Opening Night Performance
★★★ ½

June 15, 2017
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

Though it was the evening’s oldest piece by far, Minus 16 (1999), Ohad Naharin’s Gaga dance manifesto, was among the freshest works in the American Dance Festival’s 2017 opening night performance.

That’s not entirely surprising; Naharin intended Gaga to shatter modern dance conventions and pose continuing new challenges to his dancers and audiences. Clearly, it was still working Thursday night, when the sharp young troupe from the Charlotte Ballet (the rebranded North Carolina Dance Theatre, which performed during ADF’s first season in Durham) eagerly embraced the dance’s by-now iconic section that is set to a punk-stomp version of the Passover song “Echad Mi Yodea.”

As the same explosive gesture played out in sequence, left to right, across a group of sixteen dancers seated in a semicircle—their hunched-over forms suddenly flung forward, with torsos thrust out and arms and heads flying back—something more than dancers’ bodies appeared to be violently, beautifully cracking open and blossoming on the DPAC stage.

In contrast, Carolina Ballet choreographers Robert Weiss and Zalman Raffael never pushed the vocabulary of ballet too far from its comfort zone in the world premiere of the ADF-commissioned Dialogues. Long-time company dancers Margaret Severin-Hansen, Marcelo Martinez, and Richard Krusch sculpted vivid aerial and ground-based moments as the troupe enacted various relationships, set to Suzanne Polak’s crisp performance of Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Chopin.

Elsewhere, the harrowing spoken-word testimony of JOYEMOVEMENT’s Fit the Description needed stronger dance to back it up.

At the start of its fortieth year in Durham, among commemorative speeches and dedications, the festival paid tribute to North Carolina companies and artists. Gene Medler’s legacy in tap dance, which has given the world the work of Michelle Dorrance, was represented by Chapel Hill natives Elizabeth Burke and Luke Hickey, now both dancers in New York. Though the sixty-fourth-note pyrotechnics in their 15/34 were flashy, the duo unexpectedly topped them with a slow, sinuous, and sizzling passage without musical accompaniment.

In a video tribute, the marching orders of the late Baba Chuck Davis were unambiguous: “Dance until dance ceases to exist!” The mingling, merging lines of dancers in the African American Dance Ensemble’s excerpt from Mendiani, a dance of celebration and initiation, conveyed the exuberance of a troupe determined to continue Davis’s work.