,” he also continued to do what he does best when working with ballet dancers: finding the person within the dancer and the bodies within a body.
This time the dancer was Calvin Royal III, recently promoted to principal at American Ballet Theater. Because Mr. Royal was unavailable for rehearsals, Mr. Abraham choreographed the ballet with the help of Taylor Stanley, a City Ballet star with whom he has worked in the past. The music, I have to be honest, scared me: Ravel’s “Bolero,” a magnet for clichés. But Mr. Abraham used it to his advantage, seemingly inspired more by its flow than its compositional buildup.
Mr. Royal began with his back to the audience, hands in his pockets. Slowly he turned, pulling up the hood of his sweatshirt before taking it off completely: Folding it, he tossed it into the wings like a bowling ball. The combination of everyday movement under Dan Scully’s gorgeous lighting was instantly arresting: Mr. Royal, in his flowing white top and pants by Karen Young, glowed like a god.
It might have been enough to see him glide to the music in any old way. His long, loose arms and elegance of line have a spellbinding grace. But from the start, Mr. Abraham created a breathtaking web of physical references, melding dance vocabulary with pedestrian elements — an urban walk, a shoulder brush. Mr. Royal’s dexterity was exacting in both his acting and dancing. It was also a dance about today: The same arms that had just painted the stage with luxurious strokes suddenly froze in the manner of “don’t shoot!” His hands clenched overhead; that turned into a single arm raised.
How do we move through the world, and how is our movement read? As a ballet dancer, Mr. Royal is much-admired on the stage; what happens when he steps outside? In the end, there was a reason “to be seen” was set to “Bolero.” It builds and grows, just like the social movements of today: Black people are demanding to be seen.
The program closed with the performance that I would most want to see in person: The exceptional tap dancer Dormeshia’s premiere of “Lady Swings the Blues” — which she did, to music she made in collaboration with Noah Garabedian, Winard Harper and Gabriel Roxbury. A program note stated that the work “honors the generations of Black womxn whose essential contributions to the art form of tap dance have largely remained under the radar.”
Wearing gold shoes and a shimmering top with dark pants, Dormeshia swung her arms forward and back as she dug into her groove, speeding her taps to a ferocious frequency; occasionally, the thrill of her electric body was muted by irritating camera work — close-ups of her feet — and murky lighting that obscured her frame. Yes, Dormeshia’s feet are spectacular, but she is a dancer who uses her entire body, in all of its radiance, to produce a sound. You need all of her.
But the dazzle of her dancing and her personality held it all together, with an ending that made me laugh — and, certainly, crave more. With one leg locked, she used the other to gently tap in and out, faking the last by dunking her toe before it could land. In the final stretch, she extended it out and pushed her arms through the air. A queen.
Fall for Dance
Through Nov. 1; nycitycenter.org.