2021 American Dance Festival: Together We Dance | Thursday, Sep. 9–Thursday, Sep. 16, 7:30 p.m. nightly, $35

In early 2020, when COVID-19 lockdowns became life as usual, Kyle Abraham—who leads the ensemble A.I.M and is one of today’s most in-demand choreographers—was alone in Los Angeles. And when he says alone, he really means alone.

“The thing about the whole conversation people had [during the pandemic] around the phrase ‘alone together,’” Abraham says, “is that we’re actually not. You probably have your significant other or your dog. My parents are deceased. [Lockdown isolation] was a very different experience for people like me.”

Sharing the constraints of all artists who usually work together in person, he looked to outdoor parks for practice space. Once he got indoor studio access to generate material for a New York City Ballet commission, he gravitated toward Nina Simone songs and filmed himself dancing. The process felt intuitive, an echo of how he usually works with his own company: he’ll send the recorded material to the dancers and “see how it sits on their bodies, have conversations, make changes.”

These exchanges produced pieces of a new repertory work made, in part, of solos—a generative choreographic form for dancers scattered across the country. The circumstances reminded Abraham of the expansiveness of an economical approach.

“The thing that I realized during this pandemic is how to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do,” Abraham says. “It’s something I hope I can carry with me.”

This week, North Carolina audiences will be the first to see Nina Simone Suite (working title) when A.I.M kicks off the American Dance Festival’s “Together We Dance,” a weeklong series that marks the organization’s first proscenium performances in over a year and the first festival since the summer of 2019. Staged, like a down-South Jacob’s Pillow, in the open-air Joseph M. Bryan, Jr. Theater at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the lineup of eight companies and solo performers is a mix of festival alumni and associates, ranging from annual standards like the Paul Taylor Dance Company to more recent alumni like Abraham’s company.

In addition to the Nina Simone Suite, audiences will see the more pandemic-rehearsal-friendly solo model in Molissa Fenley’s Rite of Spring-reinterpreting State of Darkness, originally commissioned by ADF in 1988, and Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel’s 2016 work Citizen.

The fall festival’s curation also took an economical approach. Executive Director Jodee Nimerichter, driven to “support artists the best we could,” looked to retain artist commitments already made by the end of the first half of 2020, when the organization canceled the summer festival and the office filled up with thousands of unusable playbills.

Over the first year of the pandemic, ADF shifted to virtual programming and education, and then, slowly, outdoor performances throughout the Triangle, including at Mystic Farm & Distillery and Durham’s Maplewood Cemetery.

The current festival, Nimerichter says, is “pretty close to what we can do safely at this time that resembles what we normally do,” meaning: presenting professional dance artists on a proscenium stage. (In searching for a venue, though, the festival was open-minded; one scrapped idea was Durham’s old Bulls ballpark.)

Sustaining itself, during a hellish 18 months and counting, has been difficult. With no season ticket sales, ADF relied on a Small Business Administration PPP loan, grants, and National Endowment for the Arts and donor support to get the 88-year-old festival through the wringer. The festival also furloughed several staff and eventually terminated three positions.

These kinds of organizational decisions—not unique to ADF—have galvanized arts workers to organize and urge field-wide reckonings around how COVID’s disruption of “business as usual” in the arts has underlined long standing inequities, especially across labor, race, and gender lines. For the dance field, already marginalized within the arts’ funding hierarchies, these issues felt especially acute.

“I think [the pandemic] exacerbated a scarcity mindset,” says Shannon Drake, who worked at ADF for four years and whose role as Co-Director of School Administration was terminated in fall 2020. “There wasn’t as much [resourcing] to do anything, so we needed to do as little as possible. And of course doing as little as possible during COVID [safety-wise] was excellent. But I think that translated to a sort of dispensability of what makes anything go around, which is the workers.”

For so many, COVID has put a finer point on the personal-political intersection: how workers fit within the work they do, how the missions they serve with their labor do or don’t make space for their own agency and creativity.

“I’m so grateful that we were able to keep the dancers and staff on salary,” Abraham says of his company’s sustenance during the pandemic. “But this was also a time for so many people to reflect on what they want to be doing and how they want to be doing it. This has created a lot of open communication about how to make the organization better and how to make the individuals in the organization better as well.”

In its foregrounding of the body, the dance field also zeroes in on the materiality of our ongoing public health emergency and the meticulous metrics of care needed to stage a festival, hold rehearsal, or simply gather in a small group.

When audiences fill in the amphitheater for “Together We Dance,” they’ll be expected to follow masking protocols, contracts necessary to take the field back toward something resembling a normal flow of activity—although, as with Abraham’s interrogation of the phrase “alone together,” there seems to be no more “normal,” no exact going “back.”

To move forward has required unprecedented creative planning and hopefulness tempered by a readiness to change plans. ADF’s aim is to have indoor performances next summer and to reactivate the Scripps Studios with “bubble” residencies and, eventually, the return of community dance classes.

But for now, events like “Together We Dance” are opportunities to attune to the present: to celebrate, grieve, and consider what togetherness feels—and moves—like.

“If you think of what we lost during COVID,” says Moses T. Alexander Greene, NCMA’s Director of Performing Arts and Film, “we lost the ability to be with one another, to hug one another—which is all dance, when you think about it.”

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