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Local modern dance still moving in place

The grindstone/treadmill dance 

Local modern dance still moving in place

It's the last we see of Tense Dave, at the end of the existential, modern-dance-meets-independent-film thriller of the same name this week at American Dance Festival. After all that had just been visited upon him, there he goes: walking with determination, eyes forward--perhaps a little grimly, but with Dave it's always hard to tell. Imagine Sisyphus on a treadmill, without the grin, or an anti-hero for whom the pluses and minuses of his various experiences all add up to this: zero.

Unfortunately, it also is a fairly fitting metaphor for modern dance this past week in Durham. On the positive side: Urban Bush Women's lush, evening-length homage to Pearl Primus, Walking with Pearl; an afternoon of thought-provoking student works in progress from the first informal showing at the American Dance Festival School; and Chunky Move's Tense Dave, which should not be missed before it closes on Wednesday, June 22.

Mixed bag? Pilobolus' uneven new works, Aquatica and BUGonia, last Thursday night in Page Auditorium.

Mainly in the debit column? Multiple Exposure I & II, Friday and Saturday night at Durham Arts Council.

If, on second thought, dance-goers are doing better than break-even this week, local dance-givers decidedly aren't. Those of us who thought this region might conceivably arrive on a local stage while company from out of town was here last week received this news instead: We're not there yet. Keep on walking.

In the past decade, Steve Clarke has clearly achieved much in dance photography, and our hopes were admittedly high after Focused Fluidity bowled regional audiences over in December. But Multiple Exposure, his second series of free dance concerts featuring artists he's photographed in recent years, clearly demonstrates the distance Clarke has yet to travel when it comes to curating live dance for the public.

It's a point we've made concerning presenters from ADF to the North Carolina Dance Festival: A curator's choices inevitably reveal their beliefs on a number of issues. What are the standards of artistic excellence in the pertinent region--and what should they be? At what stage is an artist "ready" to present their work to the public? How is that work appropriately presented?

On some level curators do define, for better and worse, the cultural identity of a region or a community: how that group's achievements in art are--or are not--quite literally seen. Their choices will always be taken to say, "This is what we are, at our best and when we're ready. This defines us." That fact has made the ADF's first seasons presenting North Carolina artists particularly problematic. In this instance, it has also bedeviled Multiple Exposure.

During several interviews, Clarke has said one of the main motivating factors in producing these showcases is to present emerging artists at the beginning of their public lives. But too frequently, this latest collection of 17 works by the same number of young choreographers over two nights included dances not yet ready for an academic thesis concert, much less the start of a professional career. Their inclusion here inevitably brings the aesthetic standards of the region--and the aesthetic judgment of their curator--into question.

Had the group been trimmed--by over half--into a single evening's concert, its audience would have left impressed with many of the strengths of a new generation's artists in this part of North Carolina. Instead, Friday's audience left--and understandably did not return to see a significantly stronger, but still problematic Saturday show.

These are the lessons: When a curator includes mediocrity with excellence, both suffer. So does the audience, and the curator's reputation. Repeat business and broader audiences for dance are ultimately not built on such.

In the meantime, praise for the few artists who were actually up for the show last weekend. Friday night, Susan Haines heard the audience cheer her astringent technique and ballet-influenced relational scissor dance with Bradley Parquette in Aftermath. Saturday night, we saw total commitment--as always--from Stafford Berry Jr. in the beginning of a new endeavor with dancer C. Kemal Nance on the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The strongest work of either evening? Janna Alexis Blum's No. 7, an impressive exploration of fast-lane etiquette and other sudden joys of life on the grid. Blum's ensemble convened dyads and small communities just as abruptly and efficiently as they dissolved them, in a world where expedience is king, all alliances are temporary, and if someone's in your way, you simply push them down or out.

The similar conciseness and speed of Kathryn Ullom's (in)dependence contrasted with the blurted--and blurred--notions of the evening's opener.

Stephanie Blackmon's troupe amused in a still overlong Dyeing My Hair the Wrong Shade of Red During a Snowstorm in Detroit.

The heartbreak of the showcase? Ashlee Ramsey's daring solo, Clouds, which saw a much better (and physically safer) rendition Wednesday afternoon at the Ark at ADF. In the first half of this fearless work, the performer plunges forward, jumping, falling, standing, leaping, totally committed to explore the ground and air around her at full velocity--with her eyes closed throughout. But inadequate rehearsal under theatrical lights disoriented Ramsey to the point that she landed in the front row at one point on Saturday night, a mishap that didn't happen Wednesday.

