You have to hope they rested up before they got here. For the ADF’s idea of easing students–and their teachers–into six intensive weeks of modern dance instruction was with a particularly intensive endurance run of an opening weekend.

Preview classes and marathon audition sessions for both the main stage and featured choreographers’ repertory classes stretched around the clock last Friday through Sunday.

In that time, the typical ADF student ran relays across Duke’s East Campus to spend 12 hours with 24 different instructors. They logged in one grueling five-hour joint audition in the historic, venerable–and completely un-air-conditioned–Ark Dance Studio with three international choreographers for a shot at the ADF main stage the week of July 14. After that combination sauna and extended stamina test, they hopefully had a little something left for those evening repertory try-outs: an hour on Friday–just to ease things in–and three-and-a-half hours on Saturday and Sunday nights, all in the by-now very humid Ark.

In sum, a student going for the maximal ADF experience would have put in 24 hours of significant physical labor over the weekend: seven hours on Friday, 11 on Saturday and six on Sunday (or vice versa). Half of that time would have been spent in a large, hot and very humid room, in front of experts literally watching and judging their every move, with the next six weeks of their professional lives hanging in the balance.

Welcome, tender student, to the ADF. And try to take heart: Even with its momentary exertions, this summer’s opening bid was a lot better than last year’s.

So says Denesa Chan, a returning student from Sunset Beach, Calif., who characterized last year’s opening weekend as “completely different, very chaotic and very hard.”

Where this year’s schedule divided the student body into two groups for separate ADF main stage auditions, last year packed the entire crew into the Ark at the same time on hotter days than these, for conveyor-belt auditions conducted at top speed.

“It was confused and confusing,” Chan recalls. “The energy was more frantic, and people were more aggressive, I think, for the lack of space last year. This year, dancers seemed more relaxed, a little more supportive. All in all, it’s healthier.”

As the auditions go into double-overtime, you watch dancers’ strategies shift. Each walks–or dances, actually–on a very fine line. Of course, they want to go all out, show up, and really impress their viewers. At the same time, they have to marshal their resources to go the distance, particularly in this climate. The temptation is always to extend, to take further risks with gravity, balance and muscular control. Still, no one wants an injury that might end a summer’s work–or a career’s–on the first weekend of the ADF.

A few learn this the hard way when choreographer Tatiana Baganova, the toast of the 2001 ADF, calls for students to perform aerial lifts with one another–not at the beginning of the Saturday afternoon session, but during its exhausting fifth and final hour.

It’s been a hot afternoon, and people are starting to run out of energy. Many of the dancers grapple gracelessly, experimenting with balletic over-the-head leaps, catches, upside-down suspensions and awkward releases. A few of the pairs finally excel at the assignment. Most of them more or less get by, some with sweatier palms than others.

When Chan’s partner drops her without warning everything stops for a moment. Thankfully, the dancer lands on her feet and sustains no injury. Everybody knows, it could have been a lot worse.

The busy schedule outlined above explained the all but total absence of students from Thursday night’s season opener. After director Carlton Midgett congratulated Charles Reinhart on 35 years with the festival in his opening remarks, Cloud Gate Dance Theater opened the 2003 season with Cursive, a 70-minute work marking choreographer Lin Hwai-min’s attempt to translate the energy and physicality of Chinese calligraphy into dance.

Call Cursive an undeniable triumph in set and lighting design. Lin Keh-hua’s projected visuals on a shifting white background were striking. Meanwhile, Chang Tsan-tao brilliantly explored just how far a light designer could go with a color palette strictly limited to white, black and gray. The result had dancers moving over single and superimposed rectangles of varying shades, an effect that suggested a monochromatic cross between the work of minimalists Robert J. Wolff, Kenneth Noland and Agnes Martin. The brief appearance of red suggested more a laser underlining certain passages than it does signature chop marks.

That’s particularly the case given the section that seemed to have been lifted from the hit movie The Matrix. Thursday’s audience audibly gasped when all lights went out and a wall of white projected Chinese characters covered the ceiling, walls and floor of Reynolds Theater. As performers moved across the stage, the light of the characters danced over nearly nude forms, in a breathtaking coup de theatre.

There were no shortage of similarly striking images throughout the work. Lin’s choreography demonstrates considerable control and a Grahamesque economy of expression. The ensemble repeatedly evoked the austerity of Chinese ballet and the discipline of tai chi. While the cello and low percussion of Qu Xiao-song’s score suggested the same depths the choreography explored on more than one occasion. Elsewhere, a droll duet by Lee Ching-chun and Tsai Ming-yuan accompanied lighter call-and-response work between the instruments.

But we looked, for the most part in vain, for an appreciable build or arc among the work’s 10 sections. Without such development, Cursive found a beautifully lit and impressively danced plateau–but a plateau nonetheless–very early in the evening, where it remained for most of the work’s duration. Departures from that plateau were exactly that: departures that the company returned from to reiterate–but add little to–dynamics that had already been well-explored.

Ironically, a work more kinetic and less meditative than last year’s Songs of the Wanderers ultimately seemed to last longer than that offering; repeating itself at some length, and ultimately saying less in the process.

This week: The home folks appear for the first time with official blessings on an ADF stage, as Cornelia Kip Lee, Durham’s 2 Near the Edge, and Asheville’s Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance inaugurate the “Opening Acts” series of local artist performances, Thursday night at 6:30 in Sheafer Theater.

Meanwhile, on the main stage: It’s been fashionable, of course, to bash Pilobolus now for any number of years. You could hardly be a dance snob if you didn’t. But those tempted to dismiss my warnings last week about the offerings ahead should be reminded of two things.

I’m still not ashamed to admit I count the 1997 world premiere of Gnomen, their vivid choreographic book of the dead for fallen dancer Jim Blanc, among the handful of times I’ve been moved to tears in a theater.

And that still doesn’t excuse the sketchbook and boilerplate they dumped on the ADF stage last year.

Given previous experience with the lineup listed at press time, call their Tuesday-Wednesday “Program A” half a loaf at best, with 1971’s Walklyndon and last decade’s Sweet Purgatory attempting to balance out two lackluster works from last year.

The weekend’s “Program B” places their classic Day Two on one side of the scales. On the other, Duet for Six, currently billed as Pilobolus’ answer to La Ronde, a look in on relationships of differing thermal values, and Star-Cross’d, whose stellar–or was that bat-like?–acrobatics were well-received when the work premiered last month in Connecticut.

We’ll see. And then say. EndBlock