Jul. 20 & 21
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham

Every year, I’m reminded why I love the American Dance Festivals’s Footprints show. Usually concluding the season, it features the work of the festival’s commissioned choreographers and stars its students. A few choreographers have the luxury of spending six weeks focused on creating wholly new works, using dancers who are, for all intents and purposes, talented professionals.

Almost invariably, the results are intriguing. Are the finished pieces Great Art? Not necessarily. But in this setting, it doesn’t matter. The stakes are relatively low, allowing the dancemakers to take risks and try out new concepts. This year, all three choreographers succeeded in setting an interesting tone and carrying it throughout their pieces.

The first work, Jillian Peña’s Empire, is all severity and precision, with a corps of mostly women moving robotically, often on relevé. In her program notes, Peña lists cheerleaders, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Tonya Harding as inspirations, and those are apparent onstage; other images that rise to mind are of Stepford wives, stewardesses, droids, and zombies. Intriguing? Definitely. But the piece goes on a little too long without developing, and the spoken text that occurs in the middle weakens the overall impact.

The next piece, Fight or Flight, by Israeli choreographer Dafi Altabab, isn’t necessarily more cohesive, and it also features text that’s similarly unnecessary. But Altabab’s dancers move in fluid arcs around the stage, in and out of partnering, and her choreography never gets old. Near the end of the show, the stage suddenly blooms with white light, The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” blasts out, and the dancers jump into high-energy unison movement. It’s an awesome—and well-timed—jolt of energy.

But Abby Zbikowski’s Tectonic is undeniably the most original of the three. There are no metaphors, no concepts, no dancers being anything except the muscular, knee-pad-wearing movers that they are. That’s all it is: movement, as hard and fast and powerful as possible. Zbikowski’s style fuses modern dance with hip-hop, break dancing, African dance, and martial arts; she pushes the body as far as possible, and it’s clear that she taught her ADF performers to do the same. Every backflip, flying leap, barrel turn, or stomping foot is a revelation, a triumph of the moving body.

The other terrific thing about Footprints is the invariably great mood of the audience. This was no exception: Reynolds Theater was filled with exuberant young dancers who’d just completed an amazing summer intensive and were jubilantly cheering their onstage colleagues. Nice run, ADF.