NOTE: As happens every year, we had a lot more to say about the AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL than we could ever fit into the print version of the INDEPENDENT. Thus these expanded essays, which delve more in depth into some of the issues that came up—plus one or two that didn’t—during the season: our extended dance mixes for the 2011 ADF.



If ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER, the 2011 recipient of the ADF/Scripps Award, didn’t already exist, that relentless chronicler of the contemporary zeitgeist, novelist Don DeLillo, would have had little choice but to invent her. The power of iterative bodies that DeLillo has analyzed in works including Mao II and White Noise was palpably manifest in her company’s performance of ROSAS DANST ROSAS. In that 100-minute choreographic labyrinth, the impact of a series of everyday gestures was magnified by their reiteration and gradual mutation across the bodies of four dancers (including the choreographer’s, on opening night).

After executing a nearly mathematical set of lockstep moves, tossing and turning on a dimly lit floor that permitted them no rest, the quartet marked time in permutations of poses while seated in a Kafkesque waiting room. We then saw the numbing monotony of endless renegotiations of gender and interpersonal boundaries, necessitated by bodies that constantly disclose their sexuality—whether their inhabitants desire to or not.

ROSAS DANST ROSAS concluded with a dutiful—and equally endless—labor march, a zero-sum endeavor in which two steps in any direction inevitably resulted in two steps back. The arms that swung, with clenched fists, as the foursome charged one way and another on an invisible but all-important grid, repeatedly intensified this final part. Still, within the crisp unison of these tightly circumscribed movements, each dancer subtly individualized their delivery, emphasizing not only their characters’ resilience, but their resistance as well. If the four sections of the work all but pummeled us with the inescapable demands of their characters’ lives, their ceaseless and subtle personal responses served notice of a human spirit yet uncrushed.

When four women examine on stage the needful, quotidian movements of rest (and its denial), dress, waiting and work, they are undeniably telling the stories of many more, across a number of generations. In this way, ROSAS DANST ROSAS constitutes a most compelling alternative history of Everywoman. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, that noted feminist historian whose landmark works have focused on the “silent lives of ordinary people,” would be pleased.


When we learned that one of PILOBOLUS’ world premieres was a collaboration with Dairakudakan choreographer TAKUYA MURAMATSU, we wondered if all would end well.

To be clear, that’s no intended slam against either group, but a reflection on the extended amount of study it takes to fully embrace the Japanese art form Ankoku Butoh, or “dark soul dance.”

We’ve been down this way before. Muramatsu and company have made two previous attempts to teach Western dance students Butoh in six-week intensives at ADF: in 2006’s Taiyo No Kokuin (Mark of the Sun) and 2008’s Secrets of Mankind. Their results, combined, would have seemed a persuasive enough warning against further attempts of similar brevity.

Apparently someone at ADF thought a different outcome might occur with professional dancers. So they ponied up for yet another intensive collaboration. As a result, now we know: the crash-course approach doesn’t work a lot better with pros than it does with advanced dance students.

But before going further, let’s be clear. Advanced students should regularly be given the chance to learn Butoh in venues like the American Dance Festival. But neither they nor more accomplished dancers should be expected to perform professional-level Butoh for paying audiences after less than six weeks of training.

True, there were several striking moments in the premiere of KOROKORO (ROLLING). In one sequence, several characters cascaded down a mountainous course formed by the backs of the remaining company members.

But the deep disturbance and tension embedded in all parts of the Butoh body in Dairakudan’s temputenshiki style was, at best, a sometimes thing throughout this lengthy episode. As we watched, dancers partially or completely slipped out of that body repeatedly, an experience comparable to viewing an amateur actor repeatedly slip in and out of character, in a work which plateaued long before its conclusion.


That startling sound cue which awoke some audience members well into the second hour of the June 9 gala—in HUBBARD STREET DANCE CHICAGO’s excerpt from OHAD NAHARIN‘s gritty, gratifying THREE TO MAX—should have actually been taken as a warning shot.

For if we thought at the time that De Keersmaeker was using rockshow-level sound in ROSAS DANST ROSAS, we’d heard nothing yet. Not when SHEN WEI briefly and EMANUEL GAT repeatedly used ultra-low frequencies, amplified at very high volume, to rattle ribcages and shake the seats in Durham Performing Arts Center. If the force of that sound caused the wooden and metal frames of your seat to tremble repeatedly in response, consider, dear reader, its impact on your internal organs.

