What if the most intriguing modern dance on display in Durham this weekend has nothing to do with the American Dance Festival? Since venerable dance photographer Steve Clarke curates Multiple Exposure, his second series of modern dance concerts, Friday and Saturday night at Durham Arts Council, the possibility is not remote. In two different programs, Clarke will independently showcase a new generation of emerging North Carolina choreographers, many of whom have studied or taught at ADF, in the theater at 120 Morris St., less than a mile away from ADF’s East Duke campus. As with Focused Fluidity, Clarke’s first, groundbreaking concert last December in Carrboro, admission will be free–and demand for the theater’s 184 seats should be intense.

For those just joining us, Clarke is a retired UNC professor who began a vivid second career for himself as a dance photographer in 1996. Since then, he’s chosen his subjects carefully–including Gaetan Pettigrew, now with Bill T. Jones, and Christal Brown, who has won accolades with Urban Bush Women.

His eye for talent is as good as his art. The National Dance Association published Clarke’s first book of dance photography, Seeing While Being Seen, in 2004. Our December 2005 profile termed his works “the photographic equivalent of an interview: an intimate conversation, one on one, with the artist” (www.indyweek.com/durham/2004-12-01/woods.html).

Though he terms the timing and location of his weekend concert “laughable–it was the only time when everyone could make it,” it’s hard to imagine how the Multiple Exposure series could have filled a potential gap in this week’s programming more aptly. ADF mainstay Pilobolus performs in Page Auditorium Thursday through Saturday night. The 34-year-old company’s celebrated attraction to modern dance newcomers is by now as documented as its long-faded appeal to dance cognoscenti.

Pilobolus’ appearance last year at ADF was marked by game–and partially successful–attempts at reinvention. Still, with about half of their works arguably qualifying as b-sides from recent years, even dance newcomers might find themselves with spare time on their hands on at least one of Clarke’s two nights.

What’s more, their 8 p.m. curtain times mean that interested audiences can actually see and compare Clarke’s vision of native dance with the ADF’s. The festival’s first Acts to Follow showcase of local choreographers bows Saturday at 6 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium, in time for audiences to meander over to Page for Pilobolus at 8 p.m.

Even though the ADF instituted these showcases two seasons ago, it remains strangely vulnerable about North Carolina dance. Acts to Follow remains uncurated; a first-come, first-served policy applies to local artists with a two-year performance résumé and a 10-minute video sample.

Which is why Clarke might just be on the verge of staging a significant upset this weekend. After all, he intimately knows and can endorse what his artists have done.

Friday night at Multiple Exposure includes Killian Manning’s 37 Shades of Pink and In the Find from former Trisha Brown dancer Niki Juraliwicz. Three notable, ballet-influenced dancers will stage their Copernican orrery, Constellation, before Susan Haines’ confrontational duet, Aftermath.

In Saturday’s highlights, Janna Blum’s sharp, intensely focused work finds stage, before African American Dance Ensemble’s Stafford Berry presents a piece in progress about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Ashlee Ramsey, one of this region’s most memorable dancers, stages a solo between works by notable choreographers Cory Stephenson and Kathryn Ullom. Stephanie Blackmon’s deadpan dance closes the concert.

Saturday’s ADF Acts to Follow features Rodger Belman, a choreographer at East Carolina University who’s danced with Twyla Tharp and Laura Dean, in Trace, a memorial to a soldier killed in Baghdad in 2003. Durham’s Choreo Collective reprises Rain Leander’s Automne. Taryn Packheiser from Greensboro presents Saggita’s Closet, based on the life of poet John Henry McKay, and a new duet, Cosine, with Maggie Ewing. In the midst, Triangle Youth Ballet discloses dream 6 by Sarah Honer and Bach-bharata by Peter diFalco. Admission is free.

Immediately coming–and going–attractions: Urban Bush Women’s homage to Pearl Primus, Walking with Pearl, closes Wednesday, June 15, as this issue hits the streets.

And next Monday through Wednesday, Australia’s Chunky Move presents their harrowing dance theater work, Tense Dave, in Reynolds Theater. This is probably the company we’re most excited about this summer. Their blend of theater, dance and technical effects suggests a relentless, never-ending pan from room to room in a strange apartment house before its bizarre inhabitants, um, make friends and influence people.

As we mentioned in our season preview, this is the show for theater-goers looking for a challenging change of pace from their normal fare–and for film buffs (or anyone else) who enjoy a good psychological thriller. Going by the advance DVD, I’d say Tense Dave suggests what David Lynch might come up with if he ever got into choreography. Don’t miss it.

