Non-stop auditions, from morning to night. This was the only item on last weekend’s agenda at ADF.

Fair warning: You have to do a lot more than dance to pass a dance audition. You have to be an excellent recording and playback unit. Since you have to faithfully reproduce a physical language you may have just been exposed to, this means being equal parts dictaphone, VCR and, of course, artist.

Now let’s talk possession; not just taking charge of an object, but allowing yourself to be controlled by an outside entity. You’re open, so after seeing a person move a couple of times, of course you should be able to somehow move into their skin, take on its characteristics, and then convince its original inhabitant that it fits you, and that you belong there. And you have to do this in less than 90 seconds, OK?

Decryption’s next. After all, who knows what that inhabitant is really looking for when he or she looks at you: a human parrot? A mirror to their perfect (yeah, right) image? An able action figure? Do you know how to craft yourself into the human key that fits the lock before you?

Fine then. You are ready to begin your dance audition.

They move like the rays of an anemone or a slowly animated weather map, the hundreds of students surrounding choreographer Shen Wei on the floor of Duke’s venerable East Campus dance studio, the Ark. In some ways, it’s an audition unlike any these dancers will likely experience in their lifetime, a point that will be proven repeatedly during the afternoon tryouts for repertory classes at the American Dance Festival.

Time seems all but suspended as Shen calmly, slowly moves his arms about his head to the crisp, simple dignity of Arvo Pärt’s solo piano piece, Für Alina. Rail thin, with quiet eyes and voice, he moves in a contemplative manner. His motions are economical, drawing attention to the melodrama and overstatement implicit in much contemporary work. He’s a choreographic haiku, of sorts, one entirely sufficient to the music and the moment.

As he moves, the group reciprocates Shen’s motion, slowly radiating out in all directions. The effect is sidereal, nearly meditative. It’s also deceptive, to some degree, since intense activity is occurring here, as all eyes zero in on Shen. The students auditioning for his repertory class at ADF are closely reading him, in intricate detail, from all sides, analyzing every nuance, every gesture of the phrase he’s teaching them from 2000’s Near the Terrace, and simultaneously trying it on for size.

The sheer number of them, instantly amplifying every impulse all the way across the space, extrapolates each movement into a wave with larger force, larger implications. This must have been what Don DeLillo was getting at when he wrote in Mao II about the fundamental power of iterative crowds.

Later, a final demonstration splits the Ark into two equal parts. On the left is a beachhead of students who sit behind a remarkably straight dividing line. Beyond it lies the right half of the room, empty except for Shen. Though he uses but a fraction of the space in his performance of the solo, it’s clear that the empty space is as important on some level as the one he occupies. Silence reigns. A CD player begins, and Pärt’s sidereal clockwork unfolds once more.

As student groups re-enact the movement, some more easily find a home in the gesture than others. Some embody its spirit more readily than its technique. For others, the reverse is true; mechanical precision is unaccompanied by context.

Shen is open to question, unfailingly polite; in all, a most considerate host. In time the dancers will also learn how rare these commodities are, and how welcome.

As he moves around a group of auditioners, Shen’s dilemma becomes clear to the observer. There’s so little time in which to interpret and assess the external signs that intimate just who’s home in those forms in front of him. Then there’s the measuring, not only of who’s there at present, but what their potential is. Slow movement invites interpretation. There are so many possibilities, and so little time.

A young woman lies on the floor, her posed form conveying a model of alienated dignity, mingled with sadness. It’s the air of a dream’s inhabitant, one who knows that perfection ends, and that dreams cannot last. As clearly as I understand it, it’s one of the things at the heart of Near the Terrace.

Does she know that her signal was not just received, but valued? Whether or not she made the list for Shen Wei’s class, does she know at least that this moment is truly hers?

Two separate programs kicked off the 2002 ADF last weekend in Page Auditorium. The opening showings by the Paul Taylor Dance Company were followed by a gala fundraiser on Sunday featuring works by Taylor, Ron K. Brown, and next week’s upcoming companies: Dayton Contemporary Dance Company and Pilobolus Dance Theatre.

