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The North Carolina Dance Festival offers a first look at regional modern-dance productions

Modern-dance writers are always looking for something. Call it the case maker. Call it the golden hook.

It's irresistible, irrefutable. Not only does it galvanize the faithful; it gets even the most dance-resistant among us to grudgingly admit, "Now, that just might be interesting." It's the quality that makes a "can't-miss" show can't-miss.

Let's say you're a busy person, and while intellectually you realize that North Carolina's not exactly dance-free in the 10 months that the American Dance Festival is not in bloom (and the alternating half-year that the Carolina Ballet's in gestation), still, who's got the time to go looking for it?

Now let's say you don't even have the time, really, to keep delving into the local scene--all those one- and two-night shows that briefly breach the surface before disappearing once more into the depths. What would you do if you could see a major chunk of what this region--and this state--has to offer in a given year? What would you do if you could see all of it in one place? In one weekend? And for a fraction of what it costs to see a show at the ADF?

Feel the hook yet?

It's called the North Carolina Dance Festival, and it's the most comprehensive yearly collection of indigenous modern dance the state has. It's also something of a caravan, a road show that takes some of the state's best dance across the state throughout the academic year.

This weekend it's in Raleigh at Meredith College: three nights, three different programs, and nothing if not diverse. Cloggers share the same stage as a world premiere by Laura Dean. A choreographer introduces us to a number of women from her native Brazil, while an edgy Winston-Salem troupe generates the soundtrack to their performance by moving through a space gridded by computers, ruby lasers and photoelectric eyes.

Interspersed among these spectacles: a virtual round-up of some of the year's best work from this region, with selected, tantalizing hints of things to come. Notable selections by Robin Harris, Even Exchange Dance Theatre, and regional NCDF coordinator Carol Kyles Finley are revisited, along with work in process from Tiffany Rhynard's new adult company.

In short, it's a three-night crash course in regional and statewide modern dance. Here's who you'll be seeing.

Thursday Night:

In recent years, festival founder Jan Van Dyke of Greensboro has brought lyric, large ensemble works to share. But a comparatively minimal aesthetic prevails this year in her dramatic duet, Deliverance. And after an on-stage absence of several years, Van Dyke herself performs Slow Embrace, an austere solo set to Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess."

Winston-Salem's Karola Luttringhaus is one of the new ninjas of modern dance in North Carolina. Her high-velocity alban elved dance company, populated with graduates from the North Carolina School of the Arts, has impressed the critics up to now as kinetic, precise, and laserlike in execution. Now they're using actual lasers in performance, connected to musical computers. You can wait for their technology and dance symposium with Duke University's new photonics center, or you can catch a glimpse of things to come right now.

We're not sure how Raleigh Dance Theatre, a ballet school associated with annual performances of The Dancing Princess, convinced Laura Dean to stage the world premiere of her latest work. Still, we'll see the result of this unlikely marriage when they present Tao on opening night.

Tiffany Rhynard's day job over the past few years has been choreographing adolescents, first at Peace College, then stepping up to the region's premiere public-school dance program at Raleigh's Enloe High School. Lately, she's delving into more adult affairs, with a wry, sharp-toothed work called Advice to the Young for herself and adult dancers. She says it's an excerpt from a larger work, Running with Scissors, from which she plans to unveil another section Thursday night.

Robin Harris reprises the moving "Moonlight Sonata" section from her tribute to her father, 30 and 73, a work for dancers, canoe and water. Harris' father and a friend once chartered a canoe down the length of the Mississippi River from West Virginia to New Orleans, chronicling their odyssey with a manual typewriter they brought along with them. In 30 and 73, a pensive Harris muses on the degree to which we're all ships, passing over dark water, slowly, into darkness.

Meanwhile, Julee Snyder's naughty, random-access tribute to the Dada elements of the undergraduate experience are captured in a reprise of last year's Kitsch Unison.

Friday night:

Libation bearers and healers help an African-American man realize his ultimate work in the modern and African dance fusion of Durham's Wesley Williams and Urban Dance Group in Troubled Man.

After that: A fisherman's wife waits at the shore. A woman radically circumscribes the red zone of desire, while another woman irons, ages--and tangos in defiance. These are some of the people you'll meet in Eluzos Santos' excerpts from her one-woman show, Elas.

Gerri Houlihan, the region's latest ADF émigré, brought wit, acuity and taste to Meredith's stage last year as a guest choreographer. For this festival she brings 4/4, a New York Times-praised quartet featuring regional wunderkinds Laura Thomasson and Judy Soltys.

This fall, Carol Kyles Finley remembered that women wrote the name of absent lovers in the air during World War II in her far too timely suite Love Far From Home. One of the strongest works of 2001, this alone would be worth the price of admission. Here, it's presented with all of the above, along with retakes of Laura Dean's new work from Thursday night and Julee Snyder's Kitsch Unison.

Saturday night:

Prepare to have horizons stretched when worlds collide, as Robin Harris, Tiffany Rhynard and Even Exchange Dance Theatre share the stage with Orange County's own Apple Chill Cloggers, dancing to music by their in-house band, Kickin' Grass. The contingent from Even Exchange is revisiting (and, we hear, revising) a section from Veil, last fall's meditation on violence with male and female Vietnam-era veterans.

The testimony of a half-dressed man in amber light and shadow enacts nothing less than the drama of the human body in Sean Sullivan's exquisite solo Us and Them. As Sullivan's body slowly explores extremity, and he raises his hand to testify, the smallest movements in what appears to be a Butoh-influenced work are charged with intensity. Audiences in Greensboro and Wilmington held their breaths during this work. If you're there, you will too.

Valerie Midgett, co-founder of the Boone group X Factor, has been choreographing outside of the box over the past year. Surfacing, a work for large ensemble, gives us an enigmatic glimpse at what she's capable of when not writing works for two. In a broad-canvas piece whose opening image involves a group of women cycling upside down, the characters in Surfacing move from surreal, sleepwalking episodes into kinetic explorations of extremity in relationship, support and conflict. Dancers skydive on the floor after a series of chain reactions that range from the placid to berserk, in a work that asks the question, "Where do you go when you dream?"

After that, Midgett's one-woman show Loretta's Home Movies explores another kind of internal space, as her character interposes twisted stories and choreography with similarly twisted footage from black and white stills, super-8 movies and early video. They're the kind of stories you tell when you're talking about where you come from--and what it has to do with who you turned out to be. Sometimes those stories also provide a map of a world that's in the process of vanishing. As Robin Harris might concur, sometimes the dance of memory is the dance of the sole survivor. Midgett's world is one part whimsy, one part something darker. You get to visit it on Saturday night--along with a series of other worlds well worth exploring. EndBlock

  • The North Carolina Dance Festival in Raleigh offers a first look at regional modern-dance productions.

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