For the accolades we gave Gat’s BRILLIANT CORNERS in our Extended Dance Remix I tell only part of the story. What other achievements might we have recognized in that work had we not spent the first quarter of it fighting our way through what initially seemed an all but impenetrable obstacle—the barrier posed by its own soundtrack?

It’s been 11 years since the audio in a busted flush of a world premiere by Ann Carlson barricaded audiences as effectively from a dance work as Gat’s bizarre, self-generated score. While Carlson danced alone on stage in Reynolds Theater, we listened as her little boy, in a recording, attempted to read choreographer Doris Humphrey’s famous “Checklist,” a series of rubrics for making dance published in 1959. Slowly, tortuously, he sounded out each unfamiliar word, while his mom occasionally corrected or encouraged him. It was extremely difficult, even listening closely, to understand what the child was trying to say throughout the piece.

The point? The audience spent so much time attempting to decrypt the soundtrack that it was continuously distracted from the dance. Humphrey may have written that the eye is quicker than the ear, but Carlson’s work added a disturbing codicil: If you can keep the ear busy enough, the attending mind won’t have a lot of time left over for the eye, or much of anything else.

I’m afraid that my descriptions of Gat’s music will be taken as pejorative here. That isn’t my intent. To the contrary: the complexities and layers of the BRILLIANT CORNERS soundscape were so interesting—and baffling, at a number of points—that it frequently kept us fully engaged during the early parts of the performance. Encountering the score again, on its own, would likely be a challenging and rewarding experience. But part of my experience during the performance involved figuring out how to keep it at bay, and prevent it from constantly overwhelming the visual experience of the dance.

Gat’s soundscape for BRILLIANT CORNERS suggested nothing so much as a fascinating partial meltdown of a Pro Tools hard drive: a completely unpredictable, uneasy and variously layered miasma of sudden contrasts and subtle segues among horrid clangs and other industrial noise, synthesizer sounds, various forms of electronic and electrical interference, and the comparative reserve of harmonic and dissonant Baroque-influenced strings, brass and piano.

I should probably stress that the latter instrumental elements were repeatedly electronically processed and altered by digital delay and other effects. At their most subliminal, these sequences reminded me of Thee Silver Mt. Zion; elsewhere, the stutter echo in an orchestral and piano sequence merely aped the cheap effect of a cd-rom skipping in fast-forward.

In an unusual and roiling mix, instruments (and possibly vocals in one portion) distorting into the realm of heavy metal would briefly subside into calm sections for solo organ, piano or strings, before bulging again into an abrasive wall of sound (one whose textures in one moment seemed to include accordion or bagpipes).

If Gat sought to physicalize the audience’s experience through audio, he succeeded—indeed, perhaps all too well. An audience literally shaken by such a sonic gauntlet may not have been able to attend as fully to his choreography—but a number of them may have experienced by the end a new-found gratitude for silence.

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It’s an educational—if sometimes mortifying—rite of passage for nascent choreographers. After students present a dance piece based on the latest emotionally disaffected, distraught or angst-ridden stylings of Aimee, Ani, Antony or a dozen other similarly confessional songwriters, composition instructors (including former ADF deans Martha Myers and Donna Faye Burchfield) would have them perform the work once more. Without the music. To see how much emotional content was actually intrinsic in the movement itself, and not being ladled onto it by the choreographer’s choice of soundtrack.

It’s something we wanted to do this summer with the work of DOUG VARONE and Ron K. Brown.

For Emanual Gat wasn’t the only one with a dance this summer that was swamped in its own soundtrack. Percussionist DAVID VAN TIEGHEM’s wretchedly excessive original score plastered all of the aesthetic subtleties of an over-the-top action-adventure film onto Varone’s repeatedly more finely nuanced CHAPTERS FROM A BROKEN NOVEL.

Classic motion picture soundtracks add savor to our experience by building on the emotional dynamics already present in various scenes. By comparison, Van Tieghem’s ham-handed score pounded away at a number of predictable emotional buttons (SUSPENSE! DREAD! EXUBERANCE! OPTIMISM!) so frequently we were left wondering how much of the emotional affect was actually being generated by sections of Varone’s choreography.

