Best Dance Performances of 2022
Ch-ch-changes (and Abundance)
In movement speak, this year has been a whirlwind. There have been revivals and premieres, dancer debuts and books, books and more books (mainly about ballet). New artistic directors were named: Susan Jaffe at American Ballet Theater and Tamara Rojo at San Francisco Ballet; it was also announced that Robert Garland would take over that role at Dance Theater of Harlem. And in keeping with a new generation, there is Pageant, an experimental artist-run space recently relocated to Brooklyn, where mixed bills indicate that movement — technical, expansive, full-out — is making a comeback.
Sadly — it’s the bad part of a whirlwind — I missed what might have been the event of the fall season: a bizarre, confrontational discussion between Yvonne Rainer and Bill T. Jones at New York Live Arts, after Rainer’s “Hellzapoppin’: What About the Bees?,” perhaps her last work, which explored her white privilege as what she called “a permanently recovering racist.”
Footage isn’t available yet, but check out Episode 277 of the podcast “Dance and Stuff” for an impressive overview. Aptly, it’s called “With Drama.”
There turned out to be many more than 10 performances to choose from this year, which is never a bad sign. What follows is a whittled-down list, in alphabetical order.
As part of Danspace Project’s spring Platform 2022, “The Dream of the Audience (Part II),” the choreographer presented a dreamy, mystical look at grief — inspired, in part, by the death of a friend and dance partner — that was also related to Brooks’s research into whales. In “Sensoria: An Opera Strange,” there was vocalizing, dancing and even a ghostly duet. (Read our feature about Brooks’s “Whalefall.”)
Trisha Brown Dance Company
The company offered two gorgeous performances at disparate spaces, one at the Joyce Theater — the program featured two dances created with the artist Robert Rauschenberg — the other at Rockaway Beach as part of Beach Sessions. At Rockaway, dancers traveled along the shoreline in “Trisha Brown: In Plain Site,” showcasing some of Brown’s early works. Was it the end of an era? The company has just announced its first choreographic commission, meaning the focus will no longer be solely on Brown’s dances. Judith Sánchez Ruíz, a former company member, will do the honors. (Read our feature about the company at Rockaway.)
Even in a crowded theater, some performances are intimate experiences, between you and the dancers onstage. The stage version of Casel’s “Chasing Magic” — first presented as an digital offering earlier in the pandemic — was about creating a community, an energetic exchange for everyone in the space. “We want to hear you, we want to feel you,” Casel, an extraordinary tap dancer, told the audience at the Joyce Theater. What did the two productions, online and live, both directed by Torya Beard, have in common, beyond great music and dance? Casel’s loose, funny banter, her remarkable feet up close, her transporting presence. She is air — as fresh as it comes. (Read our review of the digital “Chasing Magic.”)
Based mainly in Europe, this American choreographer returned to New York with “Maggie the Cat,” a heady mix of runway, voguing and an energizing point of departure: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” With his “Maggie” — a play, a character, a force? — Harrell created a bold, joyful show that elevated the notion of runway movement as dance and any old household objects, like pillows and towels, as couture. It was a sonic and visual delight.
In “Single Eye,” King’s luminous premiere for American Ballet Theater, this San Francisco-based choreographer instilled his dance, set to a jazz score by Jason Moran, with all the delicacy and power of the natural world. The way he explores technique makes classical dance at once more human and more dazzling; that could also be seen in “Swift Arrow,” a duet he choreographed for Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia, performed at New York City Center. (Read our review of “Single Eye.”)
New York City Ballet
The sight of one generation shifting to the next has never felt as dramatic as it does now at City Ballet, where talented dancers, from principal to apprentice, are remaking and refueling the company. It’s not just about prodigious technique: Dancers like Indiana Woodward, Unity Phelan, Anthony Huxley, Joseph Gordon, Jovani Furlan, Emily Kikta and Mira Nadon are invigorating for how they bring individuality to their dancing. Daring, musical, unaffected, they leave behind their essence in every step. And Pam Tanowitz’s utterly fresh “Law of Mosaics” (I saw it on video after performances were canceled because of the pandemic) felt like an overhaul, too, from its formal, layered group scenes to its empowering solos. It was the finest new offering to come from City Ballet in ages. (Read our Critic’s Notebook about the fall season.)
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ratmansky hasn’t had the desire to make a new dance; but he did anyway, this fall at Pacific Northwest Ballet. The resulting “Wartime Elegy” — charming, patriotic, quirky and, mercifully, part of the company’s digital programming — was more than moving. It was a relief: Clearly, he can make a new dance. This year also featured a pair of recent Ratmansky full-length ballets, both excellent: Miami City Ballet presented his version of “Swan Lake,” and American Ballet Theater, where he is the artist in residence, performed “Of Love and Rage,” a robust, sweeping dance inspired by an early Greek prose work. How is it that none of his dances will be featured in the next summer season of Ballet Theater? It’s distressing. (Read our review of “Of Love and Rage.”)
Twyla Tharp Dance
For the second year in a row at New York City Center, Tharp lit up the fall season with a transcendent program — and a reason to love the 1980s. Her pairing of “In the Upper Room” (1986) with “Nine Sinatra Songs” (1982) was more than a dance concert; it was a gift, restorative and thrilling. It made me remember why New York City is special, how it can be a place where masterpieces are born. “In the Upper Room,” a dance about courage set to Philip Glass, was the heroic, blazing first part. The program closed with “Sinatra,” a timeless, intimate excavation of relationships. It was like finding water in a desert. (Read our feature about Twyla Tharp at City Center.)
