NEW YORK — The other night in New York’s Central Park, the air was nippy but the sky was clear. The moon was full, and though there were no falling stars, there were plenty of falling bodies.
Yes, falling bodies — from scaffolding several stories high. “Splat!” went the prone bodies, again and again, and though these were dancers, it resembled more of a contact sport — enough to make some observers wonder audibly about internal organ damage.
But the audience loved it, as they tend to love most offerings from the annual Fall for Dance festival. The hugely popular festival was celebrating its 10th anniversary with the special al fresco prelude at the park’s Delacorte Theater.
Tonight, though, the festival starts in earnest at its usual home, New York City Center, for 10 nights of sold-out performances featuring 20 companies from around the globe.
Why is Fall for Dance such a hot ticket that fans start lining up around the block at the crack of dawn or even the night before tickets go on sale, as if a huge rock band were coming?
The first answer is the price. New York may be the dance capital of the world, but at around $100 to see a premier company like American Ballet Theatre or Alvin Ailey — similar to a Broadway show — much of the audience is sadly priced out. Fall for Dance isn’t free like Shakespeare in the Park, except for this year’s prelude, but it’s close: $15 for any seat in the house.
“Personally I don’t think I could buy a ticket for $100 or more,” says dancer and rising choreographer Justin Peck, 26, of New York City Ballet. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve always loved Fall for Dance. It’s a really young, mixed crowd. There’s an exciting enthusiasm.”
Which is great for Peck, because he’s one of three choreographers who’ve been commissioned to create pieces this year — a first for the festival, and another nod to the special anniversary.
“It’s very sleek, very fast, very danceable,” he says of his new piece, which will debut tonight and feature one of America’s top ballerinas, Sara Mearns of NYCB, and Casey Herd of the Dutch National Ballet.
Peck’s piece will have, like all festival offerings, only two showings. Four companies appear each night, always an eclectic mix — from classical ballet to jazz, tap, hip-hop, tango, flamenco and some less definable styles.
The idea, says City Center’s president, Arlene Shuler, is to give audiences a “sampler,” so they can learn what they like, and hopefully become lifelong patrons. “If you don’t like the ballet, maybe you’ll like the tap.”
The festival also balances renowned companies — like NYCB, ABT and Ailey — with lesser-known performers. “We wanted to bring the best companies of the world but also give chances to the young and upcoming choreographers,” Shuler says.
And dancers, too — like the now famous Lil Buck, aka Charles Riley, a master of the Memphis street dancing called “jookin.’”
His first major New York appearance was at Fall for Dance in 2011, performing “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens, dancing on the tips of his sneakers instead of pointe shoes.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa can attest to the power of Fall for Dance in a young choreographer’s career. In 2006, she brought “Before After,” a seven-minute duet. It was her first trip to the United States; Ochoa, who is half-Colombian and half-Belgian, is based in the Netherlands.
“That piece opened so many doors for me,” says Ochoa, who will present a new piece with Ballet Hispanico titled “Sombrerisimo,” a meditation on, well, hats, for six male dancers. The third commissioned piece is by the Royal Ballet’s Liam Scarlett — the first time his work will be seen in New York.
Ochoa well recalls the festival’s distinctive vibe.
“It’s very different from Holland,” she says. “The tickets are so cheap, so you have lots of young people, really ready to be entertained, to be exposed to different things. You can feel they really want to be surprised.”
Audiences at the free performances in the park certainly were surprised by the high-energy and seemingly quite dangerous “Human Fountain,” performed by the athletic dancers of STREB Extreme Action Company. But as always at Fall for Dance, if one thing doesn’t work, there’s something else.
“It basically costs less than a movie,” says Shuler. “So you can take a chance.”