Dance for All but the Dancers? | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Dance for All but the Dancers? 

Bright to brilliant works on regional campuses. Now, did the programs sabotage each others' students by making sure they couldn't see them?

Can an embarrassment of riches remain an embarrassment nonetheless? If the subject is the accidental dance festival of Nov. 21-23, in which all of the region's major college and university-affiliated dance programs scheduled their public concerts to run the same weekend, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.

Our coverage of the six-company/five-show/four-night pile-up began last week with Peace College's concert. It concludes here with highlights from the other major shows (excepting Even Exchange's Bluestockings, which we reviewed Nov. 20).

No coverage could be complete, however, without an analysis of this "festival's" significant downside. On several levels, this wholesale collision of academic dance companies did regional dance no favors whatsoever.

The affair underlines a fundamental lack of communication among the area's dance departments. Such mutual disregard handicaps the region's significant audience for modern dance. And let there be no illusion: Such disregard handicaps their own students as well.

Since dance is a fundamentally labor- and time-intensive enterprise, most dance programs are highly centripetal: that is, their energies and focus are all but entirely directed within the confines of their own studios. In large part this is understandable, and even inescapable. To a degree.

But there's a significant difference between centripetal tendencies and sheer solipsism.

Student performers and choreographers learn something irreplaceable when exposed to other artists. It's one of the things that makes the American Dance Festival so valuable an experience each summer: The students have ready access to a wide variety of styles, works and visions. The spirit of artistic generosity infusing that campus comes from the fact that the people are making work for one another to see, celebrate and benefit from. At ADF, the creative energy originating from within the community is directed back into it, and into the world.

As opposed, apparently, to the region's academic dance companies, at least in this instance.

Given what I've seen in over five years' service as their witness, critic and correspondent, I'd say the area's dance faculties still have much they could learn from each other, were they interested in doing so.

But even if they didn't have much left to learn, I would stake my career, quite comfortably, on the premise that their students still do.

Since the two share common ground, what could NC State student choreographer Jackie Willse have gained if she'd simply been permitted to see Tyler Walter's "Two by Four" at Duke, or Jennifer Clagett-Sommers' "Dash" at Meredith?

Would Duke student Amy Eason's take on Alanis Morissette have been informed by Dance Visions' Monique Newton--even if her work was inexplicably exhibited at Peace, and not with the rest of the dance program at N.C. State? Could Rebecca Brewer, Katherine Pugh and Baily Rich's interesting but brief cameo portraits of Mary Cassat, Maya Deren and Annie Liebovitz at Meredith have been substantively informed by the characterizations seen in Tiffany Rhynard or Susan Quinn's theatrical works at Peace, or that of Robin Harris at N.C. State?

These are the questions that should haunt their teachers. They certainly haunt me.

It's why I conclude that this five-car pile-up of dance wasn't just an embarrassment for programs and a hindrance for audiences. On at least one level, it was an unmitigated disaster for the students as well.

Student choreographers and performers have the same right as anyone else in this region to see each other's work, and to see the public performances of other programs' faculty. Since so many of them are trying to do new things with dance, word and music, it's even more important that they have access to these works than the average audience member.

If their programs deny them this, through either calculation or cluelessness, they do not help them. If there ever was a day when it paid to ignore an artistic world off-campus, it has now passed.

At this writing, no department in this region qualifies as the center of the dance universe. Nor does any program here lack for something to offer the others.

When the region's independents regularly find ways to cooperate and communicate with one another, it speaks volumes when its academic dance programs don't. What it says is hardly complementary.

Regional program directors, I eagerly look forward to hearing of your upcoming conversations with one another. I particularly can't wait to learn of your plans to make your works just as available to each others' students and faculty as they are to the everyday dance-goer. There is no excusable alternative.

Now then: highlights from the field.

Though the area's renowned for modern dance, arguably the most experimental and imaginative work we saw in November came in ballet.

By now, Tyler Walters has repeatedly demonstrated that the avant-garde, modern dance and ballet need not be mutually estranged. In recent seasons, Walters transformed composer Gavin Bryars' fictional radio program on card cheating, "A Man in a Room, Gambling," into a darkly amusing psychodrama. In "While Going Forward," he played with light and shadow to moody, minimal music by Philip Glass.

"Two by Fours," Walters' new work, finds the choreographer in a playful mood again. Though the embedded pun in the title refers to the feat of choreographing quartets of dancers to Bela Bartok's Violin Duos, deeper parallels run between the two.

Through his brilliant but brief career, Bartok wryly experimented with musical form, controlled dissonance and the folk motifs of his native land. It equally bears noting then that, in "Two by Fours," Walters similarly flirts, teases and experiments with visual form, transitions, and balletic conventions.

In Bartok's pithy movements, the fearsome symmetries of Walters' rotating quartets (in what is actually a large ensemble work) are stretched, shuffled and recombined in a series of fascinating variations. A diamond configuration metaphases into something reminiscent of a moving Mondrian before returning to a changed traditional aspect. At points the work repeatedly suggests cells at the brink of meiosis. In sum, the shrewdly chosen limitations--quartets only, briefest music--push Walters' imagination and invention.

