SW!NG OUT. Photo by Grace Kathryn Landefeld.

It’s the day before the 2023 season opens, and the numbers are looking good at the American Dance Festival. Ticket sales are up 80 percent compared to this time last year, and enrollment is clearly on the rebound at its three summer intensives for professional and pre-professional students, following a 45 percent drop in 2022, the first season the festival returned to live classes and performances after the start of the pandemic. 

Executive Director Jodee Nimerichter is optimistic and excited about the broadened artistic bandwidth among the 20 shows she’s curated for the season and the 13 new works the festival has commissioned for it. 

This week alone, swing dance to live jumping jazz returns when SW!NG OUT takes Page Auditorium (June 15-16), after flashy movers on a serpentine catwalk execute a slow pan across a landscape of mindless consumerism in Mark Haim’s roast, This Land Is Your Land, at the Nasher Museum (June 14). After both of those, a quintet of modern North Carolina choreographers share new ADF-commissioned works Saturday night in Reynolds Industries Theater. 

During the season, modern dance evergreens like Pilobolus (June 23-24) and the Paul Taylor Dance Company (July 14-15) will make predictable dates, alongside avatars including Bill T. Jones (June 29-30) and Rennie Harris, who received this year’s ADF/Scripps lifetime achievement award and a $50,000 honorarium before his company’s performance last Friday night.

Still, all told, one-third of the companies and choreographers on the ADF’s main stages will mark their first appearances at this year’s festival.

And that is a significant—and not entirely calculable—risk for a live arts producer in an industry still seeking a sure footing after COVID-19 curtailed almost all live events for two years across the globe. 

Though dance and theater companies including Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and Paul Taylor offshoot Taylor 2 folded during the lockdown, regional and national performing arts companies of all sizes have stumbled since it has lifted. In December, New York’s Metropolitan Opera unexpectedly announced sizable reductions in its season and its endowment. This spring, Greensboro’s Triad Stage canceled productions and paused operations before a warehouse sale and giveaway of props, set pieces, and costumes in April. Last week, after asking for $2.5 million in January to save its season, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced it needed an additional $7.3 million to finish the year.

Still, robust preseason ticket sales and other cultural markers give Nimerichter confidence. “Clearly people are feeling more comfortable coming back into the theater,” she observes. “People want to dance; they want to be a part of that community. And they’re coming back.” 

But how many of them ultimately do, and what their impact is on last-minute ticket sales and season revenues, can’t be quantified at this point. 

“Most of our income and expenses happen in the next two months,” Nimerichter says. “We don’t know how we’re doing until we get through the season.”

“Will this summer, whatever it is, be the new normal?” she asks. “Will we need another year to tell?”

At this point no one knows, but Nimerichter says she’s keeping a weather eye on world economics.

With that said, a number of the festival’s artists are taking on conspicuously high-profile, and potentially high-risk, targets this year, literally embodying in their creations plangent commitments to social justice. Last week, BODYTRAFFIC opened the festival’s first night with The One to Stay With, a work about the Sackler family and corporate corruption in the opioid crisis.

Also in the ADF Spotlight

Curriculum II | Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company |July 29-30

Otherness is centered—and mentioned by name—in Bill T. Jones’s latest work, when dancer Shane Larson intones the words of cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter: “The other must be understood as not just that which is oppressed or marginalized or rendered inhuman, subhuman, or animal; it also must be understood ‘as that which is to come.’” 

The putative course of study in Jones’s piece is a frequently sardonic codicil to a “planetary curriculum” proposed by historian Achille Mbembe—one that is capable of “salvaging whatever remains of reason as a shared human faculty.” The addendum includes fraught and often forgotten chapters in racial history, set to a soundtrack including Jonathan King, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, and Nina Simone.

Made in NC | Renay Aumiller, Caroline Calouche, Kristin Taylor Duncan, Michelle Pearson, Nicole Vaughan-Diaz | June 17

It’ll be easy to spot Aumiller’s work: It’s the one with six dancers inside an actual tiny house placed center stage. In The Dwelling Place, Aumiller explores feminist and Afrofuturist Adrienne Maree Brown’s thoughts on emergent strategy, a transformational justice model based on nature. 

In Thirst, Pearson, an ADF alum who went on to work with community dance titan Liz Lerman before starting Black Box Dance Theatre, centers resiliency in the work of grief in a work based on children’s experiences mourning losses and her own experiences with the deaths of several family members in a matter of weeks. 

We’ll also see work by cirque choreographer Calouche from Charlotte; edgy, angular Durham dancemaker Duncan; and the Asheville-based psychological film and stage dance creator Vaughan-Diaz.

Since choreographer and trans rights activist Sean Dorsey received his commission last year to create The Lost Art of Dreaming, which a quintet of trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming dancers will perform (July 13, Reynolds Theater), 20 conservative-led states have passed laws aimed at restricting transgender rights; 10 such laws are currently pending in our state legislature.

In a new 10-minute dance documentary that won an Emmy award last week, Dorsey counters that dreaming is a political act and a vehicle for resistance and cultural change. “Trans and gender-nonconforming folks and queer people have a glorious place in the future …. We cannot forge the change we want to see in the world without dreaming of it first.” 

In an intriguing expression of zeitgeist, emigration across borders—and the disorientation and violence that can ensue there—figure into three separate works. In Zvi Gotheiner’s Migrations (July 18 & 20, von der Heyden Studio Theater) the transit patterns of birds mirror increasingly large-scale human movements due to wars and deprivation. The world premiere of Cara Hagan’s were we birds? (August 22, Nasher Museum) reflects on the dislocating experience of such travel as it asks, “When we manage to pull ourselves back together, what remains out of place? What was never in place to begin with?”

And in staibdance’s autobiographical fence (July 1 & 2, von der Heyden Studio Theater), Atlanta-based choreographer George Staib recalls being the only native Iranian studying at the Tehran American School at the time two American students were murdered there in 1976. Staib found himself ostracized after his family fled to rural Pennsylvania, bullied in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution and the Iranian hostage crisis. 

In a chamber where shadow, smoke, and uncertain light curl around barricades of iron and chain link fence, dancers and audience look across the ever-shifting dividing lines between the protected and the Other, whose increasing contortions attempt to evade aversion and neglect.

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