Having a blast! LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts Graduation Dance Concert

LaGuardia High School Theater, New York
June 1, 2019

David Mead

Just around the corner from Lincoln Center, and no more than a couple of minutes’ walk from the Julliard School and the School of American Ballet, sits a third outstanding educational institution dedicated to producing artists, dancers, musicians and other theatre professionals: the Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music, Arts and the Performing Arts, the ‘Fame’ school, immortalised in a 1980s TV series and later in two films and a Broadway musical.

LaGuardia dance concerts always buzz with energy but somehow this year’s graduation concert seemed more electric than ever. It was a marvellous celebration of young talent. The students blew the enthusiastic audience away in two ballets and three contemporary dance pieces, before rounding off with Bob Fosse’s insanely vibrant Sing, Sing, Sing, to the music of Benny Goodman, just for good measure, played live by a school band perched on a raised platform at the back of the stage.

A contemporary ballet, the opening Hearing Voices by Joey R Smith features a series of dances for couples, trios and small groups. It was danced with much belief and enthusiasm, although I sensed that perhaps ballet was not the students’ strongest suit. Among the ensemble, and not for the only time in the evening, Codelia King caught the eye. Little glances and facial expressions connected with the other dancers, and with those watching. She always seemed to be enjoying herself, which meant we did too.

LaGuardia High School students inMapping by Sarshan Singh BhullerPhoto Scott Allen
LaGuardia High School students in Mapping by Darshan Singh Bhuller
Photo Scott Allen

Originally made for Phoenix Dance Company in 2014, Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Mapping draws inspiration from his interest with maps and viewing life and the world from above. Although an abstract piece, there’s also a hidden narrative that follows his late father’s journey from East to West.

It’s a busy work, brim full of sometimes slightly crazy ideas. It’s interesting, surprising and hugely entertaining; quite perfect for the young LaGuardia cast. The early choreography fizzes with life. Dancers in white martial arts-style suits fly on and off. The dance is bold and eats up the space. It’s as busy as any sub-continent city. The cast devour the air around them too, as they windmill their arms or spin with them held horizontally.

Out of the dance come solos and duets that give individuals a moment to shine. There are some beautiful quieter passages too, including a delicious duet for Matthew Ululati and Lilah De Leon, and a delectable slow, floor-based solo from the expressive Isabella Pagano.

LaGuardia High School dancers inHolberg Suite by Arthur MitchellPhoto Scott Allen
LaGuardia High School students in
Holberg Suite by Arthur Mitchell
Photo Scott Allen

Another shift brings smiles galore as Bhuller changes the perspective. A video projection from a camera suspended above the stage has the dancers, now laying down using a line created by taking up a strip of tape as the new ‘floor’, walk, dance, jump, flip and much more, but all in quirky humorous ways. And let’s not forget the tennis balls. Lots and lots of tennis balls. Great fun.

Inchallah by Chanel DaSilva is a dance of different moods built around the powerful presence of Raven Joseph, who seems to be the stranger in the group; someone looking for something. I particularly enjoyed a hip hop moment that came out of nowhere, and a more jazzy section that burst with energy.

When Arthur Mitchell left New York City Ballet to establish the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, one of his first choreographies was Holberg Suite to the familiar music by Edvard Grieg. It’s a gorgeous, plotless neoclassical ballet that has George Balanchine’s influence writ large right through it, the choreography full of the sort of matching and opposing symmetry seen in so many of his pure dance works.

It is the most polite of ballets. Sections frequently start and end with courtly nods or bows. While stretching the young dancers, it never goes too far, allowing them to relax into it. They caught the music’s spirit perfectly. Among several highlights was a female trio featuring Christina Barretta on pointe, between Grace Sautter and Zoe Halem. All three had a nice elegant line but Barretta was outstanding, performing with a lovely gliding lyricism. She also always seemed able to find time in the music as she filled out every musical phrase.

LaGuardia only danced excerpts, but it was enough to make you long to see the whole ballet.

The Giveaway by Blakeley White-McGuire is at its best in a thoughtful section in which The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, one of America’s most beloved poets, is read over Arvo Part’s music. With the text’s hints of something ending and asking “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one and precious life,” it felt so appropriate for a show that, while celebrating achievements, also marks leaving. White-McGuire’s choreography, which frequently invokes a sense of community, makes much use of the dancers in a diagonal line.

LaGuardia High School studentsin Sing, Sing, Sing by Bob FossePhoto Scott Allen 2
LaGuardia High School students
in Sing, Sing, Sing by Bob Fosse
Photo Scott Allen

To say that the show finished on a high does not do Sing, Sing, Sing justice. Staged by Lloyd Culbreath of The Verdon Fosse Legacy, set up to promote, preserve, and protect the artistic legacy of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, it was an explosive firework display of super dance that was totally infectious from start to finish.

Right from Nouhoum Koita’s opening announcement, it was a blast. Everyone gave it their all and more. There were fabulous moments galore, but it was the boys who stood out. A male trio of junior dance major Brandon Trent and seniors Timothy Bosco and Brandon Borkowsky had everyone eating out of their hands. Best, though, was a tap duet by Bosco and Ululati. It was not so much the technique, as good as it was, it was the connection between them; the little looks, almost as if they were talking to each other. It was like watching a couple of great friends having a great time, which of course, is precisely what it was. And, by the way, so was everyone in the audience, which responded with a most deserved standing ovation.