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Rushes, Robby Barnett's collaboration with choreographer Inbal Pinto, easily marks the strongest work we've seen from Pilobolus in recent years.

ADF: Lisa Race's dance with life and death precedes Pilobolus' best in years 

The ballroom of our common loss

American Dance Festival:

Garden: Retreat
Lisa Race


Rushes
Pilobolus

Insiders know that the main-stage shows are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dance performances at ADF. All summer long, emerging professional choreographers and dancers—and some who have long since emerged—show their works on the side stages of Duke's West and East campuses.

Candidates in the ADF's unique Master of Fine Arts program—some of them respected professional artists at mid-career or beyond, having to play catch-up in the academic paper chase—display sophisticated new works alongside visiting international choreographers reaching for the next level of their vocation. In their midst: distinguished faculty, first-time students and many in-between; working on the new stuff, wondering how it looks to outside eyes.

(None of which includes the contingent of choreographers from North Carolina in the ADF's "Acts to Follow" series—which the Indy focuses on in an upcoming issue.)

The price is right: The performances are free. And, given the strengths and weaknesses of main-stage programming in any given year, the choreography we see can frequently rival—and at times, exceed—the quality of the work displayed on the Page and Reynolds stages.

Our ADF blog will be keeping close track of them all summer long, providing more background on promising upcoming shows more frequently than we can here.

Good thing, too: The results from week two of the 2007 festival already suggest a community of dance artists with a lot on their minds.

For years, we've followed the thoughtful, energetic works choreographer Lisa Race has put on with students, as an ADF faculty member and as a guest choreographer at regional colleges. Those we've seen thus far have proven her artistry very much the equal of David Dorfman, her more famous and more funded husband.

So we anticipated a little something extra than the norm from her M.F.A. thesis performance, Garden: Retreat, which bowed in back-to-back performances last Friday night at Sheafer Theater. If you were among the capacity crowd that jammed the 7:30 p.m. performance, you know the outcome. If you didn't have a little extra moisture around the eyes yourself by the end, you heard the tell-tale sniffles of all the people around you who did.

When we talked about the work two days before, Race said, "My parents are in their later 80s. My son, Sam, will soon be 6. I'm at an age now where I'm thinking about lifespan. I've been looking at my mother and her older sister; how they both have gone through their later years, their different ways of exiting."

She continued, "At first I thought I was doing this for them. Then I realized, no, this was for me. I'm preparing myself for the reality of the future."

The sober intimacy of Race and Dorfman's careful contact duet at the opening recalled the work of Eiko and Koma. While Michael Wall whistled a lonely, beautiful melody over his piano score, Race, with her eyes closed, traced her chin over the arc of Dorfman's right eyebrow. Call it the sonar of human grief, as two people sought comfort and the end of suffering, blind, in the contours of each other's forms.

As footage on the back wall of the theater depicted three generations of bare human feet, walking across a plowed field, Race worked the soil onstage as well: mounds of rich black earth she dumped onto a square, beige platform at the right. After slowly scattering the soil in a counterclockwise arc with her left foot, she sank into the matter and ground it into skin and floor. Race's deliberate extensions of arms, legs, head and torso pushed through the substance, before she grasped a handful of the stuff and found her feet, thrusting the earth in a clenched fist toward the light.

While Dorfman accompanied Wall on accordion, kneeling on a square of live grass at the theater's entrance, little Sam dutifully placed a series of pansies in three planters at the front of the stage. He carefully cut each of the stems, placing the flowers in a bucket. Then he just as carefully watered the beheaded plants with a silver watering can.

As Race's work developed, her meditation on the ground we grow from—and ultimately return to—culminated in a moment I had never seen truly work on stage before.

After a final, tender duet with one another, Race and Dorfman disengaged—and then went out into the audience to take new partners in the same dance. After joining them onstage, those new partners in turn found others, again and again.

It may be a jaded rubric, but still it has its truth: Audience participation never truly overcomes the division between the world of the performance and ours. It always comes off as at least a little cheesy. Everybody knows.

Except for Friday night. It was the closest I'd ever seen modern dance come to that old staple of Southern religion, the altar call. And it worked.

As a group, we were invited to join in the dance we must all take a turn in; to take our rightful place in the ballroom of loss. Clearly we belonged at this unexpected family reunion; we were there to help carry the load. The lyrics that came to my mind were Lyle Lovett's: "We're all gonna be here forever/ so Mama don't make such a stir/ just put down that camera/ and come on and join up/ the last of the family reserve."


click to enlarge Pilobolus, one of ADF's most celebrated participants, dazzled audiences last weekend. - PHOTO COURTESY OF AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL

Rushes, Robby Barnett's collaboration with choreographer Inbal Pinto, easily marks the strongest work we've seen from Pilobolus in recent years. As the sound of distant, early jazz on a shortwave radio suggested just how far they were from any real entertainment, a hapless, rural sextet—including three clueless yobs and two thoroughly unimpressed women—wasted yet another evening with one another.

Until, that is, an enigmatic, hunched-over man with a heavy suitcase (Jeffrey Huang) literally dreamed up something better.

True, Rushes threatened to bog down early in fruitless preoccupation with the surface eccentricities of its characters, but it headed into deeper waters not a moment too soon. As Peter Sluszka's projections revealed the contents of the suitcase to be the dreams of the others, Annika Sheaff's character bid for further escape. In the resulting endgame, Huang carried her to a different space—and brought her only part way back. It's not the first time Pinto has done the same with an audience, in an imaginative, zany, touching and humane metaphor. Huang's character ultimately reminded me of one once sung of by David Byrne: "And you dreamed it all/ and dreams tell your story/ do you know who you are/ you're the dream operator."

Before that, B'zyrk rang true with its tale of backstage disenchantment among an extremely long-touring group of modern dancers and choreographers—beg pardon, Eastern European carnival artistes. Sideshow denizens garbed in Liz Prince's riotous costumes elicited cheap laughs before something bitterer set in, in sections where the characters' ideals of one another contrasted with considerably shabbier realities. We'd call Jonathan Wolken's work "knowing," but that would be to say the least.

Both works preceded Michael Tracy's still too embryonic, unnamed duet for Manelich Minniefee and Annika Sheaff. Our recommendation: Keep working.

E-mail Byron at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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