After two spring seasons without live performances on the City Center stage, this March it explodes with activity—including an extensive, concentrated celebration of dance. Four major companies will perform in close succession, each bringing a distinctive repertory and a flurry of premieres.
The inaugural City Center Dance Festival can be seen as a springtime counterpart to autumn’s two-week Fall for Dance Festival; but instead of a smorgasbord of companies, this festival focuses on four leading New York groups. Each company will display its versatile dancers in an array of works, ranging from beloved classics to innovative new choreography.
Of the four featured companies, three of them—Paul Taylor Dance Company, Martha Graham Dance Company, and Dance Theatre of Harlem—have had decades-long associations with City Center. And Ballet Hispánico is hardly a newcomer, having appeared on past Fall for Dance programs, though these performances mark the company’s first season on the City Center stage.
Both Graham and Taylor bear the names of profoundly influential choreographers whose extensive body of work provides each company with a vast repertory. Their City Center Dance Festival programs will juxtapose classics by these masters with newly commissioned works by contemporary choreographers. Meanwhile, Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) will emphasize the new, offering three works created for its dancers in recent years (as well as an excerpt from a 19th-century classic), while Ballet Hispánico will unveil a brand-new evening-length dramatic work.
City Center President and CEO Arlene Shuler and Stanford Makishi, Vice President and Artistic Director for Dance Programs, considered the companies’ post-pandemic needs in shaping the festival. “We were having conversations about our challenges as a field and hearing more and more from dance companies that without income from touring during the pandemic, they didn’t have the financial runway to fund home seasons in New York,” said Shuler.
“That’s when we decided to step in and find a way to make that happen for these four major New York institutions.”
City Center Dance Festival resonates with history and emotion for all four companies. For Graham and DTH, it marks a delayed return to the theater where their seasons were slated to open in April 2020. And both DTH and Ballet Hispánico celebrated 50th anniversaries in 2020, so this festival offers a belated opportunity to mark that significant milestone on a major New York City stage.
This will be Paul Taylor Company’s first City Center season in 11 years, but the company previously called the theater home for decades, and dozens of Taylor’s most enduring works premiered on the City Center stage. Over the past decade, the company has evolved considerably. Paul Taylor’s death in 2018 put artistic directorship in the hands of Michael Novak, whom Taylor selected to succeed him, and Novak has continued Taylor’s work of commissioning contemporary choreographers to complement existing repertory and challenge the company’s exceptional dancers. Taylor’s CCDF programs include a world premiere by Lauren Lovette—the former New York City Ballet principal with a flourishing choreographic career—as well as the City Center premiere of Larry Keigwin’s robustly contemporary Rush Hour. The company’s three programs will also feature such Taylor gems as Airs, Brandenburgs, Esplanade, Offenbach Overtures, and Roses.
“So much of the Taylor rep was made for the City Center stage, so it was obvious to us that the company needed to be included in the festival,” Makishi noted. “There is an intimacy in the space that serves Paul’s choreography especially well. Sparks fly when that work is performed in our house.”
The Graham programs juxtapose enduring early Graham works—Chronicle (1936) and Appalachian Spring (1944)—with a world premiere by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter. There will also be an old-yet-new Graham work: a reinterpretation of her nearly lost 1952 Canticle for Innocent Comedians that incorporates elements of the original alongside contributions from eight diverse contemporary choreographers, led by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.
Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Festival program offers the New York premiere of resident choreographer Robert Garland’s Higher Ground, as well as Passage, an adventurous collaboration between choreographer Claudia Schreier and composer Jessie Montgomery. The company will also interpret Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s sensuous Balamouk, with live music performed by The Klezmatics.
Ochoa—an in-demand freelance choreographer—also lends her talents to Ballet Hispánico for its new, full-length piece Doña Perón. Set to an original score by Peter Salem, the work paints a portrait of the iconic and controversial Eva “Evita” Perón, whose ambition and conflicting desires fed her life as an activist and feminist leader.
City Center Dance Festival’s three weeks will juxtapose masterworks and bold new explorations, and will even include alternating programs during the final week shared by DTH and Graham. “The companies had complete freedom to choose their repertory,” Shuler emphasizes. “The Festival is about these companies and their unique identities.”
Susan Reiter is a freelance performing arts journalist who has contributed to TDF Stages, Los Angeles Times, Dance Magazine, and many other publications.
City Center Dance Festival runs March 24–April 10.