Let me clear with you on this: I have few qualifications to serve as a critic of Chinese opera, either in the original form, a genre whose largely static performances suggest a series of historical paintings that sing to their audiences for several hours, or Shen Wei’s 21st-century update, The Second Visit to the Empress, which opened the festival Thursday night.

And since Mr. Shen has deliberately relegated his normally striking modern dance choreography to the margins for most of this performance, my skills as a modern dance critic will prove of limited use.

But I can usefully comment, however, on the degree to which The Second Visit bridged the cultural divide between its native place and time, and a Western audience that first received it. I can say something useful about what the work ultimately communicated, and how it did that.

We know from the start that this will be no joyous tale. Not with Shen’s curtain painting, in forbidding grays and black, of heavy, lifeless leaves hanging from a limb. In the initial darkness, the eerie voice of Peking Opera singer Zhang Jing penetrates the darkness; her high-pitched, nasal tones slide up and down the Chinese musical scale, like the Sprechstimme of German experimental music.

Meanwhile, two figures cloaked in black and red sidle out from the stage’s edge. We never see their faces. They stand still; looking, always, back into the past.

The projected supertitles above stage confirm what the prickling of our arm hairs already tells us. The Emperor is dead. The surviving mother, child–and country–are in peril.

In early scenes, the dance troupe moves in direct but muted visual representation of the individual singers and musical instruments. The notes seem to travel through their bodies, from joint to joint: each dancer a choreographic oscilloscope of sorts, monitoring the differing melodic lines.

When dancers representing monuments do this early on, we watch as heroic statues literally tremble at words conveying the national predicament. By same token, this motif lingers on without build or development, and loses efficacy after time.

Mr. Shen’s costumes and set are a visual feast–unsurprising to those who know his background in the visual arts. Two immense, organic, nearly teardrop hanging forms suggest immense candelabra that have been swathed in mourning cloth–or covered by moss and decay. Again, Shen subdues his dancers, keeping them in plain gray leotards behind semi-transparent scrims, while robing the principals in vivid or outlandish compositions. The Empress and her attendant are robed in magnificent, formal compositions in purples, black and greens. The Duke is arrayed in a shaggy explosion of red, magenta and orange threads hanging from his generous form.

In one rare sequence, Shen pays an homage to surrealism similar to what we found in Near the Terrace, as dancers are individually paired with singers–as shadows who make contact at the head, and not the feet. The Duke and General repeatedly defer to one another, possibly in comic formality, and observe the intensely diplomatic dance–in words and gray figures–all must observe, determining how to properly depose the Empress’ despotic father.

But after such dramatic build-up, Western audiences may well be baffled when the dramatic action–including the conflict with the despot–remains offstage, telescoped into a summing line or two at the end of the performance. The villain never appears on stage.

While Greek dramatists left a number of dramatic elements off stage as well, the choices here leave an imbalance to outsider’s eyes.

A critic of modern dance might well be expected to express several concerns. Shen minimizes the choreography, obviously afraid that the dance might overwhelm the opera if it ever was unleashed. Shen errs far on the side of caution. Throughout, I could almost sense the choreographer standing, unseen, next to his dancers–and saying “Shhhhh!” to each of them.

Most dance critics would not be pleased, to say the least, if Shen permanently abandoned modern dance for any other art form. However, my clearest sense about The Second Visit is of a conversation the artist is desperate to have–one that probably doesn’t include me, or any Western audience, for that matter, looking in. After a revealing post-show discussion Saturday night, it’s clear that redeeming and reviving the Chinese opera of his youth has been an ongoing dream of Shen’s for years.

That discussion also suggested the degree to which that art form is endangered in its homeland.

When I, as a critic, have never seen Chinese opera, except in the briefest of video excerpts, one thing is suggested. When Ms. Hou, who studied Chinese dance in Beijing, disclosed that she had never seen Chinese opera–and had to drill daily with an iPod because she couldn’t understand the words the actors sang–a different sense about that art form’s fading from its native culture was conveyed.

Can one man save Chinese opera? I do not know. Leslie Silko reminds us that ceremonies and cultures petrify when they don’t change. No great leap is required to know that art forms do the same.

I do know, though, that singers and artists that were initially petrified at the changes Shen proposed are now eager to take this work back to China. Now they think it’s needed.

So be it. What I saw was a labor of love, an intricately crafted singing painting, and one that occasionally animated, just a bit.

Even with this little dance in the mix, I can’t begrudge a conversation an artist needs to have that badly, even if it’s not with me, or us, as Westerners or modern dance aficionados. I can be grateful I was allowed to eavesdrop on that conversation. I can hope that Shen finds open ears and minds when that conversation finds its way back home. And I can hope he returns to talk with us again. I believe he will.

E-mail Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.