Finest Dance of 2020 – The New York Instances

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Best Dance of 2020 - The New York Times

Gia Kourlas

The coronavirus has disrupted and turned the performing arts on its head, but it has also made something clear about dance: it’s not tied to a proscenium stage. The visibility via TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and even people on the street was undeniable, even when the theaters were closed. Dancers still perform and choreographers still create, be it for a premiere on video, a reinvention of a classic, or a combination of both. There is no denying that this is an incredibly difficult time for dance and dance artists, but it was also a privilege to experience such imagination and resilience.

Once the quarantine began around the world, dancers started giving classes on Instagram as TikTok became a stage for everyday doers and professionals. It was a generous and collective response to the times; For an hour, the sound of ambulances could be drowned out by Ryan Heffington’s sweat feast, or the calm but firm voice of Tiler Peck, who used a counter as a ballet bar as she led us through our plies.

When digital dance didn’t catch my attention at the start of the pandemic – very little, frankly – choreographer Alonzo King released the first of a series of five videos titled “There Is No Standstill” in Nature. Its depth and sensitivity shone off the screen. “You can’t beat the darkness away with a stick,” he wrote in his artistic statement, “you have to open the window of intelligence so that light can come in”. At last it was time.

Out of the need for social distancing, the solo has evolved into an obvious and meaningful form of choreographic exploration. A solo project was amazing how it looked into the past to bring digital dance to the present. Molissa Fenley’s powerful and relentless “State of Darkness” from 1988, which was adjusted to Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, was reinterpreted this year for seven dancers: Jared Brown, Lloyd Knight, Sara Mearns, Shamel Pitts, Annique Roberts, Cassandra Trenary and Michael Trusnovec. Her performances, broadcast live from the Joyce Theater stage, were brave, scary and heartbreaking.

This choreographer who survived the AIDS crisis never left the performance world, but his artistic voice is stronger than ever. After Deep Blue Sea shut down its ambitious production for the Park Avenue Armory because of the pandemic, he told his company, “You will survive, but life will change.” He knows this firsthand. His most recent endeavors – “Afterwardsness”, a socially distant work from the archive repertoire, and “Our Labyrinth”, a video collaboration with Lee Mingwei – have shown an unwavering view of the world as it was and as it is now.

With her devastated and otherworldly performance in “State of Darkness” at Joyce and her methodical and meditative performance in “Our Labyrinth” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Ms. Mearns showed us two very different sides of herself – each showing a deeper sense of purpose and fearless commitment . We’ve always known how versatile this New York Ballet director is. The pandemic has given her time to experiment, and it doesn’t seem like her ability to grow is about to end anytime soon. She’s not just a ballet dancer who dips her toe into new shapes. she gets into it.

At the start of Hope Hunt and the Rise of Lazarus in March, Oona Doherty, a Northern Ireland-based contemporary dance artist, spilled out of the trunk of a car to start her performance on the sidewalk off 92nd Street Y’s Buttenweiser Hall went to present her play – an amazing, nuanced look at the men of Belfast – we followed enthusiastically, especially after she yelled, “Go to the theater!” Ms. Doherty’s view of manhood swung between tough and vulnerable and was the most memorable live dance performance before shutdown. Now it’s a tantalizing reminder of that thrill.

Aesha Ash, a former New York ballet dancer, left the company when it looked like she wasn’t going to step up. That fall, she returned as the first black female member of the permanent faculty of the company’s affiliated School of American Ballet. It’s overdue, but a crucial step in creating a more integrated ballet universe. Also encouraging: In September, Andrea Long-Naidu, another black former member of the city ballet, joined the faculty of the Boston Ballet School.

Seasoned choreographer David Gordon – founding member of the Judson Dance Theater from the 1960s and improvisation group Grand Union – can’t walk far from his SoHo loft because of the pandemic. But Mr. Gordon, 84, has managed to pack a lifetime of work into a thrilling film, “The Philadelphia Matter – 1972/2020,” in which Philadelphia dance artists perform material from three of Mr. Gordon’s works. It’s a compelling, unsentimental continuation of his work on “The Matter,” which he first introduced in 1972.

