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As it happens, Van Morrison was right: Sometimes you do have to hard nose the highway. Sometimes it ain't nothing but a bootstrap ballet.

Regional dance took its fair share of knocks this year as at least one critic noticed trouble at home in standards and practices--including dance criticism--and raised the alarm. The community has already begun to respond: A series of open, public forums is slated to begin Jan. 9 at the Durham Arts Council. So we're all on the case--or about to be, anyway. Good; bully for us.

With that underway, by all means let's take a few moments to recall the brightest moments of 2004: those performances and developments in which artists visiting and at home most gave us reason to hope--and the challenge of standards to live up to.

Megan Marvel's performance of Robin Harris' enigmatic open-mouthed Solo greeted audiences during last January's North Carolina Dance Festival. Later in the year, water flowed as women wept--from drinking glasses at a table--when Harris' Book of Dreams played first at the N.C. State Dance Company's spring concert, and then was reprised during the finals of the American College Dance Festival at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Mikhail Nikitin's performance as the title character in George Balanchine's Apollo threatened to start a new religion to Igor Stravinsky's elliptical, shifting strings at Carolina Ballet in February, just before Susan Quinn invoked a mutual blinding society--among other things--in her Veil, one of the highlights of Peace College Dance Company's 20th Anniversary celebration.

Michelle Dorrance heated up the N.C. Youth Tap Ensemble spring concert, before Betsy Ward Hutchinson demonstrated--months before Steve Clarke did--that when different people curate dance concerts, audiences see new artists and interesting new works. Hutchinson's inaugural version of N.C. Dances at Cary Academy provided the region with its first glimpse of the choreography of Nelson Reyes, of Asheville Contemporary Dance Company . His X Motivo Para Ser Asi (X Number of Motives To Be the Way He Is) combined cutting humor, focused characters and sharp technique in a farce on male insecurity and romantic incompetence, before Jan Van Dyke took the measure of two concluding relationships in her pensive work, Taking Leave.

Afterward, Caroline Williford's ground-focused new duet with Amy Beth Schneider had audiences peering through fabric to see the cost in human terms on the ones who made it at LOOM3 at Chatham Mills.

The strongest works at the 2004 American Dance Festival came toward the close. Granted, Pilobolus got our attention early on as it attempted to reinvent itself, and Michael Tracy's new work proved that Pilobolean subtlety wasn't an oxymoron yet. Paul Taylor celebrated his first half-century in dance with a three night showcase whose highlight was a fresh, remounted Airs.

Then John Jasperse took us into a present-day dystopia, where worker drones (who strip to something that looked like camouflage) remained subject to the cold technocracy of CALIFORNIA. Shen Wei's July manifesto, Connect Transfer, explored the possibilities at the intersection of painting, sculpture and dance; his radical folding and bending of the body recalled William Forsyth's The Room as It Was, from the Ballet Frankfurt's final U.S. stand--the company ADF couldn't schedule during its first mid-season empty slot in over a decade.

An otherwise disappointing festival of Russian choreographers did restage Maple Garden, Tatiana Baganova's haunting, acerbic pagan folk tale about the forest where men and women meet. After that, Grupo Krapp dismantled the machismo and misogyny in Argentinian--and American--culture with their rude, robust dance theater farce, Mendiolaza.

Toru Shimazaki propelled his charges through Red, the sole standout from the 2004 International Choreographers Commissioning Program, before Hubbard Street Dance presented Daniel Ezralow's deceptive, untitled work, which drew audiences in with a satire on corporate culture--and turned the tables on them in mid-work with a pointed memorial to September 2001. The mainstage season closed with Batsheva Dance Company's combustible mix of surveillance dances and social--and religious--critiques, DecaDance.

But the sharpest work at ADF sometimes never makes the mainstage. Jens Rasmussen and student colleagues performed a service of conscience at mid-summer by organizing Moving Metaphor, a series of anti-war protests and arts activism symposiums on the Duke campus. Miguel Gutierrez dared us to stop watching TV and prevent further violence, before David Dorfman said a few words about the new order of things as "the citizen in charge of social security for this event" in a July faculty concert. Robert Battle's Bassline celebrated the interstitial chaos of jazz best on a sweaty Wednesday afternoon in Duke's Ark.

Several North Carolina artists capitalized on the festival's local artist series, Acts to Follow--a set of shows whose audience organizers underestimated more than once during the season. Lena's Bath, Alban Elved's bid from Winston-Salem, looks a lot better now that the choreographer has been allowed to actually add water to the mix of daring shared balances and play--as audiences will see for themselves when the group returns to Duke next month. Terpsicorps advanced with Le Suil Go... (In the Hope That...), and Andrews Arts demonstrated how hard it is to make a bed that isn't there when they explored the negative space of an old metal frame in their July 3 appearance.

Student choreographers Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Montzerrat Conteras Robles, Tommy Noonan and Michael Helland impressed during the flurry of student showings at the end of the season.

After a three-week break, the annual Enloe Benefit Concert kicked off the fall. In it, Michelle Pearson reassured us that her dance really wasn't about anything, while Allison Waddell marked off the stage with rocks, sand and feathers in the self-contradicting part-duet, part-ritual Sub_stance, which they first performed during Even Exchange Dance Theater's springtime full-length work, Groundlessness. In the same show, Betsy Ward Hutchinson explored the past of small-town religion in her trio, Hand Me Down.

In November's student and alumni showing at N.C. State, Mair Culbreth critiqued the concept of universally recognized symbols in her humorous Anatomy of an Argument, while Nancy Zagbayou lyrically embodied the poetry of Leopold Senghor in her indigo solo, Pearls are Stars on the Night of your Skin.

In Choreo Collective's fall showcase, Allison Waddell teamed up with Courtney Greer to present a couple that (literally) counts on each other, carries each other--and numbers each other's breaths--before Laura Thomasson returned to public performance with Here and There. In this solo, her character confronts the fact of aging as a performer, first with humor--and then with poignance, when an audience demonstrates it no longer desires her presence.

Though we didn't get a chance to mention it when it happened, student choreographer Ashley Penman got our attention in a hurry when her work Snapshots premiered during the Meredith Dance Theatre 20th Anniversary Concert in November. After presenting a still photograph of children bundled up, Penman takes us into the picture, in a work that carefully, lovingly describes and presents the differences between the children in a family. We want to see more work from her.

Dance photographer Steve Clarke curated Focused Fluidity , an audacious showing of works by some of his most recent collaborators, in early December. You remember, don't you? The free concert packed Carrboro's Century Center to the walls (conveniently demonstrating that dance can still do that in this area) and provided a low-tech introduction to a few new next-door neighbors. Ashlee Ramsey obliged with the opening commitment check on technique, Symbols, before Niki Juralewicz seemingly fused Mondrian with Japanese sliding panels in her brainy altered space primer, Understated. Kimberly Lynn Herndon schooled us in how one combines compelling choreography with an equally compelling theatrical character in Stephanie Blackmon's Suffocation (of / by) The Last Generation, before Kathryn Ullom reminded all that exploration of space need not stop at the skin in Janna Blum's haunting No. 5 Reworked.

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