Literary theorist Janet Gunn might be interested to learn that autobiography isn’t the only genre that tries to capture something in the process of vanishing. Dance journalism and criticism does as well. So here’s looking at the closing figures.
Seven weeks and three days–not including the pre-season prep. Twenty-two mainstage performances (including nine world premieres and two first-timers in the United States). Eight films (a third of all that were screened), six informal student showings, and untold after-hours rehearsals and performances in the best room for dance I’ve ever set foot in–the fabled Ark on Duke’s East Campus. Student videos and concerts, classes and the annual string of repertory showings. My annual skull session with Shen Wei. Between them all, several hundred conversations with visiting choreographers, critics, faculty, dancers, students and staff.
In short, a significant fraction of the modern dance world that convened to take the craft a bit further, open for conversation in a temporary autonomous zone just off the borders of Main and Buchanan streets.
And at this hour, what’s left of it? Images and sounds on magnetic tape and DVD, in row upon row of neat little boxes on the shelves of silent, climate-controlled rooms. Words, hastily scrawled on legal pads, in artists’ notebooks and the margins of countless printed programs. Drawings, paintings that try to capture movement. About 200 pages of notes, in files on a critic’s laptop.
And memory, of course: The body memory in the muscles of the dancers–the single, beautiful and impermanent medium that contains this art form. The memories of the teachers and choreographers, the largest repository by far through which the history is preserved and the art is recreated. The memories of the audience members, and all the other witnesses assembled.
A toast, then, to the persistence of memory. To the collective genius assembled, now disbursed to all corners of the globe. To all in the process of vanishing–including modern dance, which has been doing it now for just under a century. And to absolutely everything we do–as artists, technicians and humans (as well as lovers of the dance)–to prevent that from happening.
Dance asks one thing of all.
Come. Bear witness.
It’s about as far away as you can get from the ADF’s two main stages and still be on campus: a class in Baldwin Auditorium, a little after 10 a.m. on the hottest morning of the summer. Tonight the air conditioning will fail before reaching the audience in the balcony for the student show, but for now it cuts against the psychologized interiors of faculty member and New York choreographer Neta Pulvermacher’s Five Beds/Children of the Dream.
Her fragmentary memoir details, through story, dance and music, what it was like to grow up in a hellish “children’s house” on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s. After remounting it in May for a 20-year retrospective, Pulvermacher is setting sections of it on three sets of dancers in their early 20s.
In one part of the rehearsal, Hunter Carter glides slowly and effortlessly across the stage, while a crouching Courtney Cooke carefully moves two large tin cans his feet land on as he progresses. This subservient relationship is reinforced moments later, when Cooke’s frightened character comes to Carter, who holds and calms her, gently smoothing her hair with his fingers–before turning her around and shoving her, without warning, across the stage back to the floor. The cruelty in the undeniable connection between the two characters captures something essential in Pulvemacher’s double-bound world.
We continue looking for the essential, as we shuttle between Baldwin, Brodie Gym and East Duke Building for the circuit of repertory showings during the last week of the festival. They showcase what new and novice guest instructors have accomplished with gifted students over the past six weeks.
It’s obvious to all: Some demonstrate much more progress than others. Muddy choreography and monotonous post-modernity make some 20-minute sessions seem much longer.
But Omar Olivas’ dazzling solo on an empty stage at full extension presages the precise systems of Forsyth dancer Richard Siegal, and Jaamil Olawale-Kosoko’s stringent solo work in the midst. Doug Nielsen’s witty choreography and games show both his ideas and his students’ strengths.
Later on in Brodie, master teacher/choreographer Donald McKayle, a recent festival arrival, demonstrates exactly how much you can get out of seven rehearsals with the right dancers. His sensuous new work, Rivulet, opens with deceptively graceful wavy arm gestures before accelerating into sweeping strong ensemble moves, with dancers kicking and stamping on an ever-changing axis to Alan Terricciano’s driving score.
