Alyssa Noble & Allie Pfeffer: What You Want

February 24 & 25
Living Arts Collective, Durham

The Department of Improvised Dance: Set and Setting

April 16 & 17
21c Museum Hotel, Durham

Porter Witsell: A Piece of Parade

February 18 & 19
The Vault, Durham

The three most recent bookings in Durham Independent Dance Artists’ third season illustrated an implicit unified vision: a commitment to programming works that urge us to reconsider our expectations of what dance, and dance audiences, can be. DIDA artists pursue this provocation in different ways. Some use technical training in modern dance to twist away from convention. Others move unexpectedly in expected venues, or take us into places we wouldn’t normally associate with dance. Rarest are those who use movement and site to explicitly interrogate dance’s social and cultural value. DIDA’s three spring shows approached the central questionwhy do we do this?with varying degrees of legibility and urgency. For a dance scene and an organization nested in a complex city, these qualities are, and should be, high-stakes.

WHAT YOU WANT was Allie Pfeffer and Alyssa Noble’s collaborative choreographic debut. Exchanging solos, they worked to find their groove together while retaining what sets them apart. Noble kept her gestures close, hewing to an introverted energy. Pfeffer pushed outward, her spatial attention gloriously thrown to all places at once. Their dynamic came into relief when they took turns performing a slow, deep plié, their bodies cantilevered, with archer-like arms.

The rigor of contemporary concert dance was on display in lengthy movement phrases, balanced, albeit unevenly, against theatrical vignettes. I wished the two had shared the stage more in both cases. This would’ve helped us grasp how their relationship as movers compelled a show concerned with “learning to live life with agency.”

This theme was most apparent in an early bit in which Pfeffer, sitting downstage, shouted instructions to Noble, perched on a Twister board while conducting a tense phone call. The game escalated and abstracted from statements like “right hand, blue” to “ego, yellow.” It’s clear that they were thinking through expectation, authority, and self-care. But when the lights cut out and a new dance began, the preceding scene felt like a misplaced modifier, unfurnished and unresolved.

More than midway through, an intriguing “optional ten-minute pause” floated from the speakers like a flight attendant’s recording. The voice informed us the performers had “shit to do” and encouraged us to find wine in the lobby. Onstage, Pfeffer and Noble checked emails and folded laundry, performing and slyly critiquing the roles of working artists who wear multiple hats. But when the scene shifted to a seductive duet with a mop, set to Usher’s “Yeah!”, the movement felt inside-jokey at best, appropriative at worst. Of what use is this moment? That’s a question this dance never resolved.

On Easter evening, the six performers in The Department of Improvised Dance’s SET AND SETTING loped, bounded, and slithered between center stage and the periphery of the ballroom at 21c Museum Hotel. They threw themselves into one another, arms cradling falling bodies. They piled up like rugby players. Their eyeballs conducted dances of their own.

This is the second time DIDA has programmed Matthew Young’s work, suggesting that improv can be to-do in Durham: as in, get drinks downtown and watch some improv. I get the appeal. Framed this way, contact improv can look like concert dance without being concert dance. These six dancers represented a range of approaches to movement and stillness. Some fell into more rote modern dance moves while others followed pedestrian motions toward impossible shapes.

With a piece called Set and Setting, however, I expected to see a freer exploration of the performers’ relationships to inputs outside their bodies. There was, of course, the live music, composed and performed by D-Town Brass, a twelve-member group wearing black graduation robes. It was a beautiful, multidimensional score that lurched, became frenetic, and eerily mellowed around the pings of a vibraphone.

But for a show grounded in improv, the performers’ reactions to the music sometimes felt rehearsed, and when a train whistle sounded outside, they almost seemed intent on ignoring it, as if a ringtone had unleashed havoc at the ballet. Improvisational practice doesn’t mandate a specific kind of responsiveness. But the program notes promised that the audience would be “part of what is created,” and the audience is more than bodies sitting in a horseshoe shape. It’s living context, combining with the weight of the air, the ambient noise, and the fact that we were occupying a building that once housed a bank.

Another note on context: at Sunday’s showing, the performance began with cast members reading recent newspaper headlines about the Syrian refugee crisis, HB 2, and Trump’s latest orders. Of course, these things aren’t things. They are harbingers of physical and rhetorical violence, of government complicity in a broad spectrum of abuses. There was something about incorporating this material so overtly as setand neither circling back to it nor fleshing it outthat diminished how deeply rooted it is in our shared setting.


In the choreographer’s note for A PIECE OF PARADE, Porter Witsell insisted that she didn’t make the piece, but the forty-minute work, performed underneath The Palace International, was anything but anonymous. Fourteen local performers, including “a poet, a house painter, a violinist, a person who works at an LED factory cutting crystals for wafers, a mathematician, a college librarian, a middle schooler who loves to dance, a father,” brought “three different first languages” to bear. Many had never performed before an audience.

The work, then, was more invested in process than product. By assembling this group to create Parade, Witsell challenged the notion that dance must come from specific histories of training. When a diverse network of people creates the material, and thus, the terms on which we watch it, we become accountable to the material, and to one another, in a clearer, or at least different, way than usual. This ethos reminds me of the work of Minnesota-based dance group Emily Johnson/Catalyst, whose performance installations emerge from long-term collaborations between artists and community members and relate to a place’s history and infrastructure.

The performers in A Piece of Parade modeled this vision of accountability by sharing the ways they see the relationship between “art and performance” and “real life.” They wove their questions and desires into each movement sequence, each spoken statement like a miniature manifesto: I see no prisons. No borders. During the war, there is no time to dance, no time to be creative.

The ways these performers moved together also proposed a value, and a real joy, in feeling and bearing one another’s weight. Across several short scenes, the performers huddled together, climbed on one another’s backs, and emerged from the audience’s idiosyncratic seating (it included an antique chair with giant wheels and a seesaw) to perform a duet.

As Witsell expected, much of the audience was composed of the performers’ friends and families. But I was there, too, crouched on a wooden board in the front row. As I paused to detail the look of a certain phrase, I was aware that I was missing something else onstage: a knowing grin, a nudge to pass a flashlight. Pen down, I realized I could see the tiniest increments of choreography, like a performer’s eyes opening and closing as he spoke: ¿Cuando fue la última vez que viste las estrellas con los ojos cerrados?

Watching this attentive, sometimes wobbly, necessarily imperfect dance unfold felt like waking up to something new. It was the rare movement-based work that struck a balance between clarity of vision and experimentation. And in the context of DIDA’s spring offerings, it pushed the organization’s promise of dance community and accessibility further than ever before.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Spring Awakening.”