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Review: Kyle Abraham’s Calm Control of Bodies and Space

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Not just snow falling, but snow falling on a silent sea. In its first moments, “When We Fell,” Kyle Abraham’s new dance film for New York City Ballet, establishes its tone: muted, attuned to melting subtleties.

In interviews, Abraham has said that for this film — available through April 22 on the company’s website and YouTube channel — he deliberately avoided the more flamboyant aspects of “The Runaway,” his 2018 hit for City Ballet. He has said that he was influenced instead by the environment in which the new work was made: during a February “bubble” residency in the Hudson Valley, where the quiet of quarantine was compounded by snow.

This is all apparent in the 16-minute work, set to spare piano pieces by Morton Feldman and Nico Muhly, sandwiching a raucous one by Jason Moran. But because this dance had to be a film, Abraham’s most crucial decision may have been his choice of a co-director, the cinematographer Ryan Marie Helfant. “When We Fell,” shot in 16 mm black-and-white, is among the most beautiful dance films of the pandemic.

After the snow and sea, it positions the dancers in the lobby of City Ballet’s home theater at Lincoln Center, taking full advantage of the site’s clarity and elegance, the geometric floor designs and balcony ironwork. Unlike many recent dance films, this one establishes and maintains bodies in relation to the space around them. When it cuts to a different point of view, the editing is calm, musical, coherent. Even shifts as ostentatious and potentially disorienting as toggles between side and overhead views are subsumed into the film’s tranquil rhythms.

The flashiest moment is a transition, a quick montage of architectural details. This is telling, since Abraham’s choreography is also focused on detail. As in “The Runaway,” Abraham adeptly combines ballet with other influences, from Merce Cunningham to club dance. But the mixing here is more serene, less something-to-prove. Elements that might be contrastive, arabesques versus body rolls, are all delivered unemphatically, on the same level — each snowflake registering before it merges with the water.

So, too, with the diversity of the eight-member cast: A racial mix that still can’t be assumed in this or any ballet company is evident but not emphasized, as is a near absence of ballet hierarchies. The principal dancers Lauren Lovette and Taylor Stanley (Abraham’s City Ballet muse, star of “The Runaway” and of the short film “Ces noms que nous portons”) get the closing pas de deux, which disregards some ballet gender conventions with beautiful assuredness. But the soloist Claire Kretzschmar and the corps members India Bradley and Christopher Grant shine equally.

Even an apprentice, KJ Takahashi, stands out in a sequence of turns that typify this work: It’s bravura without rupturing the contemplative surface, and the tension keeps dullness at bay. By this point, the dancers have moved to the theater’s stage, and the music — Moran’s “All Hammers and Chains” — is at its wildest, chains of glissandi spurting above low hammer crashes. Still, the dance stays calm.

“When We Fell”

Through April 22, nycballet.com.

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