Unstacking the dance card deck | News Feature | Indy Week
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Unstacking the dance card deck 

An irreverentand wicked goodhandicappers guide to the must-sees, long shots, hedges and sucker bets at the ADF. Its the definitive dance tout sheet: Bet the grocery money on it.

Hiya, Pigeon. Have a seat. Care for a friendly game of chance? Now, generally speaking, I'm not a gambling man, myself. And I never cursed before I got into show biz. Uh-huh.

But as the usual public moralists try to convince us that the grim spectre of a state-sponsored lottery--and no-cash nightclub Texas Hold-em--threatens to corrupt everything that's left of Our Good Name, let's just put our cards down on the table, shall we? Deep down, most of us know that life's a gamble. Apparently the Good Lord even knows it. After all, He obviously hasn't told the earnest clergy railing at the latest, freshest sins to get their filthy lucre out of stocks, money market accounts and real estate--speculative enterprises themselves, after all.

Their real message? The Lord just wants us to gamble well.

It's a moral--of sorts--that I'm entirely inclined to uphold. Professionally speaking, that is.

Which brings us to the subject of the 2005 American Dance Festival.

On one level, promoters like ADF director Charles Reinhart are actually high rollers in a high-stakes game of chance. Think about it: Every programming choice they make in every season is a gamble, in which they literally bet the houses--including Reynolds Theater and Page Auditorium--on two propositions.

Here's the first: The acts they chose and have commissioned new works from are going to show up with something truly worth the price of admission.

The second proposition? That they can convince you to part with your hard-earned money to back the play they've made, sight unseen.

It's gambling by proxy. It makes every ticket a wager, every fine arts house a bettors' den.

You pays yer money. You takes yer extremely limited choice. And you don't even get to touch the dice.


In these circumstances, your bet is resting on the sharpness of the promoter's critical eye and his fairness as a broker. Usually with the ADF, both are pretty good.


But even the big boys make mistakes sometimes. And at these prices, mistakes are something to avoid. The highest-priced single seats this season are for Pilobolus, Paul Taylor and something called Festival of the Feet: $40 a pop.

You've got two scratch-off tickets you hope are going to produce one very good time. Take your best guy or girl along. Throw in concessions and the five bucks for parking. Sweetie, if you didn't plan ahead, you're not getting out of there on much less than a C-note.

The problem? One of those big-ticket shows probably isn't the best place to spend your money on modern dance this summer.

But where do you go to get that kind of information?

The season brochure? You sap: That thing is written by the folks who want your money, so they're not left holding a very large bag the morning the show travels on.

Which is where the Indy comes in .We've spent most of the last decade at the races--er, festivals. We've researched the current field of hoofers to a fare-thee-well, seeing what they've been up to and how they've been received during the previous year.

That's how you produce a track record.

And on top of that, we've actually seen detailed, advance and complete footage of every single coming attraction we could get our grubby little hands on.

To sum up, it's really simple. This is the piece of paper you're gonna need when you lay your money down.

It's a handicapper's guide to the must-sees, the dark horses, the hedges--and the one or two sucker bets--on display in Durham this summer. We're just interested in evening the odds a bit more, strictly in your favor.

At a glance, our 2005 racing form looks a bit like the one below. And be sure to check our company profiles below for crucial added info: dates, subject matter and those all-important caveats.

Put it this way: It would be risky not to....

Shen Wei Dance Arts
Opera: The Second Visit to the Empress {world premiere}
June 9-11
Reynolds Theater, Bryan Center, Duke West Campus, Durham

Tip Sheet: Hedge your bets--but the odds are still better than most.

Five short years have propelled Chinese émigré Shen Wei from relative obscurity to his current position as one of the leading choreographers of our time. So say we--and so said Princess Caroline of Monaco, who praised his "courage, audacity and ingenuity" while presenting him with the Nijinsky Award for Emerging Choreographer at the dance world's version of the Oscars last December.

