To honor its 75th anniversary, the American Dance Festival is splitting its 2008 season down the middle by dividing each performance night among two or more companies, in order to showcase 60 works that the festival represents as modern dance at its best.
We're doing the same as well, splitting our regular season preview in two. Our in-depth company profiles for the first part of the season are below. (Unless otherwise indicated, all shows start at 8 p.m.)
2008's season opener is a study in contrasts—with maybe just a touch of "odd man out" in the center. ADF discovery, and 2007 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" recipient, Shen Wei is a man in flight these days, busy choreographing, among other things, works for the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics. We initially termed Connect Transfer, a work whose world premiere was here in 2004, as a manifesto that made a new synthesis of sculpture, painting, music and dance—but noted, along with other critics including Judith Mackrell and the Washington Post's Sarah Kaufman, a chilly and increasing emotional remoteness that threatened to reduce his dancers to advanced action figures. Perhaps visual stoicism makes a certain sense for an artist with a background in Chinese opera, but Claudia LaRocco's memorable response in the Brooklyn Rail put it succinctly: "You say individuality. I see marionettes, wan faces like frozen dough."
At this point we know this much: Something has caused Shen to return to, and revise, the 2004 piece, in what is being called the premiere of a "new version" of the work.
Ailey II was initially a secondary, farm-team company for dance student hopefuls trying to break into the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In recent years it has fully come into its own, with rave reviews from top-tier critics across the country, and a mention in a recent congressional resolution co-sponsored by Hillary Clinton. The troupe is on familiar—and sacred—ground here with Revelations: a modern-dance masterpiece set to African-American spirituals and holy blues that, according to dance scholar Thomas Defrantz, essentially tells the story of African-Americans, "from slavery to freedom," in a three-part, 30-minute work.
Betwixt the two is David Parson's entertaining parlor trick Caught, the "floating dancer" piece (courtesy strobing "light cannons"), performed to a soundscape by King Crimson's Robert Fripp.
We've seen The Moor's Pavane, José Limón's precisely calculated whirl of restraint, intrigue and revenge, several times in recent years, most memorably with Clay Taliaferro reprising the title role from his early time in the Limón company. Here it is paired with a solo marrying the chaconne dance form (which originated in Mexico, the choreographer's native country) with the music of Bach, before the company closes with Kylián's Evening Song, a reflective, communal work that has been termed "a dance, a poem and prayer in one."
DCDC's stand covers 35 years of African-American dance in the works of three contrasting choreographers. Dancegoers who attended the gala for ADF's 25th anniversary in North Carolina in 2002 will recall G.D. Harris' fierce, gracefully hypnotic take on the excerpt from Dafora's 1932 Awassa Astrige. Talley Beatty's 1947 Mourner's Bench is a similarly riveting work in which a soloist in blue exercises, exorcises and ultimately gives flight to his grief, defining the space around, above and beneath the polished wooden bench of the dance's title to sacred African-American hymns. The concert closes with Las Desenamoradas, Eleo Pomare's jazzy dance adaptation of Lorca's House of Bernardo Alba. The neurosis of an overbearing mother is contrasted by the eroticism in the love affair between one of the daughters and a forbidden boyfriend.
Three easy pieces—heh, not hardly. But these works on display by Trisha Brown neatly trace her interest in everyday movement, reducing pedestrian gestures to their essence, and then extrapolating on them in dance-based inquiries on stage. They also show her growth from the carefully—almost scientifically rigorous—accumulation of gestures in 1971's Accumulation through later, more organic works like Spanish Dance, set to Bob Dylan's cover of Early Mornin' Rain. The joyful sense of exploration we've seen in the three movements of The Trilogy should be represented in 2003's PRESENT TENSE, which British critic Donald Hutera has called a "dreamy child's drawing of a dance, but one fashioned from an adult sensibility."
Utah's Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company shows us the trippy, transcendental side of Alwin Nikolais with Crucible, which premiered at ADF—in 1955. On a darkened stage, dancers hidden behind a tilted, mirrored surface rising several feet off the floor form a series of psychedelic Rorschach-like designs when they first poke fingers, hands and wrists above the surface—then arms, legs, butts and torsos. Nikolais' self-designed projected light designs and electronic soundscape take us through a dimension where body parts morph—seamlessly, violently and humorously at times—into creatures who interact with one another in increasingly complex ways. After that is Tensile Involvement, a work of fearsome symmetries in which dancers manipulate stage-length, multicolored elastic bands from the sides, above and below. Why it will look familiar, even if you haven't seen it before: It was featured at the start of Robert Altman's film The Company.
John Jasperse has been busy of late, moving into his new Center for Performance Research in Brooklyn over the past two months and collaborating with multimedia artist Jonah Bokaer. But word from critic Claudia La Rocco in The New York Times of a work in progress presented two weeks ago at La MaMa Annex Theater caught our eye. If we're about to witness the "louche glamour" of a work based on Rick Rock's "Where My Money (I Need That)," it would be extending themes that the Thin Man has explored within the past year: in citing—and embodying—artistic financial statistics, his Misuse Liable to Prosecution at BAM explored, in La Rocco's words, "what it's like to exist in a capitalist society with little or no capital."
