After 78 seasons of teaching, presenting, commissioning and preserving constant innovations in modern dance, the American Dance Festival remains dedicated to change.
This year, the change will be a different challenge than keeping up with artistic currents. Instead, it comes from within. Charles L. Reinhart, the festival's director for 43 years, is retiring. He entered that position after managing some of the greatest dance minds working in the 1960s, including Paul Taylor, Meredith Monk and Donald McKayle.
He'll take a bow on Thursday night at DPAC, when the 2011 ADF Gala honors him for a lifetime of service. The evening's a benefit for a scholarship and commissioning fund being established to honor him and his co-director and wife, Stephanie, who died in 2002.
He was in New York when we spoke by phone. I asked him to describe some of the changes he'd personally witnessed over a half-century of modern dance.
INDEPENDENT: Does our culture know what to do with modern dance better now than it did in the 1950s and 1960s?
REINHART: It does, because it respects it, which it didn't in the 1950s. When I started in modern dance, in 1955 and 1956, it was really so secretive. It was a basement art form. There were certain societal restrictions about how the body could move.
Now you don't have to sell the art form to promoters anymore, per se; you just have to sell the artist. When I was getting started, you had to sell the word "dance." And dance was a suspect art form, because of its sexual connotations and the puritanical background of the country before the 1960s.
Remember, in the 19th and early 20th century, the body was very well hidden. Women's dresses went to the ground; corsets held in the body. Everything was designed to restrict the female form in particular. Those poor modern dance pioneers in the 1890s had a really difficult time, which is why they made it in Europe first before they could get anywhere here. But all the puritanical restrictions were blown open by the '60s and '70s, which created a new path.
I cannot imagine what it was like, helping artists like Taylor, like Monk get their message, their art out, at a time when there was so much foment and change in our culture.
It was those changes that made it possible. They freed dance. To me, what we call the '60s was the greatest period since the Revolutionary era. As you say, every aspect of society was challenged. All those changes opened up the cellar doors for modern dance to come out and blossom—and that's exactly what happened. With all that change, people were looking for new things. Boom: Here's this creative art form, coming up, blossoming out.
That change in our society created the National Endowment for the Arts. They started putting money into the touring program and the artists-in-schools program, which I ran. And those programs spread it across the country.
In an interview a few years ago, you referred to modern dance as your religion. Is it still?
Yes, in the sense that it is my spirituality ... Dance gives me the "ah!" moment. You're seeing and feeling something so special and it just takes over. It takes you over; it just goes through your body. I don't know how to explain that. And, you know, I don't want to.
The first one I remember was Paul Taylor's Aureole. When I saw it, I literally fell off the bench I was sitting on. In a moment like that, literally, you know what you were born for.
Two nights after honoring Charles Reinhart, the ADF pays tribute to another legend in contemporary dance: choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, this year's recipient of the Scripps/ ADF Award. On Saturday the Belgian dance maker will accept a plaque, the kind words of her hosts and a check for $50,000—on her birthday, no less. Then the curtains will part, and she and her group, Rosas, will perform the company's first work, which convinced the rest of the world of her genius back in 1983.
Rosas Danst Rosas certainly doesn't look like a 28-year-old dance. In it, a quartet of women enters a choreographic labyrinth that articulates and explores, at some length, an almost mathematically precise series of variations on the everyday and the needful. In rising from rest or struggling to find it; perpetual transit and perpetual waiting; embodied sexuality and its sometimes unwilling display; the facts of physical labor, tension and exhaustion—De Keersmaeker confronts us with an alternative history, in which humans, even in tightly circumscribed lives, find ways to express their individuality, their responses to the conditions in which they live.
In all fairness, Rosas Danst Rosas is something of an endurance piece for both the performers and the audience, a high-energy combination of minimalism and expressionism that runs an hour and three-quarters without intermission. Still, the conclusions reached in this meticulous work speak to human resilience.
We spoke by phone to her in Brussels last week.
INDEPENDENT: Rosas Danst Rosas strikes me almost as a form of alternate history. A number of thinkers have considered the arbitrariness of what has traditionally counted as history. When I see four people on a stage engaging in everyday behaviors—walking, waiting, rising from rest—one realizes that millions of us do the same things in our daily lives. Is everyday movement still an inspiration to you?
DE KEERSMAEKER: The vocabulary does have a kind of simplicity, based on laying down, sitting on a chair, waving the arms, stepping and side turning: simple movements that sometimes refer to daily life movements. At the same time, they have a very high physical intensity; in terms of energy they have a drive and even, perhaps, anger.
There is an emotional velocity in these sequences—anger in places, and other emotions as well.
And I think they're quite inspired by the female body very much. It would look totally different if this would have been done by men. It was very close to my own experience
The framework, the scoring that is quite abstract and mathematical with a lot of repetition, combines with the high intensity and the nature of the movements, and you get a kind of tension field. The emotion rises when [the dancers] are thrown in that structure, against that structure. That tension field was quite peculiar and was quite new at that time also, you know?
With all the emotional experiences that the body can carry that are embedded in this, through repetition, something comes to the surface. It's tight, but the individual freedom and individual interpretation comes even more because of this tight framework.
Do you consider Rosas Danst Rosas a confrontational work?
When it was first performed in the '80s it was certainly perceived by a lot of people as confrontational. It was not planned like that; it was not one of my aims when I made it. It's still perceived like that today, at times.
After training for only a couple of years in Brussels, you came to New York in 1981 and studied at NYU for a year before beginning your career. What impact did American dance have on you, and what are your thoughts on receiving the Scripps/ ADF award?
I've always considered American dance as being pioneers, and the history of modern dance is close to the history of the United States. Most of the inspiration comes from people who are choreographers and dancers here. I'm very honored and grateful to receive this award.