The subject was passion: Audience members refreshed by its appearance during Noche Flamenca‘s concert could have easily wondered where it had been hiding during much of the 2006 American Dance Festival.

Its unsuccessful counterfeit marred the first work on the first night of the season, in a harbinger of things to come. Few things look more ridiculous than a group of adults faking ecstasy. But believable emotions didn’t join Paul Taylor‘s company on stage until after they tried at first to grin their way through Aureole on June 8. Plausible passion did not arrive until the fifth movement, toward the end–in another parallel with the season of mainstage programming.

Passion ran in inconstant streaks through the world premiere of David Dorfman‘s Underground: effectively when Molly Poerstel portrayed a revolutionary fighting the power despite limited backup; incomprehensibly in the babelogue accompanying Jennifer Nugent’s early solo. But the balance of the work remained too muted, too measured a response to the radical politics of the 1960s. Underground wilted under the anesthetic of slick (and sometimes pointless) electronic graphics, hokey television reporter “interviews,” and a numbing barrage of questions whose potential for drama was carefully defused by the neutral voice that posed them. The result too often seemed less an interrogation of the audience’s values than a weightless quiz in some glossy magazine.

Stoicism pervaded new works by Shen Wei and Emanuel Gat, and Tatiana Baganova‘s by now familiar man/woman cat/mouse gender games during Wings at Tea. In Shen’s Re– (Part One), Tibetan expatriates dispassionately embraced their culture’s own shattering as an unfolding of the dharma–except for those brief moments when they leaned, attentively, toward an off-stage promise they could not join.

Larry Keigwin presented two major new works this year. Urbane humor–and considerable technique–accompanied the sub-celestial joggers in his amusing Orbits. But the mostly comic passions of his short-study characters in Love Songs paled when compared to the subtexts in his superior 2002 trio, Urban Birds, performed again this year. We watched as an exquisitely understated human triangle celebrated a summer’s idyll by the sea. Intuitively, we recognized a look back to one brief moment of perfection, of equilibrium between three people; a vital, golden moment in a story with a hundred different denouements.

More hypothetical–and more strenuous–was the passage in Doug Varone‘s Boats Leaving where a human chain collapses under the weight of their shared crisis. Though Varone’s experiment frequently seemed to channel the zeitgeist from a montage of unrelated newspaper photographs in tableaus on-stage, repeatedly I sensed I was supposed to feel something more from images like the one just described.

Perhaps the most meaningful part of this work came at its end, in the questions his group of survivors seemed to ask in the looks they gave one another. “What now?” they appeared to be asking. “What have we left in common, what holds us together, now that the disaster has passed? Is there an ‘us’ any more? If so, where do we go from here?”

Disaster can be termed a key ingredient of Butoh, the form of Japanese protest dance theater seen in Takuya Muramatsu‘s Mark of the Sun during the International Choreographers Commissioning Program. In this “dark soul dance” convulsive reanimated ancestors, fearsomely coated in white rice powder, return to mock a world unmoored from tradition and indict a civilization in self-inflicted crisis.

As we saw, its characters are deliberate grotesques. Uti Setyastuti’s crone character cackled, sporting tusks tinged in red; Muramatsu’s twisted central character wore only a strategically placed fisherman’s boot attached to a g-string, as he gripped an umbrella riddled with holes in his teeth.

Despite the vivid imagery, this was clearly Butoh for beginners. Where performers in Muramatsu’s home company, Dai Rakuda Kan, maintained their characters’ striated forms for the whole of evening-length works like Ryuba and Sea-Dappled Horse, stress repeatedly slipped off the five warriors entering from the audience, and the women in tattered white lace awaiting them on stage.

The spirit of Butoh infected works elsewhere this summer. It gave an audience of dance students and teachers food for thought as they gazed at Jaamil Olawale-Kosoko‘s only partially resurrected character in his promising work-in-progress, Wet Purple Love Affair.

And it spooked us during an Acts to Follow series concert as K. Rain Leander gradually glided, shaking almost imperceptibly, down the long aisle of Baldwin Auditorium as music by A Silver Mt. Zion stopped time. When Leander reached the front of the house, she all but literally flowed, backwards and upside down, onto the floor of the stage before being pulled into the maw of the black curtain at the back. This introduction to her full-length work, Beauty, suggested the observation at the opening of Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror.”

Aside from Leander, few local artists actually showed their best in the Acts to Follow series, which gives a stage over to North Carolina choreographers. Footnotes Tap‘s adventurous Jam and Allapaca added to their rep. Significantly less distinguished were the beginners’ choreography of Choreo Collective‘s Sectioned and an Intersection that never really fused Tangophilia‘s tango with modern sensibilities.

Winston-Salem’s Helen Simoneau, by contrast, presented a season standout, Celui qui regarde, in which Gena Mann‘s incandescent solo sharpened what seemed a razor-edged homage to Egon Schiele.

The close of Martha Connerton‘s 5,4,3,2,1 fulfilled the rather lengthy promises from the work’s earlier sections. Five delightful dancers formed an architectural invention whose interlocking but mobile parts baffled us with their fluidity, stability, technique and grace. Alert Jean Siberry: We’ve finally found out how skyscraper atriums, floors and concourses dance.

If passion frequently forsook the ADF mainstage, there was no shortage of it during weekly informal showings and 18 presentations over the festival’s final week.

It poured during Yo Smith Kwon and Daniel Senning‘s midnight performance of At the Joshua Tree at the Ark on Duke’s East Campus. Yo and Senning’s ratio of high-twitch to low-twitch muscles made the two repeatedly seem more engaged in teleportation than in choreography.

Daniel Clifton was nearly as fast in places, but when his late-night performance reduced four women to virtual backup singers, we wanted a recap of Emanuel Gat’s K626. Bojohn Diciple‘s gumboot/rap manifesto, The Beat Has Never Left the Street, left us wishing every dancework was as heartfelt.

Helen Perdono‘s Enclosure embodied contemporary violence, quoting painter Robert Longo, and set to music by Les Tambours du Bronx. He Jin Jang elevated rock, scissors, paper to the realm of psychodrama when the three possessed and transformed various parts of her body to continue their warfare, against her will.

Catherine Galasso‘s film, Distant Commotion, fused passion with intelligence, channeling Patti Smith and Anais Nin–when not presenting a face displaying all human emotions simultaneously. Her more conventional Hold Me While I Make It had dancers Samantha Allen, Patrick Faurot-Pigeon and Buck Wanner satirize modern love.

James McGinn‘s Estrellita quoted romantic idioms before getting down to significant movement research. Dancers in Richard Siegal‘s group presentation of William Forsyth‘s techniques demonstrated total body awareness, and an astringent aesthetic that clarified movement to its essence.

After seeing both MFA Concerts, I’m convinced most of these choreographers should be given a plaque–one bearing Humphrey’s famous warning: “All dances are too long.”

Few escaped the urge to filibuster. Even Stafford Berry‘s strong social critique in Homeland Security lost impact with increasing length. Night one standouts: Sherone Price‘s organic, exquisite Invisible Threads–this two-night series’ best-of-show; Dawn Springer‘s imagistic There Again, and Then, and Kako Ka Ki Kam‘s design-intensive Speaking Body.

On night two, Kristin O’Neal‘s faux-1940s film and mouth-dropping finale grounded an otherwise elusive symbol set in Heeling Sole. Katie Dorn‘s overlong Progressions still contained the most fully-realized character work of either concert.