With roots so firmly grounded in the history of modern dance, Paul Taylor should make an appropriate choice to start the ADF. Still, his concert opening the season last weekend proved more than once an uneasy marriage between form and substance.

Cloven Kingdom may have documented what brought out the beast in tuxedoed men and women in chromatic evening dress in 1976, but spectacle here outweighed content. Brief opening moments that aped the “Funky Chicken” (ow!) were an early indication of things to come; John McDowell’s unsubtle slam-segues from Corelli to Malloy Miller’s still too civilized drums merely followed suit. Taylor thoroughly drives his point into the ground, and then gets four women in mirrored headpieces to underline it for good measure. Under that thin veneer of civilization, we may all be animals. Still, a work as mindlessly devoted to hammering that single point as long as Cloven Kingdom does is, well, pretty beastly.

At least bombast was used to better ends in The Word, a 1998 critique of religious victimage. David Israel’s turgid orchestral score underlines the sad melodrama that passes for too much of contemporary religion. Santo Loquasto’s costumes cross Weimar decadence with English prep school fashion, and get at the fascist undertones of societies where faith must be uniform, lockstep and compulsory. Jennifer Tipton’s fluorescent lights illuminate this negativeland, where victims are kept ready, and nothing is ultimately so worshipped as authority. A kneeling supplicant strokes a standing man’s striped necktie with such passion we almost expect him to fellate it. Inverse crucifixes appear, but tellingly along with a rendering of Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half Shell” that turns it into an image of exposure and exploitation (the difference between nude and naked). Totalitarianism obliterates both art and faith, we’re reminded, in this ugly, useful work.

By comparison, Taylor’s premiere, Promethean Fire, proved a retreat into classical flowing lines, sumptuous phrases, and non-narrative beauty. Concentric circles of dancers clad in what appeared to be chocolate satin with gold topographical lines found in Bach’s “D minor Toccata and Fugue” a series of improbable zoetropes that baffled the eye with fearsome symmetry. Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola pluck themselves out of a pile of humanity that echoes last September, before a tender pas de deux capped by Viola’s daring aerial work. More polish was needed; similar aerial moves by the entire ensemble nearly resulted in disaster. Still, such soothing pictures took most of the edge off of the two works that preceded it.

Sunday’s gala concert, with works by two artists appearing this week, gave an uneven hint of things to come.

G.D. Harris’ performance of Awassa Astrige (Ostrich Dance) presaged Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s arrival this weekend. DCDC’s archive of African-American choreography is the largest in the world, and Asadata Dafora’s 1932 dance ably proves its import. Harris’ intricate, detailed articulation was exacting; his strong shoulder blades mimicked the beating of powerful wings, sustaining the metaphor of flight.

But Pilobolus Dance Theatre’s The Four Humours–based on the medieval attributes used to explain human nature–proved an unwelcome assault. Collisions and physical violence (slapdash more than slapstick) ruled the first and third segments of this work. An appalling display of chest kicks, simulated knees to the groin, fingers in eyes, and combination head butts and somersault floor slams largely replaced the company’s traditional commitment to choreographic craft. Only fleeting glimpses of Pilobolean poetics were spied in a final downer devoted to melancholia. By that time former Pilobolus dancer Carol Parker had already left the theater. I was sorely tempted to join her: When Pilobolus goes WWF with this little wit and even less technique, someone besides the dancers onstage should be slapped. Regional choreographers regularly do work that’s far more accomplished than this. If a local company had dreamed this up, I probably would have elected not to review it.

Finally, a correction. Last week, we misidentified the date of Ariane Reinhart’s debut at the Joyce Soho, and one of her choreographers. Reinhart’s performance was last September, and Mark Haim, not John Jasperse, was a contributing choreographer in that program.

Contact Byron Woods at