Over the past decade, we've followed the shifting fortunes of the North Carolina Dance Festival with a mixture of joy and concern. Its binary mission has been and remains laudable: to collect and showcase the strongest works by the strongest dance artists, and then to tour those showcases, distributing what should represent the state's best dance across the state itself.
With vagaries in funding, we've seen cities added, cut and added again to the annual tour schedule. We've watched as what began as a single evening of dance grew into a series of two- and three-night stands across the state, and celebrated as local artists have been invited to play increasing roles. At the same time we've publicly questioned, with good reason, a showcase format in which artists are limited to narrow 10- to 15-minute slots. We've also inquired into the ratio of established versus emergent artists featured.
The upcoming year heralds significant changes in the festival. Valerie Midgett, a teacher and modern dance choreographer widely respected for her own works and her longtime collaboration in the company X-Factor, will curate the touring concerts. Judging by the wildly variant work over the festival's two nights of adult choreography last weekend in Raleigh, Ms. Midgett will be called upon to restore selection standards that slipped badly during this year's edition.
We can praise several works that demonstrated superior achievement in artistic concept and execution. On both nights, Joe Westerlund's amusing digital hijacking of Ponchielli's La Gioconda would have upstaged or buried choreography and technique less robust than Carson Efird's sharp work with dancers Campbell McMillan and Kathryn Ullom in A Part, an elliptical tribute to shared sabotage.
Though Duane Cyrus' memoriam for Roger Bellamy, Swan, displayed sumptuous technique, its brevity suggested more a work still incomplete than the premiere indicated in the program. Similarly sinuous dancing by his sextet in Atmosphere for Missing You closed night one on a high note.
Saturday, Justin Tornow's doggedly decontextualized solo and couple interactions may have been too arid for some tastes, but I found the austerity, precision and fearless technique of the Charlotte-based company a necessary corrective for much of what transpired the night before. Undeniably, newcomer Rodger Belman's impassioned East Carolina University trio found the duende in the closing movements of his Fate. In what could almost be termed a dance theater version of La Ronde, all couples are threatened by a wheel that stays in perpetual motion—and what goes around, in terms of fidelity, inevitably comes around. These relationship permutations held our interest—though it had slipped in the middle passages following a striking opening to a cappella music by Carmina Pirhana. In the most disappointing of these, dancers repeatedly flirted with—but never fulfilled—the promise modern dance founder Loie Fuller once made with an extended strip of cloth.
Both Jan Van Dyke and John Gamble's works Trinity: Episodes and excerpts from Winter Ashes contained dozens of small motifs that seemed to plateau as often as they actually built toward something. Still, these artists' at times impressive displays of choreographic brio and technical delight evinced traits not found in other works.
Though Cyrus' Swan and Van Dyke's Trinity were the third and fourth works on Friday night, they were the first ones in which we felt we were seeing dancers and choreographers actually capable of performing without some fundamental limitation in their development.
Amy Pierce's opener, La Siesta, was an embarrassing vacation video of a dance, one whose tropical sounds (by Ibrahim Ferrer) and seaside footage tried but failed to distract us from tepid choreography, tentative weight sharing, insufficient commitment and a striking lack of curiosity about exploring the dancers' kinespheres. This work's appearance in the concert calls into active question the curation that placed it there.
Similarly, the curation of local works must also be examined, after the presentation of Joan Nicholas-Walker's As Is Does. Usually, even the worst of works pose nothing more than a threat to the reputations of the artists involved. But Friday night's audience watched as As Is Does actually endangered the health and well-being of noted dancers Katie Baker, Jess Shell and Beth Wright. We watched in concern and suspense as a series of unsecured wooden planks slipped and slid across cinder blocks as performers lay, walked or jumped on and off of them. A plank fell on top of Wright as she rolled off of it to the floor. Baker nearly fell from an angled board that suddenly veered, without warning, across stage when she shifted her weight on it.
(For those requiring irony, these events happened while Sly and the Family Stone intoned "Que Sera, Sera; whatever will be, will be.")
Clearly, these dancers were not yet able to perform this insufficiently rehearsed work in a safe manner. Just as clearly, that work was not yet ready for public eyes. Yet a choreographer put her dancers at a substantial—and conceivably unacceptable—risk. The dancers, for their part, took on that ill-advised risk. And local curators, or their technical counterpart, actually saw the piece—we assume—in its benighted state, and still allowed it on a stage.
It shouldn't have been. Not in a student recital, and certainly not in a showcase devoted to the best in statewide dance. This disaster calls into question the standards—if any—that are being applied on an active basis in local curation.
We have several recommendations for the festival next year. Here's the first one: No choreographer, no matter how distinguished, should be allowed to present work sight unseen.
E-mail Byron at email@example.com.