This Vietnamese dancer, writer and activist creates risky, erotic, enigmatic and boldly humorous works; this year, I caught two, at Movement Research at the Judson Church in April and at Performance Space New York in May, as part of Moriah Evans’s “Octopus” presentation. “Yellow (For Love),” shown at “Octopus,” refers to the ballads that were banned in Vietnam for about a decade after the war ended; it showcased Vo’s unwavering commitment to the body, to movement and to diving headfirst into the depths of dance.
Abby Z and the New Utility
In “Radioactive Practice,” Abby Zbikowski showed the distinct way that she views dance. It’s highly physical and sweat-inducing, but it also reveals something about what happens when an athletic act becomes a spiritual one. At New York Live Arts, her performers, fluent in many styles from postmodern dance and hip-hop to synchronized swimming and martial arts, took center stage for dancing that spoke about a body’s history, its conditioning. The music was blissfully loud. (Read our feature about Abby Zbikowski.)
Artists Who Grew and Regrouped
Many dance shows in 2022 — especially those arriving belatedly from abroad, delayed a year or two by the pandemic — seemed to lack freshness, like leftovers or products past their expiration dates. It wasn’t enough for a company or theater to suggest, “This is what we planned to present before.” That time had passed.
Some artists, though, have used the past year or two to keep growing. For me, the breakout dancer of 2021 was LaTasha Barnes, who fluently bridges decades of Black dance innovation, but the versions of her show, “The Jazz Continuum,” that she and her colleagues debuted last year were disappointingly diffuse. By the time the production arrived at the Joyce Theater in October, though, it had changed — found its flow, discovered how to preserve the feeling of a social gathering while keeping the level of the ensemble up near the brilliance of Barnes.
Where Barnes has been working on how she fits into a group show, the great Odissi dancer Bijayini Satpathy has been learning to hold a stage alone. For more than two decades an essential member of the company Nrityagram, she broke off on her own in 2018 and has been learning to hold a stage alone. This year, she served as artist in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the brief performances she gave in various galleries in May were fascinatingly experimental. “Doha,” the evening-length solo she debuted in the museum’s auditorium in September, was a breakthrough: a dancer drawing on tradition to create a personal language for the present.
Still, the dance production that hit me the hardest this year — the one I can’t recall without strong emotion — was created just before the pandemic struck in 2020. The New York debut in April of “Higher Ground,” a ballet to classic Stevie Wonder tracks that Robert Garland choreographed for Dance Theater of Harlem, managed to be both backward-looking and timely. It renewed the purpose of Dance Theater, which Garland will be leading as artistic director next year. His time has come. (Read our reviews of “The Jazz Continuum” and “Higher Ground,” and our feature about Bijayini Satpathy.)
Accent on Community
The effects of the pandemic’s darkest days continue to linger, though not always in obvious ways. After so much isolation, it’s probably no coincidence that some of this year’s most moving and memorable performances stood out for the spirit of community they conjured: a sense of genuine friendship among the dancers onstage, radiating out to draw the audience in. That spirit also encompassed dancers of the past, presences felt but not seen.
A celebration of lineage, of artistic ancestors, was central to LaTasha Barnes’s “The Jazz Continuum,” a show I loved so much I saw it twice during its week at the Joyce Theater. With her team of 15 stellar dancers and musicians, Barnes (the most extraordinary of them all) teased out connections among dance forms whose origins span decades — Lindy Hop, house, breaking, voguing and more — to reveal their common roots as jazz. But that sounds more academic than it was. “The Jazz Continuum” also felt like a party that just happened to have an audience, unfolding with the seemingly effortless flow of friends having a fun night out — and with the catharsis, too, that accompanies deep devotion to the dance floor.
The floor itself was almost a performer in “Can We Dance Here?” from the brilliant trio Soles of Duende: the flamenco dancer Arielle Rosales, the Kathak dancer Brinda Guha and the tapper Amanda Castro. In an intimate theater at Gibney, they ignited a conversation among their percussive dance traditions, three distinct but entwining modes of making music with the ground. While such cross-cultural experiments can feel forced, theirs seemed born from a place of real curiosity and taking pleasure in one another’s company. Another rhythm-driven group, Music from the Sole (led by the choreographer-composer duo Leonardo Sandoval and Gregory Richardson), also thrived as a collective in “I Didn’t Come to Stay,” a jolt of good energy at this year’s Fall for Dance festival.
An eerier kind of togetherness emerged in John Jasperse’s “Visitation,” for Doug LeCours, Tim Bendernagel and Cynthia Koppe. Invoking ghosts and ghostliness, this spacious yet intricate work managed to fill NYU Skirball’s expansive stage, building to a climax in which the three dancers, uncannily, appeared enmeshed as one. At the same time, throughout the piece, it was hard to look away from Koppe, who gave a quietly magnificent performance: so rigorously present in her body, she seemed to have broken through to a different realm. (Read our reviews of “The Jazz Continuum” and “Can We Dance Here?” and “Visitation.”)