Similarly, the sheer number of movements in the Bartok suggests a further challenge: how many different ways can a choreographer usher groups off stage and on? Walters' different strategies here include conveyor belt, calculated skirmish and something that seems to be the choreographic equivalent of a round of three-card monte.

If Bartok's Mikrokosmos was a set of exercises designed to teach piano students the art of the new, it's hard not to hear a similar motive in his duets for violin. While fascinating, they're also something of a sketchpad on which the careful listener can hear the composer briefly explore and work out themes and compositional problems he would later return to address in full. My feeling is if we're very lucky, we'll be saying the same someday about Tyler Walters' "Two by Fours."

Balletic choreographer Jennifer Clagett-Sommers attempted similar achievements with "Dash" at Meredith, whose fish-out-of-water narrative focuses on an athletic race in which one of the participants just doesn't fundamentally get what's going on. Clagett-Sommers' schismatic choreography to Beethoven comically juxtaposes the artifice of grace with flat-footed disaster. While genuinely interesting in places, it still looks overly staged in others.

In the same concert, Bebe Miller's metaphorical "Prey" seemed to struggle against the onstage crowd at points, in attempts to make coherent imagery, compared to the pristine alienation (in several senses of that word) which haunted Carol Kyles Finley's "Settling Part II: The Moon."

In works at Duke and elsewhere, students repeatedly struggled to expand to a larger stage pieces clearly created for smaller rooms, whose economy of movement and gesture all but called at points for opera glasses.

Musical choices were also problematic in different pieces across different venues. Amy Eason's solo choreography at Duke was ultimately no match for the bombast of Alanis Morrisette's "Uninvited," her chosen musical accompaniment. A similar malady befell sections of "MaNiC," Rebecca Brewer's overextended tribute to Bush, DJ Shadow and Stabbing Westward, at Meredith.

Julian Kytasty's composition for The Experimental Bandura Trio (replete with live accompaniment with Jurij Fedynskyj) was truly exquisite and ethereal--some of the loveliest music I have heard anywhere this year. Undeniably, it also made Kolcio and Adams' choreography seem quotidian by comparison. This and other offerings demonstrated the degrees to which music can upstage dance.

We pause now to give thanks for videotape. For, just after intermission on the Friday night performance at Duke, instead of attending to Clay Taliaferro's restaging of a suite from José Limón's Choreographic Offering, I was forced instead to deal with an impromptu farce put on by boors in the audience.

One dancer's obviously proud parents (name available upon request) blithely carried on a play-by-play discussion of their daughter's ongoing performance on stage. Unseen crowd members behind me slowly subjected paper bags smuggled in from McDonald's to apparently excruciating tortures to either make them talk or give up food. Slow, tall animals late from intermission irregularly lumbered down the aisles towards the front of the theater, oblivious to the performance they were interrupting.

Meanwhile, the previously mentioned--what else can one call them?--rubes kept dutifully documenting their daughter's performance, from first to last, with a camera which beeped, emitted green flashes of light, and made other noises throughout.

It's hard to say whether an usher or a stable hand would have been of more use by that point.

What's obvious is Bach, Doris Humphrey and José Limón didn't stand a chance.

The videotape of the performance, later viewed in a comparatively quiet and orderly place, revealed that the strongest moments in the suite came in the work of its female soloists, early on and in its middle passages. Giving undergraduate amateurs a section of Limón, was, of course, a daunting assignment. Still, knowing Mr. Taliaferro to be a demanding taskmaster, I cannot imagine his satisfaction with Friday's ragged ensemble execution, which repeatedly marred the geometric precision of Limón's work.

But if I fault Friday's audience at Duke, I must fault myself the following night at N.C. State. Apparently the folks at Stewart Auditorium didn't realize that the streets were still jammed at that hour from Wade Avenue to the campus after the Wolfpack drubbed the Seminoles.

Regional theaters generally hold curtain anywhere from five to ten minutes when such difficulties arise. Not N.C. State: my cell phone clock read 8:12 when I finally entered the theater--in time to catch the very end of the evening's second work, Natalie Rockwell's solo for bicycle, "20 West Henderson Street." This means I missed Megan Marvel's dance film The Water Line, which I'd heard good things about and had hoped to see.

At least the concert started on time, though.

Jackie Willse's "Corresponding Dilemmas" seemed to evoke the same comedic air, and the same distaff take on classical music which we've found in Robin Harris' recent works. In it, a tribe of letter carriers crisply passed envelopes among themselves to music by Bach, in order to melodramatically deliver them to dancer Lindsey Greene.

Similar employment of classical music figured in other works, including Katie Tart's blunted, sometimes amusing, "I want to be a pigeon." "Hold Me Close and Ginger Lee," Megan Marvel's pithy inquiry into how lovers put each other on a pedestal, was enjoyable, but the point of Lindsey Greene's "A Movie by Godot" remained unclear. Since it remains a work-in-progress, we will defer discussion of Harris' new work, "Songs," to its May 2003 premiere.

Though summarizing such a diverse field seems fruitless one thing seems clear. In one weekend, the region experienced a veritable cornucopia of dance. It's too bad that the ones most deserving to experience all of it frequently weren't permitted to attend. EndBlock

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