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Thursday, July 19, 2012

ADF 2012: Shen Wei paints himself out of a corner

Posted by on Thu, Jul 19, 2012 at 12:49 PM

Shen Wei Dance Arts Undivided Divided, as performed at the North Carolina Museum of Art
  • Photo by Grant Halverson/ American Dance Festival
  • Shen Wei Dance Arts' "Undivided Divided," as performed at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Shen Wei Dance Arts
@ North Carolina Museum of Art
Through July 19

"In the end, you deliver some of your energy to another human being." —Shen Wei

Our eyes met for half a moment. Smeared in pink from eyes to toenails, she turned her head aside.

That panning motion continued into a casual tumble onto her back, sliding through the tempera paint that covered the floor of the Plexiglas box that contained her. Twirling upon shoulder blades and spine in the bright pigment like an ice dancer, she stopped herself gently by planting a foot into a corner of the box.

I walked away, shouldering through the audience to reach an adjacent gallery where late-Renaissance masterpiece paintings looked down upon the frenetic movements of differently colored dancers on 7-square-foot floor panels. Everyone but the dancers and the paintings was smiling.

This performance of Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Undivided Divided, which concludes tonight, occupies much of the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Although no stranger to site-specific dance, the American Dance Festival has perhaps never set it on this scale, partnering with the NCMA to bring Shen’s multi-sensory delight to the white galleries of the museum.

It’s an exciting moment for many reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun to see superb choreography in an unconventional space. It’s also exciting to have to deal with the voyeuristic nature of being in a dance audience out in the open.

Just as exciting is how the moment fits into both Shen’s career and the development of the ADF. He’s played a huge role throughout the last decade of the festival. In a way, the arc of his career since his stunning debut at the 2000 ADF, from which his company was formed, matches the arc of the festival itself over the same span, during which now-retired director Charles Reinhart (whose wife Stephanie co-directed from 1993 until her death in 2002) has left after 43 years at the helm.

Both the festival and one of its most closely affiliated choreographers are necessarily transforming, facts made spectacularly evident in Undivided Divided.

The visual arts—specifically painting—have been a part of nearly every piece Shen has staged since his debut. Taking everyone’s breath away—I still have my program from it—Near the Terrace (2000) set Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux’s imagery into motion. Pieces such as Rite of Spring (2003), Connect Transfer (2004), the Re- Triptych (2009) and last year’s ADF premiere Limited States feature dancers applying paint to the stage surface and/or altering an image on the surface through their movement across it. The lasting mark of an arm sweep across the floor became a Shen Wei trademark image.

To this point, visual media other than painting have played less integral and effective roles in Shen’s work, even hinting at a disablingly self-conscious trend. His Tibetan photography, though gorgeous, served as an oddly undermining backdrop to sections of Re-. The static photographs dwarfed the choreography, denying it a comparable dramatic level. The narrative energy of his 2005 Chinese opera Second Visit to the Empress dissipated in his effort to give costumes, set and music their simultaneous due. The movement suffered as something of an afterthought.

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

ADF 2012: Vertigo Dance and the clarification of presence

Posted by on Sun, Jul 15, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Vertigo Dance Company - Images by Independent Weekly
American Dance Festival
July 13-14

You can tell it’s an election year because of the dualities in the air. “I’m for doing this, but that guy is for doing that.”

It’s obvious why political discourse is so full of these statements of polar opposition. Opposites are simple. Even babies get “either/or.” This is why there are nearly as many “opposites” books in the toddler section of the bookstore as there are those listing colors or letters of the alphabet. Something is either in or out, black or white. It’s either day or night. It can’t be day and night at the same time.

Frequently, artists use the rhetorical simplicity of opposites to make it easier to see form. In the case of dance, it’s movement. Vertigo Dance’s Mana, choreographed by Noa Wertheim with stage and costume design by Rakefet Levy, employs a spare, white stage with a single architectural element—the generalized side of a house—and dark, tunic-like costumes to clarify the dancers’ movements against the pale backdrop.

The movement itself is far from simple. The solos, the partner sequences and the delightfully morphological ensemble dances all are multifaceted, sometimes contradictorily so. Oppositions of light and dark, slow and fast, and up and down come into play in the choreography, and the staging keeps the movement crisply visible. However, the dancing explores liminal spaces between opposites—both physical and ontological—and ultimately speaks to the unknowability of being.