That evening's other award winners included Pina Bausch and William Forsythe: daunting company to be sure. But the quiet, diminutive and thoroughly unassuming young man who has repeatedly found a way to advance his work as a sculptor, painter and calligrapher through radically different means--on stage, in real-time, by choreography--belongs in their number.

Luckily for us, the American Dance Festival invested early in Mr. Shen's career. As a result, Durham audiences have seen most of his major works weeks, months or even years before New York did. How significant is that degree of cultural backlog? Last year, Lincoln Center saw Connect Transfer, his audacious fusion of breathing sculpture, choreography and live painting, the week after its world premiere at ADF. This year, they're getting Near the Terrace, Pt. 1, which first signaled Shen's arrival as a major choreographer in 2000, during the International Choreographer Commissioning Project (which is more than reason enough alone to give that collection of newcomers considerable benefit of the doubt, July 18-20).

So why would we want to hedge this bet? A zig-zag track record, for one. 2001's Near the Terrace, Pt. II diluted the impact of his astounding preview the year before--the only reason New York audiences wisely won't be treated to that embellishment this summer. The brilliant opening to Shen's abstract impressionist take on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring in 2002 ultimately suffered a similar case of "Matrix syndrome" when the second part, one year later, did not produce a quantum leap comparable to the ones witnessed in the first.

Even given the perfection of Connect Transfer's genre-bending, we paused as dancers of the first order were turned to icy, less than fully human action figures. After chilling out through that and Behind Resonance, by now we're desperately in need of some warmth from this young artist.

But will we get it from what's being billed as a 70-minute excerpt from his contemporary take on one of China's most famous operas? Since he's already led us through some truly forbidding aesthetic territory, Mr. Shen has a better chance than most of seeing this project through to its success. He seems to understand the difficulty of his chosen task. In January, he told the South China Morning Post that "usually people think Chinese opera's music is difficult. Neither young nor older people go to see it any more and the audience is disconnected. I want audiences to understand the music done in a contemporary way. I want to take it to the next level and transform it to a new art form."

That precisely is what Shen will have to do to successfully convey Chinese opera to American audiences. This week, an orchestra of 14 Chinese musicians and four soloists from the Beijing and Shanghai Operas join Shen's dance company on stage to tell the story of a woman's mistake in judgment during a time of change in her country. The piece will be performed with projected English and Chinese supertitles.

Will it prove just another quantum leap, or a cultural bridge too far? We'll have the answer to that question shortly.

Urban Bush Women
Walking With Pearl, Part I: The African Diaries
Walking With Pearl, Part II: Southern Diaries(world premiere)
June 14-15
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: An African-American women's company renowned for "vulnerability, sassiness and bodaciousness" celebrates its 20th anniversary by honoring one of modern dance's mothers of us all.

For two decades, founding choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's unapologetically feminist dance troupe has greeted a host of social issues with a volatile mix of humor, pugilism and intensely direct address. "They basically sat the world down and gave it a talking-to about the plight of African-American women," notes dance critic Deirdra Funcheon, "without any lecturey 'wonk wonk wonk.'"

Some of their wittiest work has come from confronting women's bodies and related social expectations and concepts of beauty. HairStories cataloged African-American women's attitudes about living with difficult hair, while Batty Moves analyzed--and ultimately celebrated--a Caribbean slang term for the lower posterior.

But the group's more serious side stands revealed in works dealing with the history of the African Diaspora. Treva Offutt's 2004 work For Mamie chronicled the struggles of Mamie Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, to find justice for her murdered son.

Two months after being honored among the Masters of African American Choreography at a ceremony at Washington's Kennedy Center, the group returns home to complete its offering in the name of one of the founding mothers of contemporary dance: Pearl Primus, daring dancer and choreographer who helped bring African and Caribbean dance to New York in the middle of the last century.

