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Best Dance of 2021 – The New York Times

gia kourlas

This has been a strange year for dance: A quiet, dark winter followed by outdoor performances — a trickle in the spring and a flood in the summer. When fall happened, it was as if a switch had turned the dance world back on. My card was full. Except for masks, vaccine checks and, in certain instances, no intermissions — please keep that option whenever possible going forward? — it has been like any other fall. Almost.

Before the fall season, dance was re-emerging from its pandemic cocoon. Virtual dance was pretty much all we had. But then came the fierce and fun Brooklynettes at Barclays Center; the Kitchen’s experimental Dance and Process program, “This Is No Substitute for a Dance” that included Leslie Cuyjet and Kennis Hawkins at Queenslab in Ridgewood; and Jodi Melnick’s delicate, unsentimental “This duet (infinite loneliness)” for Taylor Stanley and Ned Sturgis at the Little Island Dance Festival. They were all important, all transporting. In order to see dance clearly, you need to feel its urgency; their performances put me on the right path.

What follows are my Top 10 dance events, in no particular order.

With “Twyla Now,” Tharp created a moving, transcendent program that reimagined her past with four works demonstrating her crystalline command of structure, steps, musicality and partnering. (“Pergolesi,” for Sara Mearns and Robbie Fairchild, was spellbinding.) But earlier this year — when we were still trapped indoors — there was another way to bask in her work: the excellent “American Masters: Twyla Moves.” What was American Ballet Theater thinking opening its Lincoln Center season with “Giselle” instead of Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”? It’s a dance about courage, and given the time we’re in, nothing would have been more appropriate. (Read our review of “Twyla Now.”)

In “Repose,” the choreographer Moriah Evans took over 1.4 miles of Rockaway Beach for a six-hour movement experiment in which 21 dancers slowly made their way from Beach 86th to Beach 110th Streets in Queens, their green bathing suits etched into the landscape. Inspired by the everyday movement and nature found at the beach — the birds, the water, the sand and the air — the dancers responded with movement scores that pulled them in and out of the water. Performed one Sunday in August as part of the Beach Sessions Dance Series, “Repose” culminated with a sonic sunset score by the musician and composer David Watson; dancers lay in the sand as the last bits of sun gleamed through the clouds. It was magnificent. (Read our story about “Repose.”)

As part of four/four presents, a platform commissioning collaborations among artists, the dancer and choreographer Kayla Farrish teamed up with the musician Melanie Charles in Maria Hernandez Park in Brooklyn. Racing across a playground on balmy September night, Mikaila Ware, Kerime Konur, Gabrielle Loren and Anya Clarke-Verdery joined Farrish in a sweeping and robust work braiding music and spoken word with choreography that encompassed vivid, technical dance and the grace and power of athletic drills. The mesmerizing result transformed these five distinct dancers — moving with silken speed or as slow-motion sculptures — into a vibrant union of musicality, tenderness and power.

This series, produced and hosted by Charmaine Warren, got its start in June of 2020, but throughout the past year it has become a lively and indispensable archive of the stories of Black dance artists. It’s a dance history class for all — with warmth, truth and heart. Now Warren continues with a new round of programming, the Young Professionals’ Experience, which focuses on emerging Black artists. (Read our article about Black Dance Stories.)

This has been the year of the ballet memoir, but none have been as radiant as Gavin Larsen’s “Being a Ballerina,” which celebrates her career, as she puts it, as an everyday ballerina. A former member of Pacific Northwest Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theater, where she was a principal, Larsen brings you right onstage with her as she gets to the root of, as she told me, “the everyday-ness, the ordinariness of being extraordinary.” (Read our interview with Gavin Larsen.)

The return of this organization, formed in 2005 by Jmy James Kidd and Rebecca Brooks, under the guidance of a new group of organizers made the summer sing — and, of course, dance. As part of Open Culture NYC, Aunts presented three events that transformed city blocks into glittering sites of performance in which overlapping artists tested out movement experiments and anyone who was curious reaped the benefits. (Read our story about Aunts.)

