It's tempting to call 2007 the year the American Dance Festival glanced forward—and then kept looking back.
The first clues came from a March press release boasting that ADF was "once again [...] ahead of the pack"—as it disclosed that the festival was cutting the number of commissioned new works from the previous year by almost half. Though the ADF traditionally has defined itself as one of the world's foremost advocates—and underwriters—of new works in modern dance, the dance world had witnessed a steady decline in new commissions from the festival since the turn of the century. The ADF commissioned 15 such works in 1999, 14 in 2000 and 12 in 2001. Their numbers dipped—and then held—at eight from 2002-2005, before dropping to seven last year.
But with only four world premieres slated for 2007—and four times that many restagings and reconstructions programmed for the festival's mainstages—the tilt toward the past grew more acute this season. The last time ADF committed to so small a number of new works was 27 years ago, in 1980.
The focus backward was mirrored in major efforts offstage as well. In June, PBS premiered Dancing in the Light, the final installation of the festival's "Free to Dance" video series on black choreographic contributions to modern dance. Of the six dances featured in the show, only two had been created within the past half-century. Only one, Bill T. Jones' D-Man in the Waters, had been made since 1959.
Nor was the past all that safe a dwelling place. Two of the summer's three major reconstructions produced results that were questionable, at best. After we got some distance on Martha Clarke's re-envisioning of her 1983 Garden of Earthly Delights, we wondered about an ending undeniably more poignant than hellish—in Hieronymus Bosch's sense of the term, that is. Diane McIntyre's stiff restaging exhumed, but did not entirely revive, Helen Tamiris' now atrophied 70-year-old dance, How Long Brethren?
Between these two points, when Eiko and Koma were asked to remount one of their classic duets on other dancers, they chose to place a piece about marital rape and an ancient fertility rite gone wrong on two Cambodian teenagers, 17 and 18 years old, who were inexperienced dancers. In retrospect, such a clear mismatch between performers and choreography seemed a selection all but guaranteed to fail. And with the sexual violence at the core of the original entirely excised, actually representing the late-June result on the Reynolds Theater stage as Eiko and Koma's 1983 work Grain brought matters perilously close to artistic fraud.
On top of all this, the newer works seemed to reinforce the impression of looking back as well. Begin with the world premiere of Eiko and Koma's Quartet: Given Koma's abortive leaps and gestures, weren't those actually aging dancermakers that the pair portrayed? Wasn't it their own former youth, ability and beauty that their broken characters gazed upon—but could not retrieve—as they offered supplications to serene apsara dancers painted on four well-worn, wall-sized tapestries at the back of the stage? Given these, what exactly did the disabling of the young dancers at the end symbolize?
If festival management expected foreign guests in two mini-festivals to challenge us with forward-looking artistic statements, they—and we—were frustrated repeatedly as well. Grupo Krapp's Olympica seemed a work whose theme was lifted from turn-of-the-century pop culture while its aesthetics and sense of humor apparently time-warped in from an old Ed Sullivan Show. Late memo to their promoter: Most Americans who go to modern dance have moved on from making fun of physical deformities in public.
After boring us through too much of Kevental, Contenido Bruto's artistic director Fabian Gandini then bored us with an almost equally lengthy—and painfully earnest—exploration of circa-1990 postmodernism in a post-performance discussion. Maybe it is news to him. To American audiences, it's not.
Edgardo Mercado appeared headed down the yesteryear path when he seemed trapped inside an old Atari video game at the start of Plano Difuso (Fuzzy Map). Thankfully, things improved when multi-story video projections had us wondering which of his onstage iterations was the real dancer himself. His mid-work games of cat and mouse, apparently being stalked by animated zones of light, recalled Amy Yoes and Mark Haim's work last year, except for Mercado's notably sloppier execution in several sections.
Performances by Chelyabinsk Contemporary Dance Theater confirmed earlier opinions that choreographer Olga Pona is interesting but needs to edit her work more rigorously. Ironically, a last-minute restaging of Nostalgia to deal with two injured dancers breathed new life into a problematic work.
Iguan Dance Theatre's Displaced Persons, a mesmerizing meditation on how people get displaced out of their own bodies and lives, felt diluted in Reynolds Theater. And apparently ADF administration didn't actually see Vladimir Golubev's flimsy performance art bomb, Not Unsteady Support—a work that occasionally contained actual movement on stage. What a waste.
So much for youth—literally, since all five of the foreign companies performing here this year had been in existence for 15 years or less. The average age of the seven American companies performing this year? Exactly double that: 30 years old. Only one—Shen Wei Dance Arts—had been in business for less than 20 years.
Weren't any young American choreographers doing work with more artistic integrity than, say, Mr. Golubev's in the past year? We have to ask, because the 2007 American Dance Festival didn't present them in its mainstage season. Once again.
Among the older guard: This was the first year I felt I actually grasped Shen Wei's Folding, but it and his Rite of Spring seem intellectually chillier now than on first sight. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Petite Mort also seemed a bit too froid for its S&M subtext, while their disappointing Kiss lacked both passion and technique. While Alejandro Cerrudo's Lickety-Split proved a tasty, light—and technically imaginative—confection, I sensed disaster in the offing from the first notes of Karl Jenkins' turgid diamond-commercial music with artistic director Jim Vincent's Palladio. Right again: The empty melodrama of its choreography—and its set—literally fell apart about roughly the same time.
After Paul Taylor put men in sombreros—and generic moves—to indicate they were Hispanic in De Sueños, Mark Morris amused and engaged us with the most consistently artistically satisfying concert of the season. After we puzzled over the Rubik's Cube of relationships depicted in The Argument, we wondered at Joe Bowie's enchanted ritual for one in the midst of Bach's Italian Concerto.
Though it was overlong, I have a soft spot for B'Zyrk, Jonathan Wolken's roman a clef about a performing troupe's extremely long life on the road. And do Robbie Barnett and Inbal Pinto need to stay with Pilobolus to continue their extremely fruitful collaboration, Rushes?
Next successful world premiere? Rudy Perez's I Like a View but I Like to Sit With My Back to It. If the title implies the speaker prefers to be a part of the view than to enjoy it, there was plenty to view here: crisp, spare choreography—straight, no chaser—that challenged its dancers and its audience. Though the student crew had mixed abilities, the last time I sensed a creator and intellect taking more relish in taking out the pieces and arranging them on the chessboard of the stage, Shen Wei was toying with us briefly at the start of Connect Transfer. Even at this late date, Mr. Perez should clearly be encouraged.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.