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The best and worst of American Dance Festival 2008 

Festival of feats

click to enlarge Click for larger image • A modern dance lesson inside the The Ark during the American Dance Festival on the campus of Duke. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The lovers' most heartfelt wish can be put into one word. Here it is: Stay.

It's no less true for those who deeply love the dance.

Stay, Zvi Gotheiner, Laura Dean, Doug Varone and Takuya Muramatsu: choreographers who brought visions of darkness and light, stories of fearsome symmetry and equally fearsome chaos.

Stay, Yukari Ota and William B. McClellan Jr., Shani Collins and Paul Matteson, Sara Procopio and Brooke Broussard: dancers whose singular presences embodied and conveyed ideals.

Stay, Promenade, Rust, Promethean Fire, Sweet Fields: works that comfort, challenge, prompt our consciences and inspire.

Stay and warn us further, Maguy Marin, though the tutelage be harsh.

Stay, students: David Brick, Kate Abarbanel, Yve Cohen, Yvette Luxenberg, HeJin Jang, Lorna Troost, Megan Harrold, Leah Ives and storyteller Dana Caspersen, whose most courageous movements, questions and experiments in choreography taught us much and helped to light the path ahead.

Stay, needed teachers: Dot Silver, Carol Richard. Your leaving here this past year leaves us less.

Stay, ghost, said Thomas Wolfe.

Stay, sang Paul Buchanan. Stay, and I will understand you.

"This could be a recipe for disaster," I muttered to myself, gazing at the March press release which described a season full of shared-billing showcases for the 2008 season of the American Dance Festival. "Great: a season-long Festival of the Feet."

Longtime dance-goers will recognize the name from the 2004 and 2005 seasons: hybrid evenings in which three companies performed different percussive folk dance forms on the same stage—Indian Kathak, tap and flamenco the first year; African, tap and Irish dance the year after.

No, it wasn't a useless concept, and at least one worthy artistic conversation, between Pandit Chitresh Das and Jason Samuels Smith, began during those programs and continued long afterward (including here, during the 2006 season).

But we were appropriately critical of the slam segues that occurred at times when cultural worlds collided. We were even more critical of showcase programs presenting 20-minute sets by world-class dance groups—companies whose ranks had obviously been sharply reduced for the occasion. These seemed an affront to the ADF's standards of curation. Then the festival charged the season's highest ticket prices for nights containing the briefest amounts of actual dance on stage. Small wonder we called it dance tourism on the (not-so) cheap at the time.

There were echoes of these issues during the 2008 season, starting with the opening night. Yes, the Parsons Dance Company appeared—in the sole person of Davis Robertson, during the six minutes of Parson's "floating" piece, Caught. PARADIGM was similarly cut from a company of eight to its two co-founders, Carmen de Lavallade and Gus Solomons Jr., for all of the 14 minutes they had on stage June 30. Though initially slated to perform two works June 24, Khadija Marcia Radin and colleague Mahbud John Burton were permitted seven whole minutes to be with us in what was all too short a moment of Rapture, the same night others walked out on Maguy Marin's hour-long umwelt.

Imbalance was the word as well for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company as it briefly interjected the quirky choreography of Alwin Nikolais among Trisha Brown's extensive sets in their June 12 concert. In the same vein, Martha Clarke's eight-minute Nocturne seemed a poorly rehearsed afterthought, designed to give Pilobolus a fig leaf of deniability as the only company not forced to share an evening during the 2008 season.

But where festival management—and audiences—both got mugged repeatedly while walking down memory lane in 2007, this season's track record was a lot better. We savored Ailey II's soaring interpretation of Alvin Ailey's Revelations, and a particularly crisp rendition of Limon's The Moor's Pavane. If the movement vocabulary Eleo Pomare crafted for the mother in Las Desenamoradas seems now only appropriate for an old Joan Crawford thriller (and simply bizarre when juxtaposed against John Coltrane's music), McClellan's embodiment of Talley Beatty's 1947 Mourner's Bench seemed heartfelt, lyrical, fresh—and still daring.

True, Trisha Brown's evening didn't put her best work forward—in an anniversary season that claimed to "make the dances the star." Her PRESENT TENSE seemed an almost monochrome affair when compared with works from The Trilogy, Five-Part Weather Invention, or her operatic cycle. But Nikolais' trippy projections, geeky sounds and oddly mirrored images thoroughly and amusingly defamiliarized the human body about a generation and a half before the word "deconstruction" was first coined, while his imaginative Tensile Involvement had dancers craft a stage-wide cat's cradle with multicolored elastic bands.

After last summer's (perhaps deliberately) abortive attempts to place their work in inappropriate hands, I was unsurprised to see Eiko & Koma alone on stage again. Given the dangerous political posturing taking place at our nation's borders, their 1989 work, Rust, provided a far too timely reminder of what bodies at an unfriendly border actually look like: discards, slowly twisting, caught on a chain-link fence.

How far can we say we have truly come when the frankness, love, sadness and final parting still silences us in the male duet at the heart of the second movement in Lar Lubovitch's 1986 Concerto Six Twenty-Two?

The answer is much more obvious, however, when the question is applied to the Martha Graham works we saw. Though on opening night the damning word "petrified" showed up more than once in my notes on Steps in the Streets, the night after it was better. Still, the herky quality of movement kept reminding me of the factory scenes in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. And instead of seeing three couples in love in her Diversion of Angels, we saw three women being worshipped and catered to, at some length, by laughably interchangeable drones. Was it really always thus?

