At first, Sheafer Theater’s drawbacks seem more obvious than its benefits. The floor is rough concrete, not marley, the plastic covering designed to absorb some of the shock to a dancer’s knees and ankles from jumping and landing. Assorted nicks and jags jut out in places, leftovers from the building’s construction that must be taped over for safe transit.

And though Duke Drama regularly stages shows there, the lighting is rudimentary at best. A couple of banks of on/off floodlights with neutral gels still leave the corners of the performance space in shadow. Even so, they’re more serviceable than the fluorescent work lights the producers initially expected to have.

Without risers, audience members beyond the second row lose sight of the floor and any activity near it. When the house is packed, like last Tuesday’s audience of 148, people in the back rows must crane their necks to negotiate the thicket of heads and bodies in front.

Then there’s the matter of triangles. Most choreographers make work for conventional spaces: rectangular stages facing rectangular halls. But the audience and performance area in Sheafer’s square black box is divided on a diagonal, splitting the room into two three-sided zones. As a result, a generous front line for the “stage” gradually tapers into nothing: The further back they go from the audience, the more space performers lose that they’ve become accustomed to.

Dancers report disorientation at first, constantly performing 45 degrees off conventional bias. The walls can creep up on you: Turn around fast without thinking and you run the risk of partnering with painted black cinderblock.

In short, it’s probably not the kind of room you’d want to have if you had one shot to show your best work to a national audience. Still, a number of artists across the state jumped at the chance to bring their work here, when the American Dance Festival announced in April that it would produce “Opening Acts,” a series of six hour-long weekly showcases for North Carolina choreographers, during the 2003 season.

Prospective participants were told the series would be held just prior to headliner performances on festival show nights. The venue would be Sheafer Theater, the only available performance space near the festival’s twin main stages, Reynolds Theater and Page Auditorium on Duke University’s West Campus.

Festival audiences have seen three thus far. Ninety-two attendees came for the first showcase on June 12, featuring Chapel Hill’s Cornelia Kip Lee, 2 Near the Edge from Durham and Asheville’s Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance. The following Tuesday, that number jumped by 60 percent for a second show featuring Alyssa Ghirardelli, two dancers from the Jan Van Dyke Dance Group, and Alban Elved from Winston-Salem. (Tuesday’s showing by Raleigh’s Thread Dance Theater, Andrews Art from Greensboro and Choreo Collective occurred after press time.)

While the ADF has regularly presented artists of national stature who have relocated to this area, including Chuck Davis and Laura Dean, the festival has largely ignored North Carolina dance over its past 26 years in Durham. “In terms of presentation, it has no history with regional dance,” observes Laura Thomasson, the producer for Independent Dancemakers, a noted Durham-based collective that in recent years has worked increasingly with ADF-associated choreographers and dancers. (Thomasson will show her work in the last “Opening Acts” showcase on July 15.)

For their part, ADF management has admitted its shortcomings in this area. In May, director Charles Reinhart called North Carolina dance “something I don’t think we have addressed properly in the past.” Assistant director Jodee Nimerichter says, “We really haven’t had an opportunity since this explosion of modern dance in North Carolina to see all these companies perform live.”

Admittedly, ADF has a very small staff trying to cover a very large world of dance. But if top festival management hasn’t made it to regional and state dance gatherings, in recent seasons, several key ADF personnel have. Archives director Debra Elfenbein and director of programming and community outreach Cindy Carlson have been spotted at a number of such events in the past two years. It’s a change that delights a number of regional artists.

“It’s great that they’re connecting with locals,” says Thomasson. “A lot of us have been involved in ADF for a long time in some way, shape or form. There’s so much talent in this area.” When asked if the area’s best work meets the ADF’s standard of performance, the producer replies, “Absolutely. We have a lot to give.”

In response, the festival deliberately set the entry bar low for “Opening Acts” first season. A two-year history of public performance and a videotape were the only entry requirements for North Carolina artists in the inaugural season. The series was uncurated, first-come, first-served–“to make it fair and open to anybody that was interested in participating,” says Nimerichter.

Still, the decision concerned some regional dance advocates. “When they said it wasn’t curated, I said, ‘Oh my god, this is scary’” recalls Thomasson. “Showing work for two years? That’s a lot of people, and it still could be sucky work. É This free-for-all could have been really dangerous.” Ultimately, Thomasson concluded that the resulting season was good.