Taiwan’s Ming-Lung Yang closes out the first day’s showings with a paradoxical fusion of Chinese opera and modern sensibility. As an audience, we’re left baffled at how Yang can combine an all but martial unison and precision work with contradictory, sinuous passages–short, but quite effective–at high speed. Complex relationships of support are woven into tight ensemble work that briskly dials between a large number of vertical planes, before white sashes attached to the dancers’ sleeves extend their arm movements at the flashy end of his second movement.
The next morning, former Trisha Brown dancer Abigail Yager doesn’t have to coax a standing ovation with her remounting of two sections from Groove and Countermove, a 2000 ADF collaboration with jazz composer Dave Douglas. Brown’s choreography, a virtual EKG of jazz, traces out its heartbeat on the paper of the stage, in a performance enhanced by Page Phillips and Maria Marcos’ supple interior duet.
After a brisk walk to East Duke, director Ellen Hemphill displays the degree to which she’s stretched the range of her students’ performing voices. Our skin crawls as an industrial choir renders metal colliding against metal in a horrible accident–again, using only their breath and throats–before Beatrice Barbareschi confidently plumbs the lower registers; examples both of sounds we believed couldn’t emerge from the bodies before us.
And all of this comes before wild card Marigia Maggipinto Shumate, the mad scientist of our little crew, presents the foreign film, performed live, that she’s been choreographing over the past six weeks. While Iraqi dancer Roa Adnan gazes through a filmy window over morning tea, a village of eccentrics interacts in rarely predictable fashion. Before a beatific Wendy Brusa presides from her post as a living statuary, Daniel Abre’s comic, humble waiter entreats us to take a seat–on a ruined chair–at a sidewalk café. This, however, precedes his far more chilling manipulation duet with dancer Sonja Boehme. After tracing a smile onto her face, with his fingers from behind, Abre’s character briefly ballroom dances–but with a woman now frozen in a mannequin’s form.
The cruelest but perhaps most useful thing to do here would be to contrast the dynamic techniques and choreographic insights in these repertory showings with the failing execution and questionable choreography we saw from the Paul Taylor Dance Company.
Yes, the man’s a living legend. And recent work including Promethian Fire and Piazzolla Caldera has graced both ours and others year’s best lists with good reason. Still, it’s inescapable: Performances like the one we saw on July 21 threaten to undermine the genius of Mr. Taylor’s considerable legacy more effectively than any choir of naysayers from the outside.
Where company standouts including Richard Chen See and Lisa Viola previously thrilled us with a bravura technique born as much from ballet as from modern dance, their performances in featured roles this year seemed leaden, safe and nowhere near their full extensions we have seen. Once, work like the new Spring Rounds would have showcased their abilities. I fear it now exposes them instead.
Taylor’s solo work for both here seems dialed down, calibrated for performers of declining ability, a crushingly ironic development in a work so clearly themed on the miracle of yearly renewal and rebirth. We never buy that Viola’s character is overcome with emotion at the end of her second movement solo, while in act three, See’s arms go conspicuously much higher than his legs ever do. Such was not always the case.
After a promising opening, both dancers–and other company members beside them–appear to be quoting choreography more than committing to it or effectively embodying the work. This is as great a deficit as the sloppy execution that marred ensemble sections more than once.
We simply expect much better from one of the premiere modern dance companies on Earth.
Spring Rounds’ appearance followed 2004’s Dante Variations–a seemingly pointless series of Purgatory jokes, the most coherent of which involves a dancer doomed to eternity with a piece of toilet paper stuck to one foot. In nine mini-scenes between the first and final movements, most frequently Taylor simply displays dancers in difficulties (like being blindfolded or having their arms bound) where once he could have been relied upon to demonstrate why their situations should be of choreographic interest.
A bouncier Company B, which contrasted sunny-side Andrews Sisters songs at home with grimmer realities abroad during World War II, opened this disappointing concert.
When I’ve been to science museums, I’ve walked inside several orreries–eerie, room-sized mechanical models that demonstrate the synchronized movement of the planets in the solar system.
I never expected to find one in the Ark.
