The Comeback of Narrative Dance: Visions in the Dark


When you attend a dance performance, you sit and watch other people move. They warm up; you settle down. They bask in bright light; you find yourself in the dark, literally and often metaphorically.

In the old days, you’d sit while performers acted out stories: about princes and princesses, women who turn into birds, wicked stepmothers. To a large extent, this is still the case. Narrative dance has made a comeback; this season New Yorkers will watch as beautifully trained artists perform Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (the National Ballet of Canada, at the Koch); flamenco genius Soledad Barrio enacts the ancient Greek tale of Antigone (at the Joyce); and Mark Dendy finally unveils his talky version of the Theseus myth (at Abrons Arts Center). The American Ballet Theatre season at the Koch is full of classic shorter stories; Bill T. Jones collects a bunch that are shorter still, at New York Live Arts; and two African men, Faustin Linyekula and Panaibra Gabriel Canda, bring tales of post-colonial dislocation, using words and movement, to Brooklyn’s BRIC House Ballroom.

See also: The 2014 Fall (Arts) Issue: An Index

Creating dance has historically been the province of the unemployed. In the 16th century that meant the nobility; King Louis XIV of France helped to popularize ballet as a diversion for his courtiers. More recently, it’s been young men without jobs who’ve had the freedom necessary to perfect the phenomenon we call breakdancing, on the streets of our cities, and on display during October’s Fall for Dance series at New York City Center.

Some of the most appealing shows this fall are, in fact, social dances, like Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof, which follows 11 couples through a long evening at a German dancehall — in this case, the BAM Opera House. Also at BAM, Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company, founded 50 years ago with the help of Martha Graham and now under the direction of Ohad Naharin, knits together classical training with movement derived from pleasure-seeking young clubgoers in Sadeh21, made in collaboration with Naharin’s powerhouse ensemble.

We spectators, however, continue to sit—the price we pay for attending so-called “high art.” Go to a stadium: During the action, the lights stay on and you’re free to wander around, grab a beer, take a leak. But we whose job and pleasure is attending to the complexities of concert dance know our place: riveted to the action and, like the long-suffering Jewish mother in the light-bulb joke, sitting there in the dark.

DANCENOW Joe’s Pub Festival

September 3-6 and 13

Forty choreographers take the Pub’s tiny stage in short works; audience favorites each night take encores a week later. Highlights include the Bang Group, Bridgman/Packer Dance, Claire Porter, and Zvidance. Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street,

National Ballet of Canada

September 9-14

Christopher Wheeldon’s 2011 hit Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland finally comes to town, with an atmospheric score by Joby Talbot and dazzling designs by Bob Crowley. Performed by the marvelous National Ballet of Canada dancers, it’s been called “both recognizably traditional and joltingly contemporary at one and the same moment.” David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza,

Fall for Dance at the Delacorte

September 12-13

The 11th Fall for Dance festival kicks off with a free show in Central Park, featuring Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in a work by Nacho Duato, Bill T. Jones’s spectacular D-Man in the Waters (Part 1), Damian Woetzel’s new project with jookin’ star Lil Buck, and dancers from the New York City Ballet. Tickets available in the park on show days, or via online lottery. Delacorte Theater, Central Park at 79th Street,

Pacific Northwest Ballet

October 8-12

This strong Seattle-based troupe, under the direction of NYCB alum Peter Boal, performs dances new to New York by Christopher Wheeldon (to music by Joby Talbot) and Alejandro Cerrudo (music by David Child and Max Richter). Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Fall for Dance

October 8-19

This big dance bargain provides glimpses of 20 troupes hailing from India, Sweden, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France, South Africa, and across the U.S. — including the Australian Ballet and Philly hip-hop stars Rennie Harris Puremovement, spread over five programs, each playing twice. Tickets, $15, go on sale September 14; move fast! New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street,

RoseAnne Spradlin

October 8-11

Spradlin, an alchemist of risk, sexuality, and wild style, returns to NYLA with the haunting g-h-o-s-t c-r-o-w-n, for three women and “additional dancers.” She collaborates with composer Jeffrey Young, visual artist Glen Fogel, and lighting designer Stan Pressner. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street,

Dance Heginbotham

October 9-11

The New York premiere of Chalk and Soot marks a collaboration between witty choreographer John Heginbotham and composer Colin Jacobsen; the latter has set Dadaist poems by Wassily Kandinsky, and the score will be performed by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider and singer Carla Kihlstedt. Jerome Robbins Theater, Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street,

Mark Dendy Projects

October 9-26

In his autobiographical Labyrinth, Dendy, as compelling an actor as he ever was a dancer, retells the Theseus myth as a drug-fueled adventure on the eve of Superstorm Sandy. Heather Christian, Stephen Donovan and Matthew Hardy join in to create sound, music, and video live onstage in the maelstrom. Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street,

American Ballet Theatre

October 22-November 2

It’s the troupe’s 75th anniversary, and they’ll perform Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas and Christopher Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions, in addition to works by Antony Tudor, Twyla Tharp, Jerome Robbins, Frederick Ashton, Michel Fokine, Leonide Massine, and Agnes de Mille, plus a premiere by Liam Scarlett. David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza,

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch

October 23-November 2

The mistress of European dance theater is five years gone, but her troupe marches on, returning to BAM with her 1978 Kontakthof, 30 years after it first wowed local audiences. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue,

Tales of Home: Congo/Mozambique

October 24-25

Le Cargo by Faustin Linyekula/Studios Kabako fuses storytelling and dance to evoke a sense of loss. In Time & Spaces: The Marrabenta Solos, Panaibra Gabriel Canda works with guitarist Jorge Domingos. Both pieces explore intimate experiences of cultural dislocation in Africa. BRIC House Ballroom, 647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene,

Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca

October 29-November 9

Noche Flamenca y Antigona, choreographed by artistic director Martin Santangelo, features the incomparable Barrio as Sophocles’ tragic heroine; the music is live, the performers are fierce, and the experience is unforgettable. Santangelo, who is Barrio’s husband, rewrote the play’s text into lyrics for singer and guitar. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue,

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

November 4-15

Jones’s Story/Time 35, 36, 37 & 38 is inspired by John Cage’s Indeterminacy: Each performance is different, weaving together movement, music, and one-minute stories and featuring special guest artists. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street,

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company

November 6-8 and 13-15

Inspired by the life and work of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who documented black life in Pittsburgh from 1936 to 1975, Brown’s One Shot has video projections by Clifton Taylor and music by Anónimo Consejo, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Mary Lou Williams, Arturo Sandoval, Mamadouba Mohammed Camara, Lena Horne, and Phyllis Hyman. BRIC House Ballroom, 647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene,

Batsheva Dance Company

November 12-15

Ohad Naharin invented a technique called Gaga, which has catapulted his 18-member troupe into the front ranks of contemporary dance. In Sadeh21, to a musical collage, they perform gender-bent line and club dances that evolve into abstract scenarios of humor and beauty. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue,