The American Dance Festival is dedicated to modern dance. But this pat statement belies a complex and fluid state of affairs. In a tenure than spans nine decades, the last four of them spent drawing together local and international dance artists and audiences in Durham, the festival has earned enough global influence to play a leading role in the eternal debate about what, exactly, modern dance is. Instead of merely reflecting the activity of a form, it helps set the borders of what the form is.

Indeed, as the walls that historically separated genres and nodes within genresdance, theater, visual art, music, video, and so oncontinue to fall, one of the surest ways of telling if something is modern dance or not is whether it has appeared at ADF.

Bearing this weighty responsibility, the festival must do more than spread spectacular dance shows throughout Durham nightclubs, museums, and auditoriums every June and July. It must also account for modern dance’s past, present, and future, telling a story on stage that encompasses them all without feeling like a time capsule or a museum tour.

In this preview issue, we focus on three performances, and each checks a different one of those boxes. The past is enshrined in our survey of the career of Ronald K. Brown, who helped break open the racial and theoretical structures of modern dance. The present pulses in our preview of ADF favorite Shen Wei’s recent work, Neither (which he calls his greatest challenge yet), derived from an “anti-opera” by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman. And the future can be glimpsed in our examination of Wondrous Women, a program of solos by women that echoes an all-male program from several years ago, a harbinger of institutional drives toward diversity and parity in all fields, not just dance.

We also provide critics’ picks to help you navigate the copious offerings, but however you choose to engage, know that it’s not modern dance history that’s being made here. It’s modern dance’s future.

Shen Wei’s Greatest Challenge Yet Is to Seek Beauty in an Anti-Opera by Inscrutable Artists Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett

ADF Lifetime Achievement Award Winner Ronald K. Brown Rewrote the Theory-Drunk Playbook of Modern Dance with Emotion, Musicality, and Storytelling

ADF’s Wondrous Women Program Reconnects Modern Dance to Traditional Roots with Solos Women Made for Themselves