While she may be the ADF’s director of programming, Cindy Carlson is learning a lot about the nuts and bolts of lights, sound and spacing as she produces the local summer series. Though not strictly in her job description, she’s been behind the scenes, running lights and squeezing in rehearsals for her visiting choreographers. Clearly it’s a labor of love. “Cindy’s great,” notes Ghirardelli in a post-performance debriefing with her cast at Cosmic Cantina. “She’s been incredibly wonderful, working with us, communicating with us, making sure we’ve seen the space,” says Thomasson.

Still, all concerned agree that the Sheafer space has limits. But at the present, there are precious few other options. No other theaters are within easy walking distance. Daytime classes apparently mean that risers can’t be set up for evening audiences. “Space is the biggest issue,” Carlson says. “If we want something where people can go upstairs after to a performance, we can’t do it on East Campus. Originally we thought about Baldwin [Auditorium], but how would we get people to and from there? It would be a very different program. Plus we don’t have technical capability in Baldwin.”

“I think we’re seeing the limitations on the space available,” says Nimerichter. “We wanted to make it the best it can possibly be, but there are guidelines and restrictions to space and time availability, in the space and with our staff, about managing it.” Though Nimerichter characterizes this year’s series as “an initial step,” she says decisions about future regional series will involve consideration of limited resources and personnel.

One possible answer to ADF growing pains in this instance might involve the new studios associated with Duke Theater Studies, in an annex currently under construction at the back of Bryan Center. The new spaces should be on line in time for ADF 2004. “Opening Acts” resumes July 3 with Julee Snyder, Amy Chavasse and Melissa Chris.

From last week:

Pascal Rioult made ADF audiences the butt of Veneziana, a collection of cheap jokes, tedious boy-girl antics and occasionally clever compositional lines. After that disappointing opening came Rioult’s Firebird–a pair of words henceforth to be filed with similar disasters like Napoleon’s Waterloo. In this painfully melodramatic and obvious take, a small child in white attempts to redeem a phalanx of knuckle-dragging adults in gray by nervously tapping the stage floor with the tips of two peacock feathers, while all parties are menaced by a Big Black Triangle, ominously hovering behind the scenes.

The lovely but arid technique of Black Diamond did not refresh thereafter. And though many had insufficient patience left for Bolero at the close, the choreography–equally inspired by Fritz Lang and Bob Fosse, it appears–remained the first rousing thing viewed that evening.

Thankfully, faux-gravitas evaporates in the face of the real thing, evidenced in the U.S. premiere of

Maguy Marin’s Les Applaudissements Ne Se Mangent Pas (One Can’t Eat Applause). On a set whose curtained margin seemed lifted whole from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, a series of men and women in street clothes interrogate each other and the audience, in a potent staged metaphor for the shameful history and present practice of covert operations and economic and political exploitation in Central and Latin America. The curtain–actually a series of hundreds of separate ribbons, hung side by side–ultimately proves a chillingly permeable border. Bodies fall through it to the stage, before unseen hands drag them back into whatever lurks in the darkness. People cross back and forth, conducting dances of surveillance, intimidation and terror. Everyone on stage seems to be constantly assessing each other, asking the same unspoken question: What is your real agenda here?

Repeatedly, individuals and groups of two and four come to the stage’s edge to simply look at us–and, in doing, to confront us with the politics and economics of disappearance. Judging by the looks on the walkouts’ faces on both Thursday and Saturday, some were angered by the work’s 75 minutes length. I wonder if they considered that the atrocities symbolized on stage have been going on for decades longer, that one of the work’s more maddening points is that they keep on happening over and over–or that their own shopping and political actions contribute to it all?

This week: Experimental theater lovers might want to pay particular attention to tonight’s performance by La Maison of Bleeding Stone, a multimedia memoir of a coming of age in the southern part of France to music by Brahms and the Rolling Stones. And while it isn’t Moving Out, we do understand that

Twyla Tharp is bringing something more substantial to town this Thursday than that bit of auto-hagiography, a lecture/demonstration on the 1960s snippet The One Hundreds, we saw last time from her at ADF. If it isn’t, you’ll hear. EndBlock