June 12-July 26

In a good year, the American Dance Festival changes at least some part of our thinking about modern and contemporary dance. That’s a tall—and standing—order, each season: to find and present artists whose works are exploring and redefining the boundaries of the art form, as well as the masters who have brought us to this point.

The takeaway from 2014? Mission largely accomplished.

After Emanuel Gat’s recent work seemed a sociological experiment in overcrowding set to specific protocols, the choreographer announced a potentially significant divorce following the perplexing world premiere of Ida? with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet. “The practice of choreography is not necessarily related to dance,” he calmly observed. “It’s a way of structuring and organizing time and space that is independent from it.”

The same program saw the first large-scale work—four weeks into the season—to effectively fill the Durham Performing Arts Center’s stage. Hofesh Shechter’s Violet Kid, an unsettling meditation on violence in the Middle East, forced us to reexamine narrative in dance and political narratives in the world.

Then came Tere O’Connor. Widely lauded over the past 32 years, this summer marked his company’s first performance at ADF. Festival management seemed to underline how overdue that honor was when signs saying “Tere, it’s about time” popped up on Durham streets before his arrival. With no other company allotted four mainstage nights this season, ADF was clearly making up for lost time.

O’Connor’s works told us why. In them we see a voracious curiosity with bodies in motion similar to Merce Cunningham’s. But counter to Cunningham’s sometimes aesthetic chill, O’Connor never seems to forget that there are people in the forms he moves about stage. Repeatedly, in Sister, Secret Mary and poem, we were cued to pay attention to the interrelationships before us, how they’re structured and how those structures change as they unfold. (Amy White’s review delved into O’Connor’s aesthetic and process.)

2014 even marked a return to form for Pilobolus, as the sinuous, subtle psychodrama of On the Nature of Things queered a provocative creation myth.

As reported in our season preview, ADF innovated to place dance works in venues most suitable for them. Both Tere O’Connor’s Sister, in the venerable Ark on Duke’s East Campus, and Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler’s 13 love songs: dot dot dot at PSI would have been swallowed whole in Reynolds Theater or DPAC. Still, however, the latter venue reduced the impact of Vertigo Dance’s season opener, Vertigo 20.

As always, there were brilliant takes and miscalculations. Rosie Herrera crafted a witty, lacerating and direct fanfare for the common woman in Ballet Hispanico’s Show.Girl. When I questioned some of the dancers’ commitment in its initial sequence, I missed Herrera’s home company which embodies her work so well. Still, Vanessa Valecillos’ stoic solo, as a woman swimming—or drowning?—in a sea of Vegas-style feather fans, was truly moving.

But Einstein’s Happiest Thought plateaued early when choreographer Adele Myers had her dancers confront the same, moderate level of risk, repeatedly, without escalating or varying it. Angelin Preljocaj’s provoking Empty Moves ultimately seemed more endurance art than choreography. And John Jasperse learned how hard it is to keep one step ahead yourself when Within Between meandered through a number of choreographic cul-de-sacs after its fascinating opening sequences.

What were your most memorable moments from this year’s ADF? What were those you’d most like to forget? Voice your opinions in the comments, below.