Casualties here included “Spilling the Contents,” an opening sequence slathered in cheap sonic bombast, and “The Final Proverb,” whose musical triumphalism made Varone’s movement seem, if anything, anticlimactic in comparison. “Repeated Routines” and “Others in the Room” appeared to have been loaned a suspense they may have not possessed on their own. Indeed, Van Tiegham’s pneumatic economy of expression only truly worked in “Tile Riot,” Varone’s rewarding comedic depiction of a girl’s spy-thriller fantasies, indulged in during what seemed a break in a high school washroom.

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Before that, RON K. BROWN added far too little to Stevie Wonder’s music throughout his tribute to the musician, ON EARTH TOGETHER.

It’s one of the more awkward moments in graduate work in dance: A choreographer concludes the public showing of a new work with an impassioned debriefing in which (s)he intricately delineates the situations, characters, memes, themes and theoretical, political or cultural frameworks in their work. It’s an extended monologue that, as often as not, begins with those far too optimistic words, “Well, needless to say…”

The dilemma in this particular scenario? The audience detected little or none of the artistic intent in the performance that the choreographer believes (s)he has communicated clearly.

This summer it happened, in reverse order, with Ron K. Brown.

As always in his interviews, Brown eloquently articulated an intriguing interior landscape for his new work. He spoke, movingly, of its deep spiritual connection with his mentor, the late Dr. Sherrill Berryman Johnson, revered dance instructor at Howard University. His ongoing, admirable desire to ground modern dance forms in the roots of African practice manifested in our conversation about the ways of Ogun and Oshun, two orishas or deities in the Yoruba culture whom he was invoking in the new work because he felt their spirits were sorely needed in our world.

Oshun’s love, and particularly the discerning, machete-wielding warrior, Ogun, was needed, according to Brown, to “cut away the nonsense” in the world. Brown described particular movements in the work with him as “direct” with “a kind of slicing feeling.”

Unfortunately, I have encountered few dance works as indirect as ON EARTH TOGETHER. In choreography that was mildly affirming, innocuous, and irritatingly vague, I found no detectable impulse that accessed a metaphorical machete—or any other sort of sharp edge—that might have proved useful in clearing a meaningful path through the wilderness of the world. The strength and passion required for that sort of expeditionary force remained completely invisible here.

Moments of delicacy and gestures symbolizing ownership of the responsibilities mentioned in the lyrics of “Blame it on the Sun” provided a brief exception to the unfortunate rule in this work. When I found no characteristics—outside of costume color—that began to differentiate the three couples first glimpsed in “All I Do” and later revisited in “You and I,” it seemed that Brown had settled for placing generic “couples” in an equally generic “love” on stage. We saw little to nothing of the interior truths of their relationships. These differed sharply from striking characters in striking situations in Brown’s earlier works: Their centers were missing.

The edgy confrontation with a holy roller and a junkie found in the lyrics of “Jesus Children of America” was similarly lost in the unseemly array of dance party moves that concluded ON EARTH TOGETHER, a work in which the rough edges of conflict and actual evil that Wonder sings about have all been smoothed into an inclusive—and absolutely undiscerning—celebration. Ogun, call your office.

– – –

At least all was not lost when PILOBOLUS’ collaboration with OK GO produced the delightfully vertiginous visual reorientations of ALL IS NOT LOST. Technicians placed a video camera, pointing straight up, beneath a transparent platform upon which dancers subsequently crawled across, crouched, stood and executed various signature weight-sharing moves.

Voila! When projected on a screen on stage, the video trick made horizontal moves appear vertical. Thus a seemingly endless stream of dancers appeared to scramble upward, slide downward, claw to climb over one another, and not only defy gravity, but openly mock it at various moments. One of the more complicated structures in mid-piece looked like a fractal tribute to comedian Jackie Gleason’s 1960’s TV choreographer, June Taylor.

ALL IS NOT LOST was imaginative, innovative fun—which the general public can now apparently join in. An interactive HTML 5 version of this collaboration has just gone online, here. By all means, take the advice on the opening screen to close unused applications: the piece takes some time to load, but the payoff’s worth it. And where it says “Enter Message”—you won’t be able to get off the first screen without doing so—don’t stress. Just type a few words. That you’d like to share with the world.