Athletic and restless, Wertheim’s movement is always at least two things at once. Opposites exist simultaneously. Unison movement by the entire company looks like both a military unit training and a celebration ritual. Partners find an ambiguity between embracing and pushing the other away.

These uncertainties gradually feed back upon the certainties of the staging. At first glance of the house structure, a viewer assumes that the dancers are either inside or outside the house. But that presumption is eroded over the course of the performance. The housefront moves toward and away from the audience. A central cut-out panel separates from it, receding to make a doorway or coming out at you to become an impediment in the very middle of the stage. They’re always both inside and outside of the house. Or neither of those things.

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    Everything's mutable, multiple in "Mana," which translates from the Aramaic as "vessel of light."

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

ADF 2012: Ragamala Dance's intense, hypnotic ritual

Posted by on Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 2:34 PM

American Dance Festival
@Reynolds Industries Theater
Through July 12

I just saw something beautiful, although I had to forget myself to see it.

Ragamala Dance, a company of six women under the artistic direction of mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, opened a three-night run of their evening-length work Sacred Earth at the American Dance Festival in Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Thematically, Ragamala portrays man’s inextricable connection to nature through a rich combination of traditions such as Indian classical dance and music, Tamil Sangam poetry, Warli mural painting and Kolam floor painting.

OK. That’s the straight reporting of what happened, when, where and by whom. But it comes off as a list of names, which bespeaks how I began watching the performance. Once I dropped my need to know those names and the significances of all the individual movements, sounds and images I was seeing, I actually experienced the performance for what it was: a lovely, hypnotic celebration of the interconnectedness and oneness of all living things. Save the program notes until after the show, so information doesn’t interfere with the experience of Sacred Earth.

The notes (spoiler alert!) describe the traditional practices that Ragamala incorporates. Projections of Warli paintings—roughly patterned, white-on black mural scenes of people at harmony with the natural environment rendered in simplified forms—changed on the backdrop throughout the performance. Sangam poems were occasionally read, rhetorically rolling human life and natural landscape in with a pervasive sense of the divine.

And the opening image, of five dancers posed in a circle, offering their tilted palms to a central sixth, immediately became a Kolam floor painting as the dancers began to move. Drizzling a fine stream of white rice powder from their palms, the five women stepped in a spiral pattern that mimicked a Warli projection on the curtain before the show: a flock of flying birds forming a shape roughly like a numeral 6. After moving to the rhythm of the live accompaniment of vocalist Lalit Subramanian and violinist Anjna Swaminathan for a few minutes, the rice powder formed an internally curlicued circle, which was subsequently trodden into a white, depthless blur.

For the first third of the performance, I found myself thinking like a Westerner, trying to interpret each gesture and form as if they were words. I know that each mudra—the hand and finger positions made by the dancers—has a literal meaning, but I didn’t know the meanings so, for a while, I saw the movement as a text in an unfamiliar language, conveying a message I couldn’t get. There’s a kind of anxiety in that.

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    I just saw something beautiful, although I had to forget myself to see it.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Coming of age in the era of Marilyn, Eisenhower and the Beats in 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation

Posted by on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 5:18 PM

Glenn Gould (Matthew Young), Grace Kelly (Elisabeth Johnson) and Allen Ginsberg (Derrick Ivey)
  • Photos by Eric Waters
  • Glenn Gould (Matthew Young), Grace Kelly (Elisabeth Johnson) and Allen Ginsberg (Derrick Ivey)
1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation
Other Voices
@ Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 24

All art is to some degree autobiographical. Any creation tells us something about its creator. But some art is more explicit, depicting or revealing the artist as she sees herself, or in the case of Killian Manning’s new work, exploring the milieu that shaped her.

Manning was born in 1956; she is 56 this year. Her age makes looking back and taking stock almost inevitable, and the numerology makes the undertaking feel cosmic and lucky. In her 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, which is the final show in this season's Other Voices series at Manbites Dog Theater, she explains and—yes—celebrates herself by animating a cast of famous 50s characters, and her mother. In fact, the dance-theater work can also be taken as an extended love letter to her mother. At her daughter’s insistence, Cathy Manning joined the cast for their bows on Wednesday's opening night, shifting her feet in the same signature movement that Killian gave character Cathy on stage.

And there are voices in this dance. In fact, the dance feels secondary to the theatrical exposition (but it is not a drama). After a little introduction, Manning parades her characters onto the stage one by one, and each does a little movement riff by which we shall know them. Manning has chosen these people to represent an imagined zeitgeist of her natal year (and beyond), but it is as interesting to think about who’s not there as who is. The only dance artist included is ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Not, for instance, modern dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, who was certainly making news in 1956. Grace Kelly (Elisabeth Johnson) gets a role, for making the transition from actress to princess, but Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar that year for her work, goes unmentioned. The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gives what you could call the keynote speech (Derrick Ivey, reciting from "Howl," in the show’s most gripping moments), but there’s no equivalent musical giant like Charles Mingus, who released the amazing Pithecanthropus Erectus album that year. Instead, there’s the young Elvis and his new release, “Hound Dog.” The point is not that Manning’s choices are wrong in any way, but that this is her version of her 1956. She has shaped it to fit the woman she has become.

Manning mixes straight biography with a soft-edged magical realism, some of it quite charming, as when President Eisenhower dances and chats with Cathy Manning, or when J.S. Bach appears to her for a long conversation in which he explains that Killian really is musical, it just all comes out in the dances. There are a number of pleasant and enjoyable dance sequences in this work, but none of them are special, not even Margot Fonteyn’s (and really, she should have been wearing pointe shoes) or the well-conceived duet between Bach (Jonathan Leinbach) and Glenn Gould (Matthew Young).

Most of the cast are not advanced dancers (a fact all too obvious during ADF season), and even if they were, they would still be contending with the concrete floor—it is no wonder if there is a slow tentativeness to their movement. Some of this may have been purposeful, to enhance the dreamy magical quality, but it made for a lack of brio.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

People-watching at the club, with Twyla and Frank:
Come Fly Away at DPAC

Posted by on Sat, Oct 1, 2011 at 8:02 PM

Cody Green and Laurie Kanyok in COME FLY AWAY
  • Cody Green and Laurie Kanyok in COME FLY AWAY
4 stars
out of 5
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Oct. 2

It’s understandable that modern dance aficionados might have paused when considering the touring version of COME FLY AWAY, choreographer Twyla Tharp’s evening-length tribute to musical legend Frank Sinatra which closes a stand at Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday.

As mentioned in our preview, Tharp had already gone to the well three times with Ol’ Blue Eyes between 1976 and 1983, reconfiguring various groupings of his hits that she’d choreographed into what ultimately became one of her most widely interpreted—and controversial—works, Nine Sinatra Songs. Its seven duets conveyed a range of relationships from elegiac to openly abusive, including an interpretation of “That’s Life” whose depicted violence was so realistic that Mark Morris responded by yelling “No more rape!” before storming out of an American Dance Festival performance of it in 1984.

Others were offended, not by one, but two self-congratulatory recap sections in that piece—one at midwork, the other at the end—that merely reiterated peak gestures from the sequences preceding them. While that sort of self-quotation might not call that much attention to itself in an evening-length ballet, Nine Sinatra Songs lasted all of 28 minutes, victory laps included—both of which were set to (what else?) "My Way."

So the thought did cross my mind: If Tharp was already challenged to fill a half-hour Sinatra tribute in the early 1980s, what awaited audiences in this full-length work which had garnered mostly affirming—but far from unanimous—reviews in New York last year?

As the production unfolded, the gratifying answer soon became obvious: an even stronger show than the one that played Broadway in 2010.

It will no doubt raise some eyebrows that Tharp has fundamentally retooled this show after its New York bow, trimming what was a two-hour, 34-song filibuster into a tight, intermissionless 80-minute touring version. But closer comparison of the two productions reveals that, in excising 12 numbers from the New York production—and adding five new ones to the mix—Tharp has managed to address many of the reservations lodged over the Broadway version.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

ADF 2011 Season Wrap II (Extended Dance Remix):
When the Music Takes Control. And Then Doesn't Give It Back.

Posted by on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 6:26 PM

NOTE: As happens every year, we had a lot more to say about the AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL than we could ever fit into the print version of the INDEPENDENT. Thus these expanded essays, which delve more in depth into some of the issues that came up—plus one or two that didn't—during the season: our extended dance mixes for the 2011 ADF.



If ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAEKER, the 2011 recipient of the ADF/Scripps Award, didn’t already exist, that relentless chronicler of the contemporary zeitgeist, novelist Don DeLillo, would have had little choice but to invent her. The power of iterative bodies that DeLillo has analyzed in works including Mao II and White Noise was palpably manifest in her company’s performance of ROSAS DANST ROSAS. In that 100-minute choreographic labyrinth, the impact of a series of everyday gestures was magnified by their reiteration and gradual mutation across the bodies of four dancers (including the choreographer’s, on opening night).

After executing a nearly mathematical set of lockstep moves, tossing and turning on a dimly lit floor that permitted them no rest, the quartet marked time in permutations of poses while seated in a Kafkesque waiting room. We then saw the numbing monotony of endless renegotiations of gender and interpersonal boundaries, necessitated by bodies that constantly disclose their sexuality—whether their inhabitants desire to or not.

ROSAS DANST ROSAS concluded with a dutiful—and equally endless—labor march, a zero-sum endeavor in which two steps in any direction inevitably resulted in two steps back. The arms that swung, with clenched fists, as the foursome charged one way and another on an invisible but all-important grid, repeatedly intensified this final part. Still, within the crisp unison of these tightly circumscribed movements, each dancer subtly individualized their delivery, emphasizing not only their characters' resilience, but their resistance as well. If the four sections of the work all but pummeled us with the inescapable demands of their characters' lives, their ceaseless and subtle personal responses served notice of a human spirit yet uncrushed.

When four women examine on stage the needful, quotidian movements of rest (and its denial), dress, waiting and work, they are undeniably telling the stories of many more, across a number of generations. In this way, ROSAS DANST ROSAS constitutes a most compelling alternative history of Everywoman. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, that noted feminist historian whose landmark works have focused on the "silent lives of ordinary people," would be pleased.


When we learned that one of PILOBOLUS’ world premieres was a collaboration with Dairakudakan choreographer TAKUYA MURAMATSU, we wondered if all would end well.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

ADF 2011 Season Wrap I (Extended Dance Remix):
Dear Science

Posted by on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 5:19 AM

NOTE: As happens every year, we had a lot more to say about the AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL than we could ever fit into the print version of the INDEPENDENT. Thus these expanded essays, which delve more in depth into some of the issues that came up—plus one or two that didn't—during the season: our extended dance mixes for the 2011 ADF.


What has taken the place of conventional (or even unconventional) narrative, so devalued among some contemporary dance artists? One answer: the scientific and mathematical frames around several major new works, a development suggesting, among other things, a future in which a number of choreographers might also be termed chief investigators.

After Muybridge: Shen Wei Dance Arts LIMITED STATES
  • After Muybridge: Shen Wei Dance Arts' LIMITED STATES
At least since 2002’s Rite of Spring (Part I), SHEN WEI has set up various “games”—increasingly complex parameter sets governing movement and interaction—for his dancers to negotiate and solve, in real time, in sections of many of his works. In early sections of this summer's world premiere, measurement scales projected over dancers evoked physiological motion studies, conducted climbing stairs at mid-stage while performing various tasks (carrying a series of differently-weighted objects, dodging a tossed ball), as a series of computer-generated visualizations of motion studies were projected above the dancers. Even the name of the new work, LIMITED STATES, seemed lifted from a dissertation title.

But one week before, audiences who stayed for a post-performance discussion heard EMANUEL GAT delineate the underpinnings of his captivating new work BRILLIANT CORNERS in a manner eerily similar to a psychologist or sociologist describing the protocols and methodology of a behavioral experiment.

“We don’t invent. We discover,” Gat asserted. “I choreographed none of the movement. It was generated by the dancers through a long process in which I define their environment. The movement doesn’t precede the situation; the movement comes as a reaction to the environment and situation they are in... I try to determine a very clear environment: what are its mechanisms, what are the rules, the constraints they have to work in. The movement is a by-product of the situation.”

Indeed, what initially struck me upon first viewing as enviably articulate—but essentially random—phrases and gestures (so much so that an early line in my critic’s notes included the Pirandellian assessment, “Six dancers in search of a choreographer,”) slowly revealed a deeper structure and organization. Looking back, both were required, in significant amounts, to keep that number of people moving at that velocity from devolving into a mosh pit of collisions. In BRILLIANT CORNERS I saw a work filled with fast and agile changes, accompanied by (or in response to) similarly drastic variations at times in sound and light.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cirque du Soleil's Alegria soars

Posted by on Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 3:31 PM

Cirque du Soleil’s Alegria
RBC Center, Raleigh
Evening and matinee shows through July 10

The fabled Cirque du Soleil, based in Montreal, but now a world-wide performing institution, has brought its light-hearted Alegria to Raleigh for a run that includes shows well-timed for children, who will especially appreciate the silly clowning in this confection that lauds the spirit of youth. Alegria is a Spanish word for the bubbly condition of joy, and the Cirque brings it physical reality with their extraordinarily strong circus techniques.

