New faces, a number of them local, and new venues for artists who push the boundaries of conventional dance mark the 2014 season of Durham's American Dance Festival. A change in balance between the number of old-guard and newer dance companies, which began two years ago with the arrival of director Jodee Nimerichter, increases this summer, as does the number of alternative venues where the festival will present them.
The changes signal a dramatic turnaround from the reputation for conservative programming—circling the wagons around too small a group of mainstays—that ADF earned during the latter part of former director Charles Reinhart's 43-year tenure, which ended in 2011.
The perks for the favored in those years were considerable: regular appearances and commissions for artists such as Pilobolus and Paul Taylor, whom Reinhart managed in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the list of world-class artists never seen at ADF reached embarrassing proportions. Pina Bausch and William Forsythe, who changed the world of contemporary movement, received the Scripps/ADF lifetime achievement award without their companies ever appearing at the festival. Anne Teresa DeKeersmaeker's ROSAS made its debut only when she received the same award in 2011, 28 years after her company formed.
The festival's loyalty to the chosen few may have compromised its national reputation. In 2003, 7.5 percent of season subscriber and credit-card ticket purchases came from out of state. That number dropped to 5 percent by 2009—an alarming prospect for the world's second-largest modern dance festival (after Jacob's Pillow in Massachusetts), whose commissions have funded nearly 400 new works by many of the great dance minds of the last several generations.
A 2009 ADF attendance poll suggested that only 3 percent of patrons came from out of state. By 2012, the New York Times judged, "the festival's offerings have grown stale in the eyes of many." With main-stage offerings focusing more on the history than the present and future of modern dance, the continuing relevance of ADF became an issue Nimerichter inherited along with the director's position that year.
ADF has been a summertime staple in this region since moving from Connecticut in 1978. It has presented well over 100 world premieres by modern dance masters in Durham. And the advanced students and faculty of the ADF School, which offers six weeks of classes for dancers and choreographers on the cusp of professional careers, transform Duke's East Campus and Ninth Street into a colorful nexus of creativity every summer.
During the '90s and '00s, first as an intern and then as associate director, Nimerichter managed ADF-sponsored festivals and exchange programs in more than 20 countries, also producing ADF's Emmy-winning PBS series on African-American dance, Dancing in the Light. In 2007, she was named co-director with (but always billed below) Reinhart.
From 2007 to 2011, Nimerichter managed mid-season festivals here for foreign companies. Her move to N.C. in 2008 made her the festival's first director in residence. That began a managerial transition from New York to Durham, setting in motion plans for a permanent studio space and a year-round local presence for ADF.
Then, coming into her own as director, Nimerichter began to address the backlog of overlooked or long-neglected artists. In 2012 and 2013, the number of companies making their ADF debuts more than doubled from the two previous seasons. Stephen Petronio's 30-year-old company premiered, and after relatively short company careers, Kyle Abraham and Camille A. Brown were invited to the main stage.
That trend accelerates this summer, when fully one-half of the 24 scheduled companies and choreographers will be making their first appearance on an ADF main stage. (Three others—Ballet Preljocaj, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Vertigo Dance Company—are making their second.)
The fresh faces range from South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma to local dance maker Leah Wilks; from emerging New Yorker Emily Wexler to a long-overdue debut from 30-year veteran Tere O'Connor. O'Conner's dates over four days—three distinct programs, one of them free, plus a public conversation—especially seem like ADF making up for lost time.
"I'm thrilled and excited about the balance this season," Nimerichter says. "Every year we try to bring back people we care deeply about. But my objective is to share a huge range of what is being made today. I'm trying to showcase the depth of what's happening, locally, nationally and internationally, and to support artists at all stages of their careers."
ADF has had a uneven history, to say the least, in presenting local work. That has improved with the opening of the Samuel H. Scripps Studios on Broad Street in 2012, and an evening of curated regional dance, Here and Now, added to the main-stage season last year. In the second annual showcase of regional dance, local choreographers dominate, as Renee Aumiller and Wilks join Gaspard Louis and Diego Carrasco Schoch in Reynolds Theater on June 18.
Aumiller is enthusiastic about the summer's other offerings. "Everyone who's coming are just my favorite choreographers of all time," she says. "These are the contemporary minds of dance right now. It's amazing to think that half of them haven't been here before."
Increasingly, economic constraints are forcing emerging artists to make works with smaller companies for smaller rooms. This "has ended up creating an aesthetic," O'Connor says, "a separate poetics, somehow." He calls the move from traditional theaters "a kind of ineluctable journey ... that's just happening, and has basically arrived."
