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Are there any dance audiences more eager to love than those that sell out the Fall for Dance Festival at City Center? When the companies on the bill all come from abroad, as was the case on Friday night for the festival’s fourth program, the quick-trigger ovations can feel like a form of hospitality. Basking in the warm welcome can be enjoyable, even if you don’t agree on the merits.
The 11 Brazilian men in the opening number, for example, were most charming during their bows. The number itself, choreographed by Mourad Merzouki, the French artistic director of Compagnie Käfig, kept suggesting a good time without delivering one. He borrowed the dancers from Companhia Urbana de Dança, a Brazilian troupe that stood out at last year’s festival for its mysterious use of hip-hop, scrubbed of showboating. But Mr. Merzouki’s overlong “Agwa” isn’t nearly as innovative.
“Agwa” is about water, and it involves 500 plastic cups. The dancers maneuver around the cups. They pour water from one cup to another. Most strikingly, the men cross the cup-strewn stage on all fours in a line, arranging the cups into evenly spaced rows as they pass: a human plow. Aside from the cup business the dancing is recognizably hip-hop, complete with acrobatics and head spins, though the music, by As’n, seems chosen to be anything but. The Brazilians are sharp — a precious resource all right — but the choreography holds them back without any compensation in artistry. The transparent ponchos they’re forced to wear, flared at the bottom like baby-doll dresses, actually emasculate them.
The program’s pleasant surprise was the TAO Dance Theater from Beijing. The Chinese choreographer Tao Ye’s approach to Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” and “Drumming” is quite similar to that of the Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker to the same music. But unlikeBeyoncé’s recent video, Mr. Tao’s “Weight x 3” isn’t a de Keersmaeker rip off. It’s a rigorous translation, in Chinese robes, of Mr. Reich’s subtly shifting repetitions.
In the first part a woman with a shaved head, the formidable Duan Ni, twirls a long staff. Passing it from hand to hand and behind her back and over her head, she herself turns. The propeller whirl of the stick, catching the light like a circular saw blade, hypnotizes, while the incremental progressions in the movement loops engross.
For the second part Mr. Tao is joined by another woman, Wang Hao, for a hand-in-hand duet. The variations here have still greater impact when unison tilts of the head become mirrored ones, and especially when the dancers break formation and bump.
“The Return of Ulysses,” by the Royal Ballet of Flanders, was disappointing. Christian Spuck’s choreography is dully contemporary and tonally erratic. Penelope (the supple, copper-haired Eva Dewaele) is stuck with seven suitors who keep trying to mount her. There’s a cruel psychological acuity in the way that Penelope, once Ulysses does return, dances with her husband as she dances with the others, going through the motions even of intimacy. Yet using innocent pop songs like Perry Como’s “Magic Moments” is both too easy and self-defeating. Magic moments are what the dance lacks.
The musicians who came with Lizt Alfonso Dance Cuba raised hopes, but much of what they played was closer to elevator music. The dancing was odd, a haphazard hybrid of flamenco and other Latin forms. A nondescript ballroom trio was flanked by female chorus numbers that were almost kick lines and that stooped to tricks as dumb as walking on toe-tip. Can flamenco be happy? Of course. Should it be smiley? No. Cue wild applause.