June 10–12
Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University

June 15–16
Reynolds Industries Theater, Duke University

ADF website

It’s a good thing Baba Chuck Davis knows how to multitask. Over the past two weeks, he’s entertained and educated audiences totaling somewhere north of 10,000″winding the delighted crowd around his little finger,” was how critic Roslyn Sulcas put it in the Sunday New York Times on May 30from the stages of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance Place in Washington, D.C. He’s also been behind the scenes, producing and presiding over some 24 dance companies that his DanceAfrica Festival presented in both cities during its 33rd year.

In the midst, he’s ricocheted back home to Durham for rehearsals with the AFRICAN AMERICAN DANCE ENSEMBLE. They’ve got a little show coming up as well: It’s the season opener this year for the American Dance Festival. The modern dance perennial begins its 77th season with performances by the group this Thursday through Saturday in Reynolds Theater at Duke University.

Davis isn’t the only one whose been logging extra miles on this production. Associate artistic director Stafford Berry Jr. has been driving in to direct rehearsals with Toni Hall, a founding member of the ensemble, while Baba Chuck’s been out of town. The commute’s been a bit intense: 7 1/2 hours, one way, from Granville, Ohio, where Berry is an assistant professor in the dance program at Denison University. When they finish the rehearsal I drop in on, Berry heads back the same night to help host a conference on somatics that starts the following morning.

With different questions coming up in each rehearsal, the three have stayed in contact, gauging the production’s process by phone and e-mail. The result? “When I came in last night there were just a few small things,” Davis beams with joyand relief. “Thank God for the company members. Whatever it is, they pick it up and carry it forth.”

Though curtain time for their performance is 8 p.m., the group will conduct a libation-pouring ceremony on Thursday, opening night, in the Reynolds Theater lobby at 7. The ritual, Davis notes, is “an African tradition to honor the omnipotent that one believes in, the ancestors, the elders, and all in attendance.” Festival management will also present “a special dedication” that evening before the performance.

Invariably, the ensemble’s performances invoke community through a colorful combination of pageantry, ritual, call and response, expert drumming and dance.

Expect three main works woven into the evening: an excerpt from BlueGrass/ Brown Earth Ballet, Davis’ artistic inquiry into the history of the akonting, the Senegalese precursor to the banjo. After intermission, Davis presents his variations on Mande, a Zimbabwean ritual dance for rain: “By dancing Mande we hope we can bring showers of peace.”

The company’s work with two poets, Fuse and Mike Anderson, is featured in See the Rhythm/ Hear the Movement. “With the proper rhythm, you can tell any story you wish,” Davis says. “In the last section,” he adds archly, “we’ll use it to pay tribute to President Barack Obama.”

After the weekend off, the festival reconvenes on Tuesday with a split bill featuring the downtown companies of New York choreographers MONICA BILL BARNES and Kate Weare in Reynolds Theater.

ADF isn’t the only place where those two names have been seen together in the recent past. In her short list of the decade’s best in dance for the Village Voice, critic Deborah Jowett included the pair last December among the most “daring” of the city’s new choreographers during the 2000s. (Longtime festival goers would recognize two other names on her list: Faye Driscoll, from last year’s main-stage season, and agent provocateur Miguel Gutierrez, from showings in the East Campus Ark studio in various years and the ADF main stage in 2006.) After Durham, both choreographers see their companies’ debut at the home church of modern dance in New York, the Joyce Theater, in August.

Just how quirky is Monica Bill Barnes? A headline from a story accompanying last year’s premiere of Another Parade, which her company will excerpt here, reassures us she’s “not just another nut on the street.” But then, Jowett herself, in a 2007 review, confesses that Barnes’ work “puts strange thoughts into my head. Do I want to take her home and sit her on a sofa so her big eyes can follow me around and keep my life from feeling humdrum? Or do I want to lock her in the attic?”

Barnes’ work tends to examine the razor’s edge between awkwardness and poise, disclosure and secrecy, and public and private selves. After describing Another Parade as a work for “four ungainly winning performers who flirt with subtlety while wearing their hearts on their sleeves,” Barnes said in a 2009 Flavorwire interview with Michelle Velucci, “A lot of it addresses questions about performingthe highs and lows, the particular desire of each person to perform, what you end up exposing and what you keep to yourself. There are a lot of ideas about how performers rely on and relate to the audience. Why have I made a whole life of having people pay to see me perform? It’s wonderfully co-dependent, and sometimes feels a little unhealthy.”

In a video clip on the ADF website, four women in conservative dress reiterate moves and gestures that reveal emotionsand shoulder blades and tummies from time to time. Individual dancers take a move another has made and exaggerate ituntil another woman pulls her back, in editorial interventions made on the hoof. Though critic Jack Anderson notes that Barnes’ dancers effectively use the same gestures to “suggest vulnerability in one situation and toughness in another,” critical reception of the work has been mixedperhaps a reason why we’re seeing it in excerpts?

After performing here, Barnes premieres a new work, tentatively titled “The Headdress Project,” during an evening-length performance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in July.

Jacob’s Pillow also commissioned “Bridge of Sighs,” which the KATE WEARE COMPANY performs in its entirety. Weare, a 2009 Princess Grace Award winner for choreography, has been busy this spring. Two weeks ago, she premiered a new work, “Idyll,” with PARADIGM (who played ADF’s main stage in 2008), immediately before company dates at the Spring to Dance Festival in St. Louis.

Critics have noted the choreographer’s focus upon how power struggles manifest in various relationships. In 2008, New York Times critic Jennifer Dunning noted the “percussive texture” of the choreographer’s “knotty little duets” she found tinged with an erotic edge. “My work tends to be really direct and emotive and earnest,” Weare replied.

A bridge can be a metaphorbut some bridges convey more than one meaning. The choreographer notes two bridges were in her mind while creating the work. The famous first one, over the Rio di Pilazzo in Venice, isn’t only a well-known symbol of romantic love; it also provided the condemned their last view of loved ones before entering the Doge’s prison. The second, in Chicago, led workers to a slaughterhouse adjacent to the stockyards.

Critical response to Weare’s work has been strong. Brian Seibert of The Village Voice lauded its “disheveled tango” as “erotic and alarming and physically committed, qualities too rare in downtown dance.” Deborah Jowett noted that “its pauses, altercations and meltings penetrat[ed] the complexities of human behavior,” before concluding, “Passionits joys and regrets and the shifting of partnershipsis hardly a new subject, but Weare makes it seem so.”

Strong endorsements for the closing act in a showcase of downtown choreographers at ADF next week.