Ironically, of the three works we saw, her earliest, Lamentations, was easily the most "present."

Paul Taylor's works gave us the good, the bad and the ugly. The Bach-fueled drama of Promethian Fire was thrillingly danced with full commitment, and his 3 Epitaphs still got laughs while showing some of the barriers modern dance has busted through.

These, however, came after Taylor's muddy, formless, plotless and pointless Changes. Taylor's incoherent work, which had absolutely nothing new or interesting to say about the 1960s, was publicly humiliated by being placed alongside Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields, a work with clear lines, an interesting and well-articulated vocabulary, and an artist's unique revisioning of her source material, a set of sacred harp and Shaker hymns.

Cleo Parker Robinson's dance ensemble gave Donald McKayle's 1951 inner-city, just-before-coming-of-age work Games the proper amounts of sass and pathos, the same night Doug Varone explored the gripping drama of a longtime marriage at the bitter end, in his 1988 short story in dance form, Home.

Though its slow beginnings now sound a bit like The Who, things accelerated soon enough in the reconstruction of Laura Dean's 1980 work, Tympani. ADF dance student standout Megan Harrold defined a new magnetic center in the work as she whirled across stage. Though it was only made in 1984, the reconstruction of Hanya Holm's Jocose seemed much older: a tentative, fragile early fusion of ballet vocabulary and contemporary moves—a somewhat brittle joke by now, I fear. If the multicultural cast toned down the orientalism in Erick Hawkins' New Moon—but not Lou Harrison's music—the cast still experienced systemic costume malfunctions when clothed in Melody Eggen's reconstructions. The women's body coverings became see-through as they passed by David Ferri's lights—when, that is, they didn't balloon whenever the dancers whirled about, to repeatedly suggest the shape of an old McDonaldland villain, the evil Grimace. Such is art.

The new works were much more of a checkered outfit. Bill T. Jones regaled us with a cascade of images, moves and words in his springboard piece for next year's work on Lincoln. It was technically as much a world premiere as Shen Wei's newest—but not necessarily improved—thoughts on his 2004 bid at gesamptkuntswerk, Connect Transfer. If the new piece abridged his solo, late in the work, that would be useful, but the rest of these improved thoughts might bear thinking through again. Perhaps after the Olympics.

New-generation Butoh artist Muramatsu has clearly come into his own with the ghastly gosh, I am alive... . The same cannot be said for Dai Rakuda Kan's Secrets of Mankind. The goal of training dance students in Butoh is commendable. It is also clearly doomed to failure when it's attempted over six brief weeks followed immediately by a performance. This was the second time in recent years when an audience got baby Butoh when it was expecting something else. Now that the same mistake has been made twice, there's no reason it should be made again.

Let's not be misinterpreted here: We note, with deep approval, that what student Jake Schlichting termed "Butoh boot camp" convinced him to abandon his ballet classes to study abroad next year. Butoh training should obviously continue each year at ADF. It's equally clear that that training group shouldn't be performing it on the main stage.

Mark Dendy's new work led M.C. Escher and the audience through a Klein bottle or two in that riveting four-dimensional maze of a work he constructed, Preliminary Study for Depth: The Upper Half of High and Low. Darkness and Light, the new work by Pilobolus with Basil Twist, put the audience through some changes too. Though it bore the hallmarks of a technology just being acquired, further study and development is clearly indicated.

Larry Keigwin's jokes have gotten better—that or he's battered down our resistance, it's hard to tell. His new work, Air, was a party piece—even if the new composition for PARADIGM was ultimately not a laughing matter.

Gus Solomons and Carmen deLavellade are rightly revered in the dance world. We saw them humbled on this stage, clearly unable to fully execute the moves tasked them by Keigwin and Robert Battle in two other new commissions. The pair resorted to mugging their way through works they said they had clearly told the choreographers they couldn't begin to perform as originally crafted. All parties had thus been informed. Yet we saw what we saw. For shame.

Dance students give us hope. This crowd did a lot of that. David Brick, of the Headlong Dance Theater, audaciously took us through an autistic child's experiences in an early student showing, while managing to direct some pointed questions about which world was truly more dysfunctional, his or ours? Kate Abarbanel kept showing up at interesting places; credited with a hand in designing the installation of HeJin Jang's intense thesis work, her slow, masterfully controlled bends and upside down maneuverings deserved more respect than she got in a performance of Wendi Wagner's thesis, ...before. Yve Cohen nervelessly navigated the treacherous no-man's land of gender (pun, and respect, both definitely intended)—and current savvy dance marketing moves—in separate student showings.

If I couldn't fully make Dana Caspersen's words synch up with her dancers' filmed moves in the piece 1/1, the spoken word tale she told in a darkened room, which put a new spin on the myth of Athena, sent the same chills down my spine that the best work of Laurie Anderson does.

Yvette Luxenberg's lecture provided a necessary corrective to the new—or was it old—correctness in cultural appropriation in dance, before HeJin Jang humbled us all at the conclusion of open skin inscribed by kneeling and scrubbing the cement floor with xeroxed photography of the surface of her skin. The moment silenced the crowd—before, one by one, they joined in this moving homage to the very hard work of those who have come before. What a way to end a season.

Read more on our ADF blog: www.indyweekblogs.com/adf.

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