Looking back, it’s pretty evident what helped get me through the year: the joyful, exuberant tap artist Ayodele Casel. There was her incredible virtual program, “Chasing Magic,” presented by the Joyce Theater; a live performance at the Empire Hotel Rooftop as part of iHeartDance NYC; the Little Island Dance Festival, which she curated with Torya Beard; and “Where We Dwell,” a New York City Center commission for Fall for Dance to music by the singer and songwriter Crystal Monee Hall, with direction and staging by Beard. The stage version of “Chasing Magic” comes to the Joyce in January — think of it as a way to start the New Year right. (Read our review of “Chasing Magic.”)

Throughout the pandemic, City Ballet has been a fortifying source of artistry, from its virtual programming, including a fine film by Sofia Coppola, to its podcast that managed to bring dances to life. (Listen to Episode 44, in which Suzanne Farrell discusses George Balanchine’s “Chaconne” with Silas Farley and Maria Kowroski.) While the company’s fall season had its ups and downs, the highs were incredible, from the ravishing debut of Isabella LaFreniere in “Chaconne” to the farewell program of Kowroski, giving her all as the stripper in Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” But the magic was how the company came together as a whole, a collective spirit of grace and grit. (Read our Critic’s Notebook about the fall season.)

This year, the choreographer Camille A. Brown stopped an opera in its tracks. In Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which she directed with James Robinson, Brown brought social dance to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in Oct. with a step number that was stunning in multiple ways: visually, sonically and historically. By including this form of percussive dance, Brown not only put a step dance inside of an opera, she honored her ancestors. (Read our review of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”)

Perhaps the most probing, original choreographer of our time, Sarah Michelson creates works that question the field, using her body to challenge ideas of beauty and the status quo. In a new solo at the David Zwirner Gallery in Oct. — the program, a large sheet of paper, featured a rendering of Michelson and the words “Oh No Game Over” — she presented her most personal work to date. Raw and vulnerable, it was a breathtaking testament to the struggle and dedication of being a New York City dancer. Hopefully, the game isn’t over yet.

brian sEIbert

It was a year of awkward segments: a spring of “I guess we’re still doing digital,” a summer of outdoor shows and meteorological anxiety, a fall of happy returns to theaters and the debuts of long-delayed projects. Between the struggle to return to normal and a desire to acknowledge how much had changed, there was much tension and uncertainty, a lingering haze of hope and fatigue. Amid the dance I saw, here is what broke through.

My where-has-this-been-all-my-life discovery of 2021 was LaTasha Barnes. In the subcultures of Lindy Hop and house dance — forms with estranged familial bonds that Barnes reconnects with effortless cool — she has been a standout for years. But she didn’t appear on my radar before “The Jazz Continuum,” the show she presented at Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum in May and later at Jacob’s Pillow.

Barnes’s appearance in “Sw!ng Out” — the contemporary swing-dance show that got its delayed debut at the Joyce Theater in October and gave me the most joy of any dance production in 2021 — confirmed her amazingness. But praise and gratitude also must go to Works & Process and Jacob’s Pillow. These organizations have not only been providing lifelines to artists during the pandemic, they have also been directing attention and resources to dance communities often neglected by the institutions of concert dance. (Read our profile of LaTasha Barnes.)

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater remained mostly confined to the virtual realm until December, but that didn’t stop the company’s resident choreographer, Jamar Roberts, from staying on a roll. “Holding Space,” his new ensemble work for the troupe, and “Colored Me,” a solo film he made independently, further verified the originality and resonance of his newly emerged artistic voice. Also in the on-a-roll category this year: Ayodele Casel and Kyle Abraham. (Read our profile of Jamar Roberts.)

The gumption of ABT Across America — American Ballet Theater’s cross-country tour to parks, fields and other outdoor places — was a pleasure to witness, but the outdoor dance show that gave me the greatest aesthetic high was Pam Tanowitz’s “I was waiting for the echo of a better day,” at the Bard SummerScape festival in July. Here was a work that truly took advantage of exterior space, expanding in all directions and in the mind. (Read our review of “I was waiting for the echo of a better day.”)

