Young dancers shine in choreography reflecting today: LaGuardia High School Graduation Dance Concert 2022

Livestreamed from Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, New York City
June 3, 2022 (reviewed from recording)

Back in 1936, then New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia convinced the city’s Board of Education to establish the first public high school for the arts in the United States. And so was born the High School of Music and Art, a place where, in his words, “the most gifted and talented public school students of NYC can pursue their talents in art or music while also completing a comprehensive academic program of instruction.”

The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, to give it its full title, would go on to be a model for schools around the world, and the inspiration for the 1980 film and TV series Fame. Among its dance graduates you will find such well-known names as Arthur Mitchell, Edward Villella and Eliot Feld, and, coming up-to-date, Darrell Grand Moultrie and Camille A Brown. As this year’s super Graduation Dance Concert showed, it’s still doing a fabulous job.

LaGuardia High School Class of 2022 in Reintegrate by Norbert De La Cruz III
Photo Scott Allen

The choreography was as varied as always, although many of the seven pieces were deeply thoughtful; a reflection of the times and the choreographers’ and students’ experiences of the past couple of years, no doubt. The standard of dancing was as high as ever too, but especially impressive was the way the young dancers demonstrated depth of meaning and understanding of the topics each work dealt with. While all were very much ensemble dances, it was also pleasing to see each choreographer structuring them so as to give individual dancers personal moments in the spotlight in solos and duets.

My personal favourite of the evening was Reintegrate by Norbert De La Cruz III, a slightly enlarged version of the piece originally made for Point Park University in 2021, and at 18 minutes one of the show’s longer works. To music by Oliver Davis and Matthew D. Morgan, the choreography for 21 dancers and seven benches that are reformed several times, the choreography is complex but beautifully fluid and intensely musical. The work emphasises community, coming together and support. Different groups emerge, form and reform with ease. The unison work demands togetherness and got it. There are also some neat changes of mood, from thoughtful and quiet, especially in the duets in the central section, to playful and upbeat.

Reintegrate by Norbert De La Cruz III
Photo Scott Allen

As its title suggests, the opening Abstract: War, choreographed by Joey R. Smith to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Preludes, could hardly be more topical. There’s plenty of powerful imagery as the dance shifts between neo-expressionist, especially in the depictions of marching, to very classical. There was some excellent allegro from the men, Derek Lee standing out in particular for his high, clean leaps and fast, neat footwork. That romance happens even in war, as shown in a gentler pas de deux. Later, the fallen and injured, and the loss and anguish felt by those who survive, are shown powerfully but sensitively. ‘Why?’ the latter seem to ask. The final solo by Evelyn Au, a sort of lament for the fallen soldier in front of her, was moving indeed.

Abstract: War by Joey R. Smith
Still from film

During sleep, the mind sometimes takes a wander down its darker passageways. That certainly seemed to be what was happening in Scott Autry’s In the Middle of the Night. It has a restlessness as, to a sparse soundscape by Brian Eno and Tomasz Bednarczyk, dancers walk in the shadows as though lost before they appear to fight and rail against things unseen.

Lost in a Spin by Michael Greenberg is another complex ensemble work that notably makes use of lots of unison arm movement. There was more seating, this time folding chairs, in Jardim (jar-jin) by Tadej Brdnik, former principal dancer for the Martha Graham Dance Company, although the best moments in another dark piece come in the powerful opening duet that suggests a couple in the midst of a difficult relationship.

LaGuardia High School Class of 2022 in The Giving by Genessy Castillo
Photo Scott Allen

The Giving by Genessy Castillo has echoes of Crystal Pite in the way it makes use of pulsing, throbbing, ever-morphing groups of bodies. But while pleasing to watch, I struggled to make a connection with the quotation from Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree in the programme.

Very much back to topical issues, Unconquered by educator, choreographer and activist Fredrick Earl Mosley was first presented in late 2020, the work very much a response to the twin traumas of the Covid-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. The excerpts shown set dance alongside speeches by the late Congressman John Lewis and former President George W. Bush, poet Maya Angelou’s And Still I Rise, and images of repression past and present.

Parts of the work consists of impactful vignettes inspired by the personal experiences of those who helped create it. It is often very charged. Yet, rather than painting a picture of people cowed and oppressed, its message is very much one of resilience. It emphasises connection and community, a determination to be free, and how it is possible to rise above everything and express that freedom. I found it remarkably uplifting and a tribute to the human spirit.