Here's why she has to keep on working on this piece. When Ramsey performs choreography similar to the material in the first part after opening her eyes, something significant shifts in our experience--not only of the character, but our relationship with her as well.

When done well, Ramsey's character seems entirely in touch with her world, entirely certain of it--just as long as her eyes are closed. When they're open, doubt seems to enter her experience. A dance that seems firmly grounded in her body when her eyes are closed, seems counter-intuitively uprooted, dislocated from that body when she sees.

The two sections of the piece also call into question our relationship with her as audience. Are we more comfortable because we're watching someone who isn't watching us? Does this changing relationship comment on the audience as voyeur? Precisely what world does Ramsey's character open her eyes to? What, or who, does she see? How does this new information change her situation? Each of these questions deserve fuller exploration as this worthy dancer continues work.

On a decidedly different note, we sincerely recommend that Alison Chase discontinue further exploration of aerial dancing with long swathes of colored silk. This comes after performances of 2003's Star-Cross'd and the new, but far too stylistically similar BUGonia, during Thursday evening's performance by Pilobolus .

When both works above are placed in proper chronological order with Chase's 2002 work Ben's Admonition and 2004's Night of the Dark Moon: Orfeo and Eurydice (performed on subsequent nights last week), the quartet forms an arc of diminishing returns.

In its favor, BUGonia isn't as kludgy as last year's opaque, tech-obsessed retelling of the Orpheus myth. Wendall Harrington and Zachary Borovay's stage-sized projections of the natural world are exquisite, and the pod-like casing Renée Jaworski and Jenny Mendez create at one point follows suit with appropriate whimsy.

As is the case with too many recent company works, BUGonia serves best as a work for children, or an introduction for those who've never encountered Pilobolus before. For those familiar with the company's canon, the simplicity of the new duet reveals a few new jokes--but fewer innovations or extensions in techniques (or artistic inquiries) by now fully exploited, if not exhausted.

Another reason for our recommendation should come particularly into focus next weekend, when accomplished aerial choreographer Brenda Angiel returns to Durham.

By contrast, Michael Tracy's new work, Aquatica, is more robust, though its truly whimsical exploration of ocean floors for two--Jaworski and Mendez, again--seems becalmed beyond a useful point, stuck in composer Marcelo Zarvos' conveniently legato tempo. The fantastic structures the crew assemble on stage include an ad-hoc six-member merry-go-round, and improbable two-story conveyances that scuttle and shuffle, as creatures climb around, within and above multi-story human coral formations.

Still, the new works seem a slender harvest, particularly following the company's attempts at reinvention last year.

But then, ADF audiences may not have gotten the full picture from this year's selections. Quick question: Why didn't the festival devote at least one or more of Pilobolus' b-side nights to the company's future, as opposed to its past? I refer to their first evening-length work in 38 years: Megawatt > Full Strength, by all reports a radical extension of the already off-kilter similarly-titled Jonathan Wolken work from last year.

Which brings us to a certain man in uniform gray sweater, shirt and pants. The spontaneous standing ovation at the end of Chunky Move 's Tense Dave on Monday night capped the summer season thus far at ADF. As we suspected, you didn't have to be a modern dance diva to get into this fun and disturbing little psychological thriller. Choreographers Lucy Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek, along with theatrical director Michael Kantor, have fashioned a fusion multi-media work that equally partakes of independent film, the Grand Guignol tradition--and selected theme park rides of the recent past.

From the start, Tense Dave is overtly cinematic. The first thing we note is designer Jodie Fried's infinite pan to the right--achieved through the use of a stage-wide turntable--across the various rooms on one floor of an apartment complex in an Australian version of Hell. The characters, as we've already noted, occupy their own individual corners of extremity, including sado-masochism, anhedonia, megalomania and extreme paranoia.

They don't get along too well when a series of dividing walls--which a single, dim, naked light bulb illuminates--are up. When the walls come down, the quintet finds a series of very different games to play.

I don't want to give too much plot for the audience who will see this work on Wednesday night--which should include all adventurous theater fans out there as well as devotees to the works of David Lynch. But I will praise the fusion of tech, light and particularly sound design that added dimensions of menace (and incongruous comedy) to a pentad bent on exploring their own nightmares of choice--and taking our tall friend along for the ride.

Get a ticket any way you can. But remember: The walls have ears.

  • Local modern dance still moving in place

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