The dance that charged and changed an indoor space the most was the one that opened Act III of the Metropolitan Opera production of Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” Choreographed by Camille A. Brown, who was also one of the production’s directors, this step dance number stopped the show, brought down the house. As the sound of step, a percussive form developed at historically Black colleges and universities, resounded through a theater where such lineages have long been absent, you could hear barriers breaking. (Read our interview with Camille A. Brown.)

At New York City Center in November, Twyla Tharp, using her 80th birthday as an occasion, delivered “Twyla Now,” her best show in many years. Cannily combining a collaged premiere with some dance equivalents of “trunk songs” — unused or one-off material — the show benefited from a stellar cast: not just Sara Mearns, channeling Mikhail Baryshnikov while staying herself, and Jacquelin Harris from the Ailey company, revealing new sides and layers, but also a crew of teenagers Tharp found on the internet. It presented a familiar Tharp vision — the peaceable kingdom of disparate styles, the past entwined with the present — but it was that vision renewed. (Read our article about “Twyla Now.)


In this strange hybrid year for dance, Jacob’s Pillow stood out for its thoughtful, accessible mix of live and virtual programming. From its out-of-the-way campus in the woods of Becket, Mass., the nearly 90-year-old institution broadened its reach with an abundance of free digital offerings, supplementing the in-person portion of its summer festival. These included one of the most inspired short dance films to emerge from the pandemic, “Get the Lite,” directed by the associate curator Ali Rosa-Salas with Godfred Sedano and starring Chrybaby Cozie, a pioneer of the Harlem-born dance style litefeet. With a buoyant ease that infuses both its dancing and direction, the three-minute film, released in February, remains a joy to revisit.

As the pace of prepandemic life returns to New York, it’s easy to forget the feelings of fear and loss that gripped the city in spring 2020. During those months of heightened crisis, the performer and choreographer Devynn Emory, who is also a registered nurse, was a frontline worker at a hospital in Manhattan. In March of this year, Danspace Project presented Emory’s “deadbird,” a film exploring transitional states. Based in part on Emory’s experience of caring for people at the threshold between life and death, the work felt like a gift in a time of often rushed mourning, a space in which to meditate on gratitude and grief. (Read our story about Devynn Emory’s “deadbird.”)

Richard Move’s mystical “Herstory of the Universe,” a series of site-specific vignettes on Governors Island in October, delivered some of the year’s most enchanting performances — and costumes, designed by Karen Young. As I watched PeiJu Chien-Pott (formerly of the Martha Graham Dance Company) bolt along a hillside path in a billowing orange dress, I thought: I will follow her anywhere. Her magnetic energy did full justice to the inspiration for her character, the Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu. And the intrepid Lisa Giobbi, as a hamadryad — a forest nymph from Greek mythology — seemed to defy the laws of physics with her aerial, arboreal performance, as she scaled the branches of a sturdy old tree, hoisted aloft with ropes. Perfectly at home there, she cast a spell. (Read our review of “Herstory of the Universe.”)

In October, Judson Memorial Church hosted Movement Without Borders, an event honoring three organizations that help people navigate the immigration system in the United States. The day of performances, speeches and films included “iridescent,” a solo of subtle, startling depth by the Buenos Aires-born dancer and choreographer Jimena Paz. In a progression from hip-swaying, shuffling steps to weeping as she stood in place, arms open to the audience, Paz evoked a sense of remembering and longing, perhaps for people and places that live on only in memory. She distilled the themes of the day into physical form, no explanation needed — just movement.

Opening night of New York City Ballet’s fall season was an unforgettable thrill, as the company appeared before a live audience at its home theater for the first time in 18 months. For me, it wasn’t any particular piece on the program or quality of performance that was so exhilarating, but the collective feat, among all of the dancers, of getting back onstage. While this was one extreme example, I’ve felt something similar at all kinds of performances this fall: awe and admiration in the presence of dancers’ commitment to dance. (Read our review of New York City Ballet’s opening night.)

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