Though many ADF patrons would consider Reynolds Theater a relatively small venue, ponydance's Leonie McDonagh calls it "a massive auditorium" compared to the spaces her company uses in its native Ireland. "We've always worked in small venues," she says. "Our biggest regular venue would be 180 to 200 seats."
Aumiller concurs. "For eight of the 10 years I've been doing shows, I've never put them on a stage. They've always been produced in smaller alternative venues, galleries or warehouses."
It's long been a hazard of the festival circuit that work created in a small studio is swallowed whole when placed in a large venue like the Durham Performing Arts Center or Reynolds.
Sounds, gestures and entire economies of movement, calibrated for a small audience at close range, can be lost when the front row is placed on the other side of a proscenium arch, 20 to 30 feet away.
Nimerichter says it's happened before at ADF—and that she learned her lesson from it. After seeing Compania Contenido Bruto's Kevental in a 250-seat theater in Argentina, she brought the show to the approximately 600-seat Reynolds as co-director in 2007.
The outcome was not optimal; our review noted that the work's atmosphere of surveillance and claustrophobia "largely evaporated in the [theater's] spacious confines." Nimerichter agrees. "It was certainly not as good as when I saw it originally," she says, "because it demanded a more intimate setting."
In the past several years, the festival has begun to adapt in earnest, fitting performances to alternative spaces. Last summer, Motorco Music Hall hosted ponydance's ADF debut—a perfect choice, since the bracing dance theater comedy Where Did It All Go Right? actually takes place in a bar. In recent seasons, the festival has also presented works at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art and the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh.
This summer features three alternative venues to complement DPAC and Reynolds Theater: the Nasher, the Durham Arts Council's intimate PSI Theatre and the venerable Ark, a century-old, three-story dance studio on Duke's East Campus. The quest for alternative venues "is a reflection of what artists are doing now," says O'Connor, whose company will stage his work, Sister, in The Ark. "With the new director of the festival, I think that's being reflected in a more immediate way."
Smaller, less formal spaces open up contemporary dance to new, often younger audiences. "I know people in younger generations who probably won't make a whole evening of going to DPAC to see dance," says Aumiller, echoed by McDonagh. "There's people who'll never set foot in a theater," she says. "They just feel it's not somewhere they belong."
McDonagh created ponydance's first piece in a bar "because we couldn't afford a theater. But it wasn't just a lack of money. It's hard to sell theater tickets, but people have no problem spending money on a pint of beer. So in a way, we were bringing it to them."
A new initiative, ADF Go, is aimed specifically at a younger demographic. It slashes ticket prices (topping out at $58) to $10 apiece for every show for buyers 18–30 years old. These discounts are available in advance at the festival box offices at Duke and DPAC. "If you bring the dance to them at Motorco, it'll open up their eyes," Aumiller says. "They'll see what's going on, and then we've got new viewers, new supporters of dance."
In another sign of a revivified ADF, commissions of new work are a major focus this season. After becoming an ADF favorite in 2009 with her gender-bending dance, theater and film work, Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret, Rosie Herrera places her latest work, Show.Girl., on another festival first-timer, Ballet Hispanico. Herrera told the Miami Herald that Show.Girl. is based on her early professional experiences as a showgirl in a Cuban cabaret in Miami.
John Jasperse and Emanuel Gat are two of the more thoughtful and challenging choreographers making work today. Audiences and dancers can both expect a workout from Jasperse's Within Between and Gat's Ida?, performed by the razor-sharp Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.
Footprints, a perennial festival dark horse, presents the work of three rising choreographers placed on advanced ADF students. McDonagh, Carl Flink of Minneapolis' intensely physical Black Label Movement and brainy Netta Yerushalmy, whose April work in New York involved the visual art of the Cubists and the words of Gertrude Stein, will be locked in a room with pre-professional dancers for six weeks.
But the new focus on upstarts doesn't come at the expense of the venerable. Nimerichter made a programming masterstroke in On Their Bodies, lining up four of this generation's most innovative minds in dance—Ronald K. Brown of EVIDENCE, Petronio, Doug Varone and Shen Wei—to appear on the same stage, on the same night, in their own solo works. This showcase marks a return to the stage for several choreographers who have not appeared there in years.Meet the fresh faces and old masters of a reenergized ADF in our comprehensive preview guide to this year's offerings.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Back on point."