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Taking stock at midpoint in the American Dance Festival

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company successfully fought off the painfully earnest choreographers who sandbagged the early innings of their June 13-15 appearance. First, choreographer Kevin Ward squandered a rare Duke Ellington field recording on the ultimately shapeless Sets and Chasers, a random series of small group and solo episodes that never really coalesced. Daniel Marshall and G.D. Harris' precision and vivid characterizations occasionally livened things up, but Ward tried and failed to trump Trisha Brown's postmodern takes on traditional jazz forms. (Judge for yourself when Brown restages 2000's memorable Groove and Countermove at ADF July 11-13.)

Following that was Doug Varone's disappointing melodrama The Beating of Wings, a work seemingly choreographed more in tribute to veteran dancer Sheri Williams than the centennial of human flight. Ultimately, two wires do what Varone's choreography could not in getting this heavier-than-air vehicle, briefly, off the ground.

The lightness and wit of Bebe Miller's Aerodigm came as welcome relief, set to a bizarre spoken-word work by Giovanni Sollima and music by Jurgen Knieper and Laurie Anderson, before the exuberance of Donald McKayle and Ron K. Brown's Children of the Passage.

But does ADF truly need a full week--and two uneven programs--by Pilobolus? That's one of the lingering questions after their visit here last week. In both Davenen and The Four Humours, one repeatedly sensed choreographers trying to lay hands on weighty material but settling far too often for cheap laughs and slapstick. Ben's Admonition was an interesting experiment in off-ground choreography, but it still seemed truncated, more a sketch than a finished piece. While it was refreshing to revisit last year's Symbiosis, a psychodrama pas de deux for Otis Cook and Renee Jaworski, the underfunded exuberance of their Olympic commission, The Brass Ring, didn't earn any medals.

The refinement and rich imagination in 1975's Untitled--popularly known as the "Tall Women" piece--could easily fuel a Freudian or Jungian field day with its speculations on animus and anima, or the structures of masculinity and femininity. Its achievements also underline the shortcomings of most of Pilobolus' newer work. In all, we clearly saw a night of significant work, stretched out over two evenings in shows repeatedly diluted with filler. Next year, one good night would suffice.

At the halfway point, Chinese choreographer Shen Wei's Rite of Spring (Part I), which premiered in the ADF's first week, remains this festival's most memorable work. This defining moment in the year in dance took the lessons learned from both versions of Near the Terrace and significantly extends this young choreographer's vision and our understanding of a modern classical music masterwork. Fazil Say's 2001 recording of Stravinsky's four-hand score--the original version of The Rite of Spring, which predated the orchestral arrangement by eight years--is itself a revelation, an astringent work that clears the palate and focuses the ear on the composer's complex structures.

Chalk-like meridians divided Shen's tasteful, slate-gray set into a grid of thin, elongated triangles, while his dancers sculpted silence, space and music with an impressive economy of expression. Shen effectively created moments out of greater bandwidth than he displayed in last year's Near the Terrace. His reserved mid-work solo was far more organically connected to the rest of Rite in a way that a similar manifesto never achieved last year in Terrace.

As the music built toward a shattering climax, the dancers on stage stood all but stock still, a gambit that funds suspense all the more. Following that climax, the dancers slowly opened their eyes and looked at us, before retreating into the darkness of the as-yet-uncompleted finale. Sign me up for Part II, wherever it is this time next year. EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@

  • Taking stock at midpoint in the American Dance Festival.


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