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Trying It Out in America 

In its first week of performances, the American Dance Festival sets off on an experimental foot

In 1953, the then 23-year-old Paul Taylor performed his first composition, consisting of minimalist movements set not to music, but to a repeated telephone recording. Critics deliberately ignored the performance. Nearly 50 years later, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, in its 46th year and now one of the biggest names in modern dance, is performing one of the 11 commissions at the American Dance Festival (ADF) at Duke University. The company's appearance here is indicative of how far dance, and the ADF, have come.

Commended by the New York Post as "the world's greatest dance festival," the ADF consists of performances, classes and community events. This year's ADF season, titled "Landmarks and Landscapes," is the second of a two-year celebration of modern dance's choreographers.

The roots of the ADF stretch nearly as far back as the genre of modern dance. In 1934, when Martha Hill and Mary Josephine Shelly founded the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vt., the idea of modern dance as a bona fide movement had existed for only a generation. For the school's first six years, dance teachers, and not prospective professional dancers, made up the majority of the student body.

In 1948, the Bennington School of Dance held a series of public performances titled "An American Dance Festival." These performances were to become the first in an annual series that would continue to this day. This year marks the 24th year since the American Dance Festival moved to Duke University from its second home in Connecticut. Teaching remains an integral part of the ADF: 50 ADF faculty members will instruct more than 450 students this summer. For many, however, the main impact of ADF will be the performances.

Twelve companies, 11 of them commissioned by the ADF, are scheduled to perform during the six weeks of the festival. Their wide range of styles reflects the variety in the genre of modern dance; besides the obligatory use of movement somehow set to music, the performances have little in common. The Pilobolus Dance Theatre's production of "Davanen" uses gravity-defying acrobatics set to music to celebrate modern Hasidic Jewish culture. "Rome and Jewels," performed by Rennie Harris Puremovement, uses hip-hop music and dance to reinterpret the story of Romeo and Juliet. In "From the Horse's Mouth, Chapter 11" (directed by Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll), which bills itself as a "live stage documentary," performers drawn from the local dance community act out stories from their own lives.

The ADF's first two performances are fairly typical representations of the festival as a whole, as much as any program that features both a hip-hop opera and a live stage documentary can be represented. The ADF opens with the Garth Fagan Dance Company's "Music of the Line/Words in the Shape." Garth Fagan is perhaps best known for his choreography of the recent Broadway production of The Lion King.

Fagan, whose company is now in its 31st year, draws inspiration from many sources--a critic for The New York Times has written, "As a modern dance choreographer, [Garth Fagan] fits no label." After studying dance in his native Jamaica, he toured Latin America with Jamaica's national dance company. Later he moved to the United States and studied with modern dance legends--among others, Martha Graham, José Limón and Alvin Ailey.

Yet Fagan remains true to his own vision. He dislikes the theatrical movements that many dance companies are making toward story and narrative, seeing them as distractions that take away from the beauty and subtleties of dance. Although Fagan admits that he loved working on The Lion King, he did so only on the condition that there would be "real concert dance in the show."

The opening of John Jasperse's recent production of "Fort Blossom" is also indicative of this choreographer's experimental form. As the 34-minute production begins, a nude Jasperse wiggles his way across the stage while women in the background lean against inflatable cushions.

"A lot of experimental dance has to do with the way we typically look at the body and inviting people to look at it in a way that we're not used to," Jasperse says. "Growing up as a dancer I felt like I was really interested in dance as an art form as opposed to entertainment. It feels like there are these systems that define what kind of use dance has in our culture, and I'm interested in finding new uses for that, and finding beauty in a new way."

The idea behind the title for Jasperse's "Giant Empty" had to do with "divisions we set up within ourselves," says Jasperse. "Sometimes I feel like we're in the world and we're constantly trying to set up these systems that we keep constructing within ourselves, whether it be 'I need to buy this new car, get a new apartment, or get a new pair of shoes, and then somehow I'll be happy.' I felt like we spend all of this energy constructing all of these ideas and then when they don't make us happy we have to use a lot of energy deconstructing them later."

Jasperse says that his current production of "Giant Empty" is also a continuation of the ideas that were present but unfinished in "Fort Blossom." "I had a lot of ideas about self and the environment, where the environment is a container for the body and the body is a container for the self."

Besides exploring new areas in terms of content, Jasperse is willing to play with the form of modern dance as well. Though well-established, he deliberately keeps his company small; for five years it has been composed of only four dancers. His pieces range from full evening-length projects to the 17-minute "Scrawl."

Both Jasperse and Fagan have commented on the troubled state of modern dance. Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts has been severely cut over the past five years, and private sources of funding, such as corporations, are less willing to donate to dance companies than they were in the past.

"Having a contemporary dance company in this period of American culture isn't easy to pull off," Jasperse says. "I really want to focus on the idea that we're committed to being an experimental lab. That's still a struggle here." In a 1999 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Fagan spoke in a similar vein. "As a culture we simply have to make more demands for representation of our arts. And modern dance is America," he said. "I think what dance can do for a society is invaluable. If somebody who is in a negative spiritual state can get away from it for some time and be uplifted by a dance concert, it's amazing what can happen." EndBlock

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