ADF/ Hollins University MFA Student Concert
Reynolds Theater, Duke University
July 25

If transitions are an inevitable part of the dance world, some of them are far more welcome than others. This past weekend, one day after the 2009 American Dance Festival closed, Merce Cunningham died in Manhattan at the age of 90, three months after the world premiere of his final opus, Nearly Ninety, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On June 30, the dance world learned of the unexpected death of the German avatar of Tanztheater, Pina Bausch. These deaths followed the death of Dr. Gerald Myers, ADF’s beloved philosopher-in-residence, in February of this year.

In their passing, we note that it is more than fitting that the ADF closes its season with new works by new artists: it, and gestures like it, are crucial to the future of the art form. The final night of ADF 2009 consisted of works by students enrolled in its Master of Fine Arts program, coadministered by Hollins University. But don’t be misled. This program, which was constructed as something of an optimal grad-school “hothouse” for artists who are working at the professional level, regularly yields work that just explodes the traditional notions of a student concert. In this, Saturday night’s performance did not disappoint. We saw strong work by three choreographers we expect to see on tomorrow’s stages, and a progress report from a fourth who achieved much with a piece that nonetheless needs more work.

In Last on Harbor Drive, choreographer Meghan McLyman’s evocative set design and costuming choices firmly situate her character in a room somewhere between Edward Hopper and Douglas Sirk. The spare, single opening chords of composer Michael Wall’s piano score emphasize both whator whois absent, and the length of that absence, before this poignant, midcentury, middle-class version of the angel in the house attempts to break the stasis in her life by rearranging the furniture.

Though she tries to remake these furnishings into a home, surreally pulling dishes, tablecloths and men’s and women’s shoes from the drawers of a worn-looking bureau, McLyman’s character ultimately appears haunted by most of the surfaces in this environment: a dinette table where she momentarily reaches out to someone no longer there, a leather couch she ultimately crouches behind.

Perhaps a bit predictably, the attempts to personalize this room do not hold, and dominos of chaos fall. Since a tablecloth never smoothes completely out, a festive dish cracks, then a chair tilts and it falls. But if the choreographer occasionally indulges in symbols that are just a bit too obvious, she never resorts to histrionics, for the most part letting the facts of how things, relationships and people fall apart speak for themselves.

Though the full title of G. Alex Smith’s Relinquish bears the unfortunate mark of grad-school endeavora colon immediately followed by a mind-numbing chunk of theoretical phraseologyhis choreography is, thankfully, a lot more rewarding. As musician Melissa Reaves uses digital delay units to structure a series of repeating guitar notes and percussion into a prismatic soundscape in the style of Robert Fripp, six side-lit dancers in a close little group at the back of the stage sidle among each another, always facing forward. The dancer’s positions remain in flux, in a cool, almost hypnotic process suggesting a deck of cards in constant shufflea telling conceit for a work interested in exploring tensions between individual identities and the identity of the groups they belong to.

The group gradually morphs as it travels along a horizontal line upstage, as individual dancers break off into solos that still follow a fairly ordered grid, vertically toward the audience, then back. Small, enigmatic, interesting changes throughoutthough I must confess I was repeatedly distracted by Ms. Reaves’ arcane incantations over her guitar, her head bowed and the curtain of her long hair swaying in space, as she coaxed the strangest sounds from the instrument.

When Smith’s shuffling motif reappears again, the dynamic in the sextet gradually changes to a roiling boil. More insistently, the individuals behind pull the ones in front of them back, before they all devolve into a sequential dragging and shoving match, in which every man and woman is clawing the others to get to the front. An ugly group, composed of ugly individuals, competing for one thinga perceived advantage.

Through this repellent but still captivating section, the dancers never turn away. Instead, they look straight at us. They seem to say, “This is what we are. Isn’t it?”

We saw only a section of Helen Simoneau’s Flight Distance, which the choreographer performed at the Joyce SoHo in April. A trick of the light and set design made the dark floor at the work’s beginning seem to briefly light up wherever her quintet of dancers touched down upon it. Technical tricks aside, those impressed by the intricacy of Ms. Simoneau’s previous works in the lapsed Acts to Follow series for North Carolina choreographers will note with recognition, and approval the increasing complexity and curiosity in her choreography.

After a deceptively mellow opening, the choreographer places her quintet within a darkened square surrounded by a small grid of white light on an otherwise unlit stage. Simoneau then tasks them with knifing arms and legs across various horizontal planes in the confined space, cutting around, about, above and below one another without stepping out of the zone. In all, the sequence suggested what a tall stack of Jenga blocks might look like if each of them simultaneously started to dance. Since the title refers to the personal space that animals or humans place between themselves and others, this sequence, and those that follow on stage spaces lit in a similarly dramatic style, raise the question of just what changes when overcrowding places people in untenable proximity to one another.

Makeda Thomas was most eloquent when she triumphantly danced and spoke as the character in Delano Abdul Malik de Coteau’s poem “Motto Vision.” “The West Indies must be West Indian,” her character exulted, in a defiant, deep island accent as Thomas defined a spotlit circle, first with the gentle gesture of wind and wave, and then with the majesty of her labor and force.

But the choreographer chose to present this rich center between opening and closing sequences whose meanings remained far too internalized to be understood by to this very interested audience member.

After an amplified voice startled the crowd before the curtain went upan interesting gambitwe then gazed upon an empty stage where purple-tinged smoke belched out from a gap in the curtains for upward of a minute before Ms. Thomas finally entered the space.

Any meaning that passage was intended to have remained as undecodable as the weird, white, sparkly fabric head mask the dancer took off at the end of a lengthy disrobing section and at the start of the work’s long conclusion.

I am convinced these elements had significant meaning to the artist. I am equally certain, though, that they communicated little or nothing to me. As a result, I struggled through the ponderous ceremonies of beginning and end, and waited for a more coherent message.