If you've always thought of veteran dancemaker Doug Varone as a choreographer, he has a bit of a surprise for you. "Actually, I consider myself a visual artist," says the creator of Rise, Boats Leaving and last year's The Fabulist. "I am painting in space with dancers, and not on canvas."
He's not alone. Looking out across the 2015 American Dance Festival, which opens in Durham this week, at least five other choreographers also incorporate a staggering array of other art forms and mediums with dance. "People are finding new ways to enhance and share their stories," says ADF director Jodee Nimerichter.
In the July premiere of Doug Varone and Dancers' RECOMPOSED (July 24–25, Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., 919-680-2787), Varone attempts to place in dance 10 pastels by the late abstract expressionist Joan Mitchell. Mitchell "lived in a world that was constantly spilling out on the page," Varone says. "As a dancemaker, I create worlds that spill movement, stillness and emotion out. In her work, I see the things that draw me to my own dancemaking. When I see the energy, the nature, the drama, the emotional context and the detail in her pastels, I see my own dancers."
Few mediums would seem to have less use for each other than live radio and live dance, but Monica Bill Barnes began to notice similarities between This American Life's Ira Glass and the dance-theater works she creates with Anna Bass.
"We have a real shared sensibility," she says. "This American Life has all the elements I love in art. There's a real sense that [Glass] is creating three-dimensional people. His reporters are allowing all the people in the stories to have awkward moments and hesitation."
Barnes has already investigated awkwardness—and the utter strangeness of the performer's relationship with the audience—in works such as Another Parade and Luster. With Bass and Glass, she re-examines those and other themes in an unlikely evening of humor, poignancy, dance and true human narrative, THREE ACTS, TWO DANCERS, ONE RADIO HOST (July 18, DPAC).
For the first time this year, festival favorite Eiko Otake appears in two mediums—and without her long-time partner, Takashi Koma Otake. After noticing that most people in a train station were alone, Eiko resolved to explore solitude in her multi-city solo project, A BODY IN PLACES (July 7–12, Cordoba Center for the Arts, 923 Franklin St.). Meanwhile, throughout the festival, the Durham Arts Council, Pleiades Gallery and Reynolds Industries Theater exhibit images from A Body in Fukushima, Otake's pilgrimage with photographer William Johnston to the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster.
ADF audiences last saw choreographer Heidi Latsky in a 1997 evening of solos and duets with fellow Bill T. Jones alumnus Lawrence Goldhuber. But Latsky's own company has worked since 2001 with people of all body types and abilities. "Where others see challenges and limitations, Heidi relishes the possibilities," Nimerichter says.
Latsky's first foray into film, Soliloquy, completes a new work called TRIPTYCH (June 21–23, Reynolds Industries Theater, 125 Science Dr., 919-684-4444). She wanted the film to encapsulate her company's mission, which she calls "redefining beauty and virtuosity in unexpected bodies." But after the filming, Latsky still wasn't sure how to do it, until cinematographer Zachary Halberd sent her the footage they'd shot.
"We didn't have an editor right away," Latsky recalls, "so Zac said, 'Here's all the images. Figure it out; play with what you've got.'" It was the best advice she could have gotten. "That's how I found my narratives. That's how I found my way into my film."
What, exactly, does film give a choreographer that dance doesn't? Intimacy, to start with. A conventional theater setting keeps the audience at a distance. "If I were going to make a film about the people I work with, I wanted it to be an intimate view: portraiture," Latsky says. Her program notes call Soliloquy "a magnifying glass, an entreé into the internal worlds of everyone in it."
Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca's 2006 ADF performances were a haunting excursion into the duende, the noble Spanish aesthetic that probes the relationship between total devotion and total loss. In their staccato, high-stakes dances along a tightrope of emotions, we saw a terrible dignity, as the cries of the classical flamenco cantaores warned that a passion relentlessly pursued could well demand the highest personal cost.
With such tragic precursors, artistic director Martín Santangelo had no place to turn but classic Greek tragedy when he learned, in 2010, that the descendants of those killed by the Franco regime were not allowed to remove and bury their dead, left in mass graves. Noting the parallels with Sophocles' Antigone, Santangelo adapted the Greek text into lyrics and collaborated with choreographer Barrio, Lee Breuer (The Gospel at Colonus) and sculptor and mask-maker Mary Frank on ANTIGONA (June 26–27, DPAC) a musical, dance and theatrical retelling of the far too timely tale.
Choreographer and MacArthur fellow Shen Wei has incorporated his own visual and costume designs into works such as Folding since his company began in 2000. But his first major exhibition of paintings came just last December, at Art Basel in Miami. Critic Miguel Angel Estefan Jr. found Shen's "majestic swaths" of black, white and gray "reminiscent in scale, emotion and grandeur" of 19th-century Romantic landscapes. The Miami Herald's Jordan Levin said they "seemed to surge across the canvas," noting that "the energy of their making seemed to leap from the surface."
In his ADF-commissioned UNTITLED NO. 12–2 (June 11–13, DPAC), which premiered last weekend at Charleston's Spoleto Festival, Shen translates those paintings into dance. The first drafts of the new work "echoed the surging, splashing images," according to Levin, "as if the paintings were flowing off the walls and coming to life."This article appeared in print with the headline "Dancers Without Borders."