Staged in recent years on the bottom tip of Manhattan, with the harbor and the boats and the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, the Battery Dance Festival could be glorious. If a breeze was blowing and the light was right, the dancing almost didn’t need to be distinctive for the experience to be so.
Still, you might discover something wonderful: a dancer or a company you were unlikely to encounter elsewhere. At other times it was too damn hot and the setting sun was blinding. Then the impression that much of the dancing and choreography was not so great — that the variety of this free, public event had been purchased at the expense of aesthetic discrimination — could swell.
Well, this year you can factor out the weather as a variable, since the festival, like almost everything else in New York dance, is virtual. The new format is not necessarily a diminishment, at least not in volume. The events started on Friday and continue through Saturday, with a different, themed program each of the nine nights: some 52 entries, more than half of them premieres. (Each program is available online for 10 days.)
In normal years, the festival can seem at once vast and small-time. Its pride is its international reach and scope, the many countries and regions of the world represented. Yet the participants are seldom world-class. It can feel, for better or worse, like a neighborhood event.
In the first programs of this year’s virtual festival, some of that feeling is retained — mostly to the good. If the quality is still erratic, now you can skip around and choose. And if a global roster is easier to accomplish virtually, soliciting videos instead of dealing with visas and airfare, it’s still an accomplishment. When we can’t gather in Lower Manhattan, messages from those in similar predicaments far away grow more precious. The experience isn’t live, but the world is made small.
The festival isn’t all footage from somewhere else. Last week, the city allowed early-morning filming in the usual setting, without an audience, so the introductions and some of the performances by local artists play out in front of the harbor. These selections have their moments — like the final solo of Co.D’s scrambled and enigmatic “tenderheaded..,” at the end of the opening “Black Voices” program, when a body that has been lying inert rises in broken eloquence.
These freshly filmed offerings tend not to be the strongest entries. Instead, in the all-Indian evening, look for Bijayini Satpathy’s “Swara Pallavi.” Ms. Satpathy is well known as an exquisite dancer with the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, especially for her duets with Surupa Sen, but here she is choreographer, adapting work by the Odissi guru Kelucharan Mohapatra for two younger Nrityagram alumni, Akshiti Roychowdhury and Prithvi Nayak. They seem like twins, mirroring, overlapping, echoing each other, the ravishing impact of their sculptural curves, undulant rhythms, beauty and charm more than doubled.
The film, shot in a verdant space, brings the dance close. And in Sreelakshmy Govardhanan’s “Soorpanakha,” a Kuchipudi solo about a failed seduction, the filming in a forest heightens the storytelling.
Other videos in the Indian program are less well chosen: a few weak contemporary experiments with bad music, and one that is represented only by a promo reel. Even if the festival is an escape from pandemic realities, a clip from a hit Bollywood film set on a cruise ship (“Dil Dhadakne Do”) hits a wrong note.
The best selections either avoid the present or address it head on. A Koodiyattam performance by the extraordinary Kapila Venu — her eyes are as expressive as other dancers’ hands and feet — or time-lapse footage of Pradeesh Thiruthiya transforming into a Theyyam-style goddess could come from any moment. Whereas Aditi Mangaldas, by juxtaposing a recording of herself on a stage a few years ago with video of herself dancing the same solo in her apartment during lockdown, spinning under a ceiling fan, captures something recognizable and deep about how we have experienced time these past several months.
Another program, featuring dance from the Middle East, contains other finds. The most accomplished entry is the first one, Tanin Torabi’s “The Dérive.” The camera follows this Iranian dancer through a bazaar in Tehran, and as she accents her promenade with minimal — yet in this dance-phobic context, radical — motions, the impromptu reactions of those she passes say much about the culture.
The same program also focuses on the Palestinian dancer Ayman Safiah, who died in May, at 29, apparently while trying to save a friend from drowning. In snippets of archival footage, more so than in “Dawn,” a film he made before his death, he blazes forth as an exceptional dancer, a natural. And in the remembrances of colleagues and a short documentary about him teaching, he comes across as an exceptional person, a path breaker, a force for good. I hadn’t heard of him before.
This, ultimately, is what’s most valuable about the festival: how it directs awareness. Mr. Safiah is gone too soon, but in other cases, the festival shines a light early. “A Call for Prayer,” by Hussein Smko — a young, self-trained dancer from Iraqi Kurdistan whom the festival’s parent organization, Battery Dance, has discovered and championed — struck me as promising. Without the festival, I might never have noticed Mr. Smko. Now I’ll pay attention, and maybe you will, too.
Battery Dance Festival
Through Saturday; batterydance.org.