For the first time in its 42 years in Durham, the American Dance Festival will have no summer season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Linda Belans, who has been covering the festival since 1978, shares her reflections on its value and resilience here.

It didn’t matter that the whole American Dance Festival staff could fit into a couple of cars and a truck. They found a way to haul clunky wooden platforms to install over floors in common dorm spaces for dance classes at ADF’s new home, Duke University, after decades at Connecticut College. If the students were lucky, though, their classes were held on the magnificent black-and-white checkerboard floor in the Ark, the vast riverboat of a building on East Campus.

Since that first humid, no-air-conditioning summer in 1978, ADF has become the world’s largest international modern dance festival, gathering dancers, choreographers, musicians, faculty, students, video artists, educators, scholars, and critics from around the globe.

But back then, modern dance was still an obscure art form, and Durham was still a provincial, relatively unknown city with about 170,000 fewer people, where you could buy an entire building for about the equivalent of a premium subscription to DPAC. It was only eight years earlier that public schools were fully integrated. Cigarettes’ seductive aroma still wafted over downtown from the Chesterfield building, owned by Liggett, the tobacco company that helped bring ADF to the City of Medicine. It seemed an unthinkable place to pull off the remarkable feat of establishing a modern dance festival.

But in the past 42 years, ADF has overcome many unforeseen obstacles, right from the start.

The festival launched its inaugural six-week season and school with a program called Gala Performance at Page Auditorium, featuring a number of pioneering companies. One of them was Pilobolus. The next morning, The Durham Morning Herald ran this front-page headline: “Naked Dancers at ADF.” That didn’t shut it down.

In the 1980s, Jesse Helms, North Carolina’s “Senator No,” was on a rampage to prevent federal funds from being used for arts that he labeled indecent or sacrilegious. ADF, in his home state, was a target. That didn’t shutter it, either. Neither did ongoing, often contentious public conflicts between the festival and the city council over funding for space.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, HIV/AIDS viciously ran through the dance community, killing many of our beloved friends and devastating companies. But it didn’t close ADF. The epidemic redirected choreographers’ attention. Perhaps one of the most iconic works to emerge from that period is Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s signature D-Man in the Waters. Jones made the 1989 work as a tribute to company member Demian Acquavella, who died of complications of the disease, a year after Jones’s partner, Zane, did.

Later, in the 1990s, the ever-provocative Jones stripped full-frontal before a full house at Page Auditorium while delivering one of his heady monologues, which also criticized ADF directors. That didn’t shut it down either.

The challenges of getting visas for performers and keeping ADF’s New York office steady after 9/11 didn’t halt operations. The following summer, the festival presented eight commissioned works. The program included Doug Varone’s siren-scored, apocalyptic Ballet Mécanique. Our own late, beloved Chuck Davis and his African American Dance Ensemble also performed, creating community with one sweep of his grand bubu. There was even a mini-ADF in Korea. Nor would the economic crash coming several years later bring the festival down.

But 2002 was perhaps the most emotional year: ADF commemorated its 25th year in Durham, and co-director Stephanie Reinhart, who celebrated her 25th anniversary with the festival, was very ill. Her daughter, Ariane Malia Reinhart, performed works choreographed by Shen Wei, Mark Haim, Martha Clarke, and Varone. Then, a couple of months after the season ended, Stephanie passed. ADF rose once again to doing what it does best. The following summer, it held an evening of performances in celebration of her life at Reynolds Industries Theater.

And who could ever forget Ronald K. Brown’s emotional 2003 solo “For You,” dedicated to Reinhart’s memory, and so eerily relevant for this moment? Who could have imagined during that performance, when we sat shoulder to shoulder in the theater, holding and releasing our breath, that there would be a time when we would not be able to link arms or hold hands in communal celebration? Or grief?

But here we are. Physically distant from each other.

In times of national mourning and tragedy, the first places we turn to for solace are to each other and the arts. In 2001, people gathered around Eiko and Koma in New York’s Battery Park, next to ground zero, to witness the duo’s emotional Offering, a ritual of communal mourning, while white dust and shock were still settling over Manhattan. Two ADF seasons later, they performed it with an East Campus magnolia.

There was something poetic about calling on Eiko and Koma to gather us in what was now a communal ritual of regeneration. When ADF first brought their nearly nude, glacially moving Grain and Elegy here in 1984, audiences left Reynolds in a steady stream throughout the performance.

But the Reinharts were undeterred. They kept bringing the couple back because the they were committed to moving through struggle. They understood that modern dance is an art form that is often ahead of the moment, and, with its intertwining bodies, is the perfect form to hold our collective need to physically connect. And we will again. It is in the American Dance Festival’s DNA.

In 1978, when Jack Anderson of The New York Times asked then-director Charles Reinhart (who brought the festival to Durham) why he should bother keeping it going after it lost its Connecticut home, Reinhart responded: “Even when we were having our greatest difficulties, we never once thought of stopping. The American Dance Festival really means something. It is as holy a Mecca as one can find in the dance world.”

For a more complete history of ADF in Durham, see Brighter Leaves: Celebrating the Arts in Durham, North Carolina and The American Dance Festival.

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