Zvi Gotheiner has been squaring the circle, fusing the precision of ballet with folk dance. Here, he uses the austere Stravinski score of the title to depict rituals by which groups pair off—in marriage, mating and conflict.
After their spring residency in Asheville, Eiko & Koma restage 1989's Rust, in which lighting—and a chain-link fence—separate two characters who are slowly turning into the titled substance.
After Robby Barnett broke the Pilobolus mold with B'zyrk, his wildly successful collaboration with Inbal Pinto last year, this ever-popular company antes up again on another pairing with a notable outsider. Master puppeteer Basil Twist has collaborated with dance companies before. His figures gave notable—and eerie—poignancy to Jane Comfort's Underground River, which viewers saw at UNC during the recent inaugural season at Memorial Hall. In April, Twist's Petrushka shared the stage with the Kirov Ballet in New York. His collaboration with Barnett and Jonathan Wolken reportedly utilizes shadow puppetry techniques and has a working title of Borderless Innovation.
Among the company's repertory works, we'll see Martha Clarke's Nocturne, a conscience-challenging solo meditation on aging, beauty and performance that local hero Carol Parker performed, both with the group and in rare regional performances, over the last decade.
We see that our dear friend and artistically political agent provacateux Maguy Marin has been occasioning walkouts and tickets ripped up and thrown toward the stage—along with cheers and standing ovations—with her recent work, umwelt ("environment," in German). Which will you do when the one who challenged us in 2005 returns with a work potentially even more provoking than One Cannot Eat Applause?
Those remaining, if any, will experience Khadija Marcia Radin's solos on her studies of Islamic Sufi and Dervish dances, and Turkish choreographer Aydin Teker's bizarre experiments placing dancers in grotesquely extended footwear, akabi (Turkish contraction, meaning "ball of the foot"). For the latter work, think Equus meets modern dance.
In certain parts of the South, the term "the recent unpleasantness" still refers to the Civil War. In the world of modern dance, it also applies to the latter-day history of the Martha Graham Dance Company.
Eight years ago this week, ADF co-director Charles Reinhart was cursing the company in print for canceling, at the last minute, the festival's 2000 season opener. We now know that breach was the opening salvo in a public battle between the company's artists and an eccentric Graham heir, whose efforts to keep the rights to Graham's name, technique and choreography tied up in the courts kept the company dark—and Graham's works off the stages of the world—for two whole years.
That episode was resolved in 2002, and half a decade should have been more than enough to put those difficulties well behind them. But the company's subsequent reconstruction has been anything but easy, marred repeatedly by a hemorrhage of red ink and graceless about-faces in artistic leadership that divided company focus and loyalties further.
As a possible result, reviews of their fall 2007 New York season, the first in recent years, were qualified. Back Stage critic Lisa Jo Sagolla praised Graham's continuing ability to "surprise and shock." She also bluntly noted that the company's performers "don't all dance very well," particularly critiquing the men's technique and the company's "fail[ure] to exhibit persuasive dramatic motives for their movements." Dance Magazine's Jack Anderson praised the company's "admirable" ensemble and energized interpretations, while faulting "occasional rough moments" in Diversion of Angels, a meditation on different couples in different kinds of love. Anderson also noted solo difficulties in excerpts from Chronicle, one of Graham's most political works, a response to the fascist state in the early 20th century. Clive Barnes spoke of difficulties in dramatic ballets that were still in the process of "acquiring a new and promising kinetic/dramatic commitment."
Though dancers have praised artistic director Janet Eilber's empowering her performers to explore individual interpretations and "be in charge of your own performance," others have questioned the necessity of a recent change in presentation, presaging each performance with a spoken explication of the work, delivered on stage.
Other curious half (and full) measures have involved commissioned variations—for one performance only—on Lamentations, the "purple tube" piece we'll see in which a soloist struggles from inside a length of purple jersey fabric, depicting a character pushing against their own grief. These and a dubious "reconception" of a fragment of Graham choreography have given the impression of a company still uncertain about the proper steps to preserve and extend Graham's legacy into the 21st century.
Lar Lubovitch's wide-ranging work has graced classical ballet companies, the Broadway stage and at least a quintet of Olympic ice skaters over the years. The Los Angeles Ballet's revival of The Evangelist opened in April to reviews praising its "raw power and passion," while the American Ballet Theater revived his 1997 three-act ballet Othello, originally broadcast on PBS' Great Performances, for their New York, Washington and Los Angeles seasons within the past year. In that time, Lubovitch also collaborated with Meredith Monk (who will herself appear during the second half of the 2008 ADF season) on Cryptoglyph, a work for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago that critic Asimina Chremos called "gently humorous."
Concerto Six Twenty-Two, named after the Mozart concerto for clarinet and orchestra that it illustrates, was called "ground-breaking" by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Nancy Goldner and "bright and big-hearted" by Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman. In large part this is due to a mid-work masterstroke in the Adagio movement. What legendary critic Anna Kisselgoff has called "the most famous male duet in the international dance world" took on a life of its own after the work's premiere in 1986. Adopted by the world AIDS movement as a choregraphic anthem and figuring prominently in a series of benefit concerts, the grace of its austere, symmetrical depiction of men supporting one another has left audiences in tears.