Alegria premiered in Montreal in 1994, and has become a Cirque classic, having been viewed by more than 10 million people as it has toured the world. The production includes all the elements for which Cirque du Soleil has become so renowned: Lavish sets that convey the shows’ grand, almost mythic, themes; spectacular enlargement of circus routines into something approaching Olympic ballet; fabulous costumes and makeup; and not least—very large casts of stupendously sleek and skilled artists engaging in marvelous acts of drollery and daring.

The Alegria cast includes 55 performers and musicians. In this large venue, your ability to appreciate all the visual elements will be greatly enhanced by binoculars or opera glasses. The musicians are a wonderful sight in whiteface, white hair, white dress suits and silver vests. Playing an energetic mash-up of klezmer, jazz, tango and pop songs, they enter in a parade before taking their places at the top of the raked stage, which is decorated with a huge, mosaic-like image of a salamander under dim, dappled light. They are accompanied by The White Singer, who periodically belts out a song promoting the mood for the forthcoming action sequence. A series of comically dressed characters introduce themselves, and considerable clowning takes place, building anticipation for the glorious feats of kinetic extremity to come.

And here they come! The acrobats! Springing, flipping and tumbling, they come one after another along the paths of an x-shaped trampoline that has been uncovered onstage. Wow, wow, wow! It is thrilling. With clown routines or songs in between there follow ever-more-amazing acts. Trapeze, of course, and hand balancing; Cyr wheel spinning with some very creative moves; a fantastic fire-knife piece with two dancers each twirling two batons flaming at each end. The two-woman contortion/balancing act was truly amazing, almost hypnotizing. The Russian bars are probably the most dangerous act. A long, flexible, narrow, board is held on the shoulders of two strong men. Onto it leaps an acrobat, who then bounces, and while in the air twirls and flips. He may land on his original board, or flip over onto another one, and the landing—such spotting, such balance on that bouncing strip!—is at least as awe-inspiring as the aerial work.

There are other aerial acts, but the show closes with the all-stops-out highflying trapeze act. From a catwalk in the lighting rig, the trapeze men launch themselves through the air, to catch the trapeze, or the hands of the person already on the trapeze, as it arcs through the air. Once four people are attached, they eel over each other and one swings back to the catwalk before another one joins the end of the group. This repeats until you think they must begin to fall. Instead, they jump. From graceful dives into the net below, they spring upright—a true testament to the glory of youth—and take graceful bows.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Exclusive video preview: Tao Dance Theater at ADF

Posted by on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 6:33 PM

Exclusive video footage of TAO DANCE THEATER at the 2011 American Dance Festival. The company performs June 20-22 at Reynolds Theater at Duke University.

Produced and narrated by Byron Woods.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

This Week at the ADF: Bill T. Jones and Tao Dance Theater

Posted by on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 10:47 PM

from the 1989 production of D-Man in the Waters
Thursday-Saturday, June 16-18 at 8 p.m.

A busy year for Bill T. Jones? You decide.

His incandescent musical on the life of Nigerian Afropop composer Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, FELA!, closed this January after 13 months on Broadway and a no-brainer Tony Award for choreography. By then, the musical’s world tour had already opened at London’s National Theater, before dates in Fela’s native Nigeria this spring. The tour continues: FELA! opens tonight (June 15) in Amsterdam, before just-announced dates in Washington, DC in September.

Jones was named a Kennedy Center Honoree last December. And he’s been at the center of perhaps the biggest story in the New York dance world this year, overseeing the merger of his 29-year-old company with DANCE THEATER WORKSHOP, that longtime downtown cradle and crucible for contemporary dance. The name of the new organization: NEW YORK LIVE ARTS.

In recent weeks, his company has been reconstructing the three repertory works we’ll see during residencies up the road in Charlottesville and at Bard College in upstate New York.

And in between them was that little tete-a-tete between Jones and SITI director Anne Bogart at UNC on April 7, where they announced an upcoming collaboration on Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING, scheduled for Carolina Performing Arts’ 2012-2013 season.

More after the jump.

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