An old–and thankfully, overstated–insider’s joke insists that, no matter when you got there, the golden age of the American Dance Festival ended just two years before. Still, the jibe has more of an edge to it these days, with the extended absences of co-directors Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, philosophical mainstay Gerry Myers’ off-campus work on a new documentary dealing with spirituality and dance, and former dean and taskmaster supreme Martha Myers enjoying a well-earned retirement. The lack of any one of these figures would unavoidably change the festival. This marks the first summer where all have simultaneously gone missing.

The ADF soldiers on. Still, it’s tempting to give last week’s performance by the African American Dance Ensemble (AADE) a comparable response: Sorry, but you really should’ve seen ’em in ’99. That year, Ibrahim Sylla’s percussion orchestra was an indomitable force of nature, and the standing ovation for Ex3, Chuck Davis’ Senegambian balante which closed the program, began well before the work was over. Traditionally, it’s been impossible to limit an AADE performance to the stage: The group regularly fills the room it’s in with true communion.

In contrast, this year’s works seemed to plateau more than peak. Things began well enough with the opening, 1996’s Lamban, but its infectious exuberance was compromised when the dancers wound up having to repeatedly fight off Lydia McMichael’s unfortunate costumes. Large multicolored tops resembling shower curtains completely obscured Davis’ energetic upper-body choreography. Even worse, the awkward fabric repeatedly snarled around dancers’ hands, arms and heads. Nor was Lamban the only work thus affected. On several occasions, dysfunctional cloth either wound up dangling from a dancer’s hand or landing on the floor, necessitating abrupt changes in choreographic flight plans.

Elsewhere, momentum flagged at crucial points. A far too lengthy opening diluted the ritual aspects of Divine Sanctioning, a work based on the sacredness of rhythm. Though Stafford Berry Jr.’s Departure explored the boundaries between life and all that waits thereafter, as dancers traced the edges of a small, solitary square of light, its far too lengthy close all but turned an intriguing meditation into a filibuster. Nor did extra innings add substantial savor to the filial piety of Tribute, Davis’ homage to his choreographic matrilineage.

It’s in keeping with certain African traditions that Davis honors the elders in his company and community. But two of his strongest and youngest dancers are about to leave a company that has increasingly turned to its aging founding members. Davis has clearly looked to both his company’s and community’s past. To continue his work, he now needs to look to their future. As they say in Ghana, “ago”: Attention must be paid.

It’s enough to make me wonder what else I’ve been missing: Due to uncooperative sightlines, the downstairs audience at Page Auditorium never saw a fundamental part of Songs of the Wanderers, last week’s performance by Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Even if they couldn’t see it, however, most of the downstairs patrons could intuit that dancer Wu Ching-tao was slowly crafting a mandala at the end, transforming the three tons of polished, golden rice used in the show into an oversized zen garden with a wooden rake.

But only from the balcony could viewers discern that the dancers weren’t slogging through a sea of the stuff at Songs’ beginning. On an otherwise empty Page Auditorium stage, a narrow corridor of light from the back curtain to center stage lead the wanderers to a thin, jagged golden band that traversed the stage from left to right. It was obviously meant to represent the holy river of the work’s second movement, but it also functioned as a dividing line between different states of being. On one side of it, wanderers toiled toward their destination; alone on the other side, a monk stood in prayerful meditation, while a thin golden stream of rice rained down on him from above.

This detail made a telling difference in a tale of souls thirsting for enlightenment, as they abandoned their walking staffs, collapsed and celebrated in a dharmic river. Choreographer (and onetime ADF student) Lin Hwai-min painted with broad strokes on a vivid canvas, enacting pilgrimage and the interconnection between the sexes in the vivid “Rite of Tree.” Lin’s movement vocabulary veered between the spasmodic and the serene; near-glacial changes were interrupted by the convulsive revelations of Wang Wei-ming’s solo, “Prayer III,” and the penultimate “Prayer IV.” In its culmination, dancers flung handfuls of rice in wild parabolas into the air. It was an impressive closing fireworks display for an exuberant celebration of the Dharma.

Looking ahead, this week David Dorfman and Dan Froot conclude their two-night run of Live Sax Acts, a compendium of three strange performance-art duets from the 1990s, on Wednesday, July 7, at 8 p.m. in Reynolds Theater. In “Horn,” “Bull” and “Job” (which regional audiences saw in 1997), Dorfman and Froot explore treacherous ground with rare humor, looking at how aggression, competition and other byproducts of the way our culture socializes males gets in the way of friendship and the need for meaningful human contact. The two hit the wall of competition with “Horn” before broadcasting their insecurities through bullhorns in “Bull.” Then, in “Job,” they try to negotiate a friendship as if it were a business deal. In all it’s enough to make them, in Jennifer Dunning’s words, “the ultimate male bondees.”

Thursday through Saturday, Doug Varone and Dancers return to Page Auditorium. Despite his recent disappointment with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Varone remains one of my favorite modern dance artists. In 1999, I called him “a short-story writer in choreographer’s clothes.” It’s an apt description for a literate artist just as bent on developing memorable, lived-in characters and relationships as he’s been devoted to exploring a strange new lyricism in movement.

His accomplishments in both have been considerable. Varone’s dancers have convincingly conveyed a character’s full lifetime of pains, aches and memories. They’ve disclosed the interior truths of long-term relationships, in works whose acting and direction are as accomplished as the choreography. Small wonder we sometimes think of him as a theater director working in the idiom of modern dance.

His recent works have explored the realms of opera and early experimental music. We see both this weekend. Varone restages Bel Canto, his interpretation of Bellini’s opera Norma, and Ballet Mecanique, based on George Antheil’s unconventional 1924 composition for percussion orchestra, airplane propellors, sirens and 16 synchronized player pianos. Between these come two smaller studies: Short Story, commissioned by the Limón Dance Company, and his 1993 solo, on the field of destiny, set to John Adams’ The Wound Dresser, an account of Walt Whitman’s service as a nurse during the Civil War.

Next Tuesday and Wednesday, an ADF homebody ironically becomes the most controversial guest of the season as Ariane Malia Reinhart stages recent works made for her by modern dance luminaries Shen Wei, Mark Haim, Martha Clarke and Doug Varone. In contrast to those critics who made a roman à clef of their responses to her September New York opening–and sources like who have condemned her work without ever having seen it–I plan to be there, and then write just the usual: what I saw, what it made me think, what it made me feel, and what I learned. Reinhart’s Tuesday opening comes after the deadline for our next issue, however, so stay tuned. EndBlock

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