Review: At Fall for Dance, Resilience Takes Center Stage

The fourth program of Fall for Dance, New York City Center’s affordable festival of mixed bills, had more going for it than others: a duet for Robbie Fairchild and Sara Mearns, who danced together so magnificently with Twyla Tharp last year; a New York premiere by the rising choreographer Abby Zbikowski for Dayton Contemporary Dance Company; and a highly anticipated taste of Ukrainian dance in the form of Kyiv City Ballet.

The Kyiv company, which was in Paris when Russia invaded Ukraine, made headlines after it took up residency at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Still based in Paris, the company is now on a U.S. tour. At Fall for Dance, it offered two works: an excerpt (it felt long anyway) from Vladyslav Dobshynskyi’s “Thoughts” and the more buoyant “Men of Kyiv” by Pavlo Virsky.

In “Thoughts” — the complete work was first performed in September — the theme was vague, yet hovered around the idea of a racing mind. A lead couple, the spidery, shirtless Dobshynskyi and the more erect and cool Maryna Apanasenko, wove in and out of an ensemble performing an array of gestural material in unison or converging into formations that splintered out in spirals and circular runs. At the start, Dobshynskyi’s hands fluttered around his head like butterflies as he, perhaps, tried to quiet his thoughts. The sound of whispers filled the stage.

But as one meandering section led to the next, there were more questions: What was the lead couple’s relationship? Was she a spirit? Was the ensemble a reflection or an enemy of their thoughts? In light of the war in Ukraine, their costumes — khaki tops and bottoms — and their clipped rigidity felt militaristic, as the lead couple in white searched for relief or, perhaps, any means of escape.

It was a sharp counterpoint to the exuberant young men who took the stage in the spirited “Men of Kyiv.” With beaming smiles and hands planted on their hips, two groups of five — wearing blue and yellow shirts — sunk to the floor in deep squats and soared into the air with bounding jumps. At one point, it seemed like the stage had become a bouncy castle. The men were fearless and friendly, as if the gangs in “West Side Story” were full of delight simply to run into each other on the street. It was sweet. But the other two works on the program were gems of dance art.

“The Two of Us,” originally created by Christopher Wheeldon in 2020 as a digital work for Mearns and David Hallberg, was now performed live with Mearns and Fairchild. (They were even better.) Set to Joni Mitchell songs, the duet is ethereal and earthy, intentional yet breezy.

Wearing sheer costumes by Harriet Jung and Reid Bartelme that accentuated the subtle mastery of their bodies, Mearns and Fairchild danced together and apart, melding classical technique with light, casual touches — a flexed foot, a swivel of the hips, a sideways glance. What was breathtaking was Mearns’s ability to trust her own presence, not to act emotion but to let emotion filter through her, and Fairchild’s unpretentious sophistication as his maturity deepens his dancing. It was lovely.

“Breathe it out!” one dancer called out to several others as they roamed the stage amid the squeaks of sneakers and pounding stomps. In her array of explosive power moves, Zbikowski, an exciting voice in experimental dance, pushes the body to its limits. Here, it wasn’t just the dancers’ prowess that was thrilling, it was the environment. The stage was bare, the wings were exposed. Six lights dangled from above. Everything about the setting was blissfully raw, a space in which dancers — succinct and fearless whether steering through space on one leg or crashing to the floor — bravely explored their relationship to gravity.

Intermittent music came from the experimental hip-hop group Death Grips, but the main soundtrack was heard in the effort of their bodies and breath — those moments where you felt the intensity of their focus. “Indestructible” is about resilience, about finding harmony with the body and the mind. In the end, they fell forward and flipped onto their backs, crossing their arms at their chest. One by one, they quietly rose to take a bow. As daring as they had been, their poise was just as breathtaking.

Fall for Dance

Through Sunday at New York City Center;