But that was one of the first surprises 21-year-old choreographer Huang Yi sprung on a hot, late-night crowd at the end of the second student concert July 13.
By now it’s an in-joke of contemporary dance: Contractual obligations stipulate that journeymen choreographers have to make at least one “chair piece,” in which a humble and ubiquitous piece of furniture is elevated, briefly, into Art.
Most of them look a whole lot worse than this.
After politely apologizing through a translator for inadequate rehearsal time, Mr. Huang proceeded to dazzle us with one of the strongest works we saw on any ADF stage this summer. As he straightened 11 chairs scattered randomly across the space, his dancers began tracing what seemed an elaborate Mondrian pattern on a still uneven grid.
While some dancers struggled to remain seated, like Kuo Fang-Ling, who fell and then tried to regain her position in a psychological early solo, others began to orbit a stark, single naked light bulb that swung back and forth through the center of the room.
But these human planets significantly circled a darker star than the one we’re most familiar with. Dancer Veronica Carnero lead Hunter Carter on the outermost circle, her dress and comportment suggesting a fashionable ingénue taking her latest boy-toy out, on a figurative leash, for a walk. Violence and velocity figured into a number of the vicious circles we encountered, including Liu Yi-Chun’s later solo and the choreographer’s duet with Barbara Riera. Gestures of conciliation or civility devolve into compulsive contacts, blind leaps into the arms and laps of other characters, or wrestling-like takedowns to the floor.
Where so many other student choreographers had previously displayed advanced technique with little or no artistic content, Huang Yi’s work gave us a world where fashionable people struggled, at times suddenly and without grace, to maintain their place either in specific relationships or society in general. A social party, but one where everyone keeps struggling–and failing–to stay out on the dance floor.
The work’s name? Messed.
It’s the first–and I predict here not the last–work we’ll see from a talented contingent of students from Taiwan, who appeared at the ADF during the inaugural year of a scholarship program by the Chin Lin Arts and Culture Foundation.
Huang Yi’s work proved this was an excellent year to start.
“I’m a photographer,” Mr. Huang said through an interpreter when we spoke. “I like to really study people. I try to get a sense of a person and then draw that into a character in the dance. Some relationships are dark, and I explore them in my photographs. It can be an aesthetic of Taiwanese culture: Things sometimes are fast, messy, chaotic.
“I wanted to find a way to show the messiness of how we are, here; so many people from different cultures brought so quickly, so close together,” Huang Yi said.
“Seeing the effect the ADF has already had on the Korean dance community, being in Taiwan where the strengths and weaknesses are really flipped, it seemed like a real no-brainer,” said Abigail Yager, the former Trisha Brown dancer who now teaches in Taiwan. “There would be huge learning for everybody involved if they were allowed to come.”
This much we know: The audience–and one critic–learned much from these students’ first year.
The Taiwanese students weren’t the only ones to provide interesting insights into choreography. ADF’s weekly set of informal showings provides young choreographers the opportunity to show their works–while giving the audience much-needed practice in talking about choreography, providing analytical and critical support to artists still in progress.
In the first session of the year, Rafi Rama Jaima raised a series of questions, some playful and some more serious, about our practices in dance while he lobbed an imaginary set of softballs at the audience. His sinuous flow took the edge off the interrogation, convening a public conversation about standards and practices in our craft.
Megan Sipe seemed possessed by Charlie Hunter’s jazz in Roundabout, a joyous solo where she seemed to impersonate the instruments, the musicians, the melody and the bassline in the work’s different passages.
Jaima, Cook and Olivia Eng explored the more absurd angles of a threesome in Melissa Chisena’s jangled tango, A Man, A Woman and a Pair of Eyes. Charles Slender’s late duet captured us with its wit and razor-sharp technique.
And though parts of Thomas Newkirk’s work was rougher than most, its strongest moments put unmasked gay desire on stage with enviable clarity.
Reviews of the International Choreographer Commissioning Program performance and other final thoughts on ADF 2005 will appear in next week’s issue of the Independent.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.