It's now such a mainstay of the New York City dance scene that it's difficult to believe that when the Fall for Dance Festival was launched in 2004, there was uncertainty whether anyone would show up. But audiences did turn out, in droves, right from the start: proving that the concept of widely varied shared programs, at bargain ticket prices comparable to movie admission, amounted to a winning formula. As it moves into its tenth season, the Festival has not only become the unofficial tip-off for the fall dance season, it has expanded in numerous ways, and inspired comparable projects in other cities.
What began with five evenings of diverse programming has grown to 12 performances, and acquired a significantly international profile: importing companies from as far away as Hong Kong, Hawaii and Australia. This season, Fall for Dance boldly moves into commissioning original works, offering no less than three world premieres.
Also to celebrate reaching its tenth year, the Festival adds a second venue: moving outdoors to the welcoming "wooden O" of the Delacorte Theater for two performances hosted by The Public Theater. For these two evenings, instead of the already low ticket prices, admission is free: though the same-day lines of dedicated dancegoers hoping to snag tickets are certain to be long.
Fall for Dance has not only drawn younger and new audiences to dance, it has also provided important opportunities to dance artists, giving an amazingly diverse collection of companies and dancers a chance to be seen on City Center's stage, a premiere dance venue. "There's a whole list of companies and artists who were seen at Fall for Dance and have, as a result, appeared at many other venues and festivals," notes Arlene Shuler, City Center's President & CEO, who envisioned and developed the Festival shortly after arriving in 2003.
A Fall for Dance appearance can jumpstart a young choreographer's career. Artists such as Larry Keigwin, whose then-relatively unknown KEIGWIN + COMPANY performed in 2005, and Andrea Miller, whose Gallim Dance created a sensation in 2010, can look back on those Festival appearances as major moments. The impact can be wide-ranging. "Many companies take off artistically, and the exposure can help them gain new donors and board members," Shuler says.
Fall for Dance creates a context for discussion, discovery and newfound enthusiasms. While loyal dance aficionados wouldn't dream of missing the Festival, they sit side by side with people encountering dance for the first time. Elizabeth Streb, whose uniquely fierce and physical choreography was featured in the very first year, and whose company STREB Extreme Action Company is part of this year's Delacorte program, praises "Arlene's amazing vision" and describes the Festival as "a treasure trove of what audiences want to be exposed to in dance."
From the start, Fall for Dance presented major companies that had a long history with City Center: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, American Ballet Theatre, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Martha Graham Dance Company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company: alongside fledgling (and sometimes experimental) troupes for whom City Center was by far the largest venue in which they'd ever appeared. From its inception, the Festival has been inclusive of numerous dance styles, including leading tap artists, flamenco troupes, and exponents of Indian dance traditions.
Recalling the expectations when Fall for Dance was launched, Shuler says, "I don't think anyone could have anticipated how enthusiastic the audiences were going to be, and how exciting it was. I remember worrying when the tickets went on sale that no one was going to be there. The other thing we weren't sure about was the idea of several companies sharing one program. It had been done, but generally not in such a large venue. But all the companies thought the Festival was such a good idea: $10 tickets to get audiences to come see dance: that they all agreed to participate."
The schedule that first year consisted of six programs, each with five works, so someone lucky enough to get in every night experienced 30 different companies. But as ticket demand went through the roof, it became necessary, in the third year, to offer some programs twice, to accommodate everyone. Now the Festival has settled into a pattern of five programs: each featuring four works: each performed twice. This year, with the bonus Delacorte program, there are 12 performances in all.
Loyal and generous donors and sponsors have been vital to making Fall for Dance possible. Support from Leadership Sponsor Bloomberg and Principal Sponsor MetLife Foundation, along with Presenting Partners Jody and John Arnhold, Barbara and David Zalaznick, Perry and Marty Granoff, and Caroline Howard Hyman, has been critical to the Festival's continued success. "It's a very highly subsidized program," Shuler says. "At the start, raising enough money to produce even one week was very daunting. We are extremely grateful to our supporters for allowing us to continue presenting this Festival at an affordable ticket price."
Shuler is justifiably proud of reaching the Festival's tenth anniversary and was eager to make it special. The three commissioned world premieres certainly fit the bill. "We wanted to do something unusual," Shuler explains. She had long hoped to include London's Royal Ballet in the Festival. They make their first appearance this year in a commissioned pas de deux by Liam Scarlett, the exciting young British choreographer whose work has not previously been seen in New York. Another premiere has Sara Mearns, the luminous and adventurous New York City Ballet principal, sharing the stage with a new partner: Casey Herd of the Dutch National Ballet: in a commission by Justin Peck, the NYCB dancer who has already made three acclaimed ballets for the company. The third commission is an ensemble work for Ballet Hispanico (which appeared in the inaugural Festival) by the acclaimed and very much in-demand Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose work was last seen at Fall for Dance in 2006.
Expanding the Festival to an outdoor venue was another way to make the tenth edition celebratory, and even more accessible than it already is. It also marks the return of dance performances to the Delacorte, which hosted a lively, diverse dance festival between 1962 and 1980. That event sadly collapsed due to a lack of funding, but the memory of it served as a model and inspiration when Fall for Dance was being created.
Now firmly ensconced in the dance calendar, the Festival not only cultivates and enlightens audiences, it challenges choreographers. As Streb says, "What Arlene has created is a call to action; it clearly sets the bar high. If you can get this many mixed-use groups into that theater, with over 2,000 seats, then we've got to up our game a little bit, as choreographers. The vibrancy of the energy of the house, and in the lobby, is really palpable. I think it's just a beautiful model."
Susan Reiter is a frequent Playbill contributor whose articles on the performing arts appear in the Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine and many other publications.