It has been a powerful year in the last few months: dancing, which took to the streets during protests against racist injustices and made the body scream and sing after the election. And with the precarious situation that the pandemic has thrown the dance world into, artists are responding to fighting for equality, giving dancers a voice and exploring how the culture of the art form can be reinvented. The exciting part is how it’s a group work: dance artists band together to make change.

It doesn’t have to be a show about dance. Dance is all over TV. “The Crown”, “Derry Girls”, “The wonderful Mrs. Maisel”, “Giri / Haji”. (Though the choreography “Giri” was mind-boggling in the worst possible way.) A recent accidental sighting: the season two finale of “Pen15” where the cast suddenly breaks out while performing a high school play choreographed labyrinth of simple gestures. The last shot also ends with a gesture; In this second, the shape of an arm says more than a word.

On March 8th, I spent the afternoon at the Dance Theater of Harlem watching a run-through of Higher Ground, a new ballet with socially minded songs by Stevie Wonder. The work of the company-based choreographer Robert Garland was vital at the moment, but feels forward-looking after the death of George Floyd and the protests against Black Lives Matter that hit cities this summer. The combination of Mr. Garland’s rich movement vocabulary that fuses and blends ballet with modern dance and street shapes and Mr. Wonder’s music was exhilarating – a promise for the future.

Brian SEibert

Among the silver linings of 2020: forced review. Although I saw some live dancing before March (and even since then) and seen a lot of videos created when choreographers were trying to become filmmakers, what I most particularly notice are the footage of older works that became available online this year.

Some were very old, like the rare Martha Graham films from the 1930s and 40s that her company streamed on her series “Martha Matinees”. When Graham himself blazed in “Letter to the World”, the distance between time and recognition collapsed. The thrill wasn’t gone. It sparkled through the screen.

This is how I felt about the early Mark Morris pieces from the 1980s that the company included in its Dance On! Video Vault. Grainy footage confirmed the size I’d just read about. The experience with the film “Creole Giselle” from 1987, which the Dance Theater of Harlem took from the shelf for its DTH on Demand series, was similar. It was even nicer than advertised.

The gifts didn’t have to be decades old. Joyce Theater’s imaginative JoyceStream programming shed light on wonderful recent work I had missed, such as the Deeply Rooted Dance Theater’s scorching 2017 production of “Indumba”.

And other streamed work was still fresh in my mind: Pam Tanowitz’s great “Four Quartets”, which was filmed at Bard College in 2018, or the live music performance of Ronald K. Brown’s “Grace”, which was filmed there last year , or Dormeshia’s “And Still You Must Swing” ”at Joyce in the last month of 2019.

These were dances that I had seen and loved live in the theater. But when I saw her again at home in 2020, I loved her more – for herself and to preserve what I love most about dance, and to keep that spark alive, at least digitally, in these extraordinarily challenging times.

Siobhan Burke

On a Saturday afternoon in July, I looked out my living room window and saw what had become a rare sight: a live dance performance. Staggering on a flight of stairs across the street, a lone dancer crouched for a small audience that had gathered on the sidewalk, and stretched out the sky. Her energy rolled inward and bounced off. Within the limited space of her stage, she always seemed to discover new ways and possibilities.

The dance turned out to be part of the annual STooPS BedStuy Art Crawl, an event launched in 2013 by dancer and choreographer Kendra J. Ross to bring art and performance to the trestles, courtyards and shop windows of Bedford- Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. (This year it was held at one address and it was also streamed live on Instagram.) The soloist was Mikaila Ware, a member of the social justice dance company Urban Bush Women, with whom Ms. Ross also worked. Later that day, Ms. Ross performed her own Big-in-a-Small-Space solo, a euphoric dance of gratitude for her co-workers and community.

In a year that has given artists so much trouble, picking out “the best”, always a dubious task, appeals to me even less than usual. But when I search my mind for moments that stood out in 2020, the memory of this neighborhood meeting floats to the surface. At another time, when a pandemic wasn’t keeping me near my home, I might be on my way to a Saturday matinee in another part of town or to a secluded summer dance festival. But slowing down and staying in enabled a shift in focus: an opportunity to see what was and was right in front of me.