The African Diaries springs from the observations recorded in the choreographer's unpublished private journals during her travels in Africa in 1949 and the 1950s. While Zollar reads from the edge of the stage, dancers in earth tones ground themselves, alternating between gentle or vigorous spins and extended stillnesses that contribute as much as the movement to choreography.

When critic Joan Pikula saw the work, dancers who "folded on sighs...sang, spoke, keened, occasionally interacting but mostly alone" in a work she ultimately termed "an extraordinarily beautiful prayer."

Part two, which premieres here, focuses on Primus' extensive subsequent travels through the rural American South.

Given the gravitas this group is capable of, we fully anticipate a deep second chorus to the hymn begun last year.

June 16-18
Page Auditorium, Bryan Center, Duke West Campus, Durham

Tip Sheet: Take the kids--and any remaining modern dance newcomers--to catch this colorful company. Preferably Thursday or Saturday.

Talk about a crew that needs no introduction: This hardy perennial has been making modern dance safe for newcomers now for 33 years. Although their three-night stand dwells too long on second-string material from recent years (including the lightweight Monkey and the White Bone Demon and Ben's Admonition), it also revisits last year's Megawatt, Jonathan Wolken's reasonably vivid attempt at reinvention to the music of Primus and Squarepusher. Aquatica, a new work in which dancers enact underwater creatures, received a mixed review after at its California premiere last month--which might have stemmed more from a last-minute injury that forced a change in cast and choreography. Just don't tell the folks at Wolf Trap that BUGonia, Alison Chase's "biomorphic fantasy," actually bows here three days before its Washington "world premiere."

Chunky Move
Tense Dave
June 20-22
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: Theater fans, and anyone else who likes psychological thrillers: Do not miss this disturbing dance theater hybrid, which suggests a mix between David Lynch and Brian De Palma... .

As it turns, the central character--a gangly, too-tall misfit with a perpetually woeful countenance--has every reason to be tense. For turn Tense Dave does, on Jodie Fried's hellish treadmill of a set. The rotating stage segues implacably between the adjacent single rooms on one floor of an apartment complex. As we slowly gather evidence, a group of next-door strangers living far too interesting lives are about to get to know each other. Lives will change as a result.

In one room, a dapper man finds unusual comfort quoting Richard III. Two doors beyond, a hippie is getting into lizards and autoerotic asphyxiation. Down the hall, a young woman proves a bit too fond of the Romanticists.

Thin walls separate them all until, well, they just don't, anymore.

The choreography with which the dancer-actors relate these complicated lives kicks into a different gear once the walls start coming down. The edgy humor, vivid characters and constantly destabilizing relationships and situations make this show the one for regional theater-goers seeking a rewarding challenge to their usual fare. Compare it with last year's Mendiolaza from Argentina's Grupo Krapp, but with a chill where most of the laughs used to be. Strongly recommended. MFONT SIZE=+1>Festival of the Feet 2
African American Dance Ensemble, Jason Samuels Smith, Arthur Duncan and members of Trinity Irish Dance Company
June 23-25, Page Auditorium

Tip Sheet: The highest ticket prices of the season buys you three 20-minute samplers from truncated versions of Irish, tap and African-American dance companies, culminating in a round-robin finale.

Pretty popular with the civilian set--and considerably less so for the dance-informed--last year's exercise in dance tourism on the not-so-cheap barely let skeleton-crew versions of guest companies get started before shuffling to the next. The finale in which the artists traded fours with each other's musicians briefly flirted with collaboration before devolving into a redlined version of "Can You Top This." In some ways, this show promises the least dance for the most money. Bet accordingly.

Emanuel Gat Dance
The Rite of Spring {u.s. premiere}
Winter Journey {u.s. premiere}
June 27-29
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: New Israeli dance company rolls the dice with unsafe combinations. A salsa Rite of Spring, anyone?

Israeli choreographer Emanuel Gat achieved notoriety in 2003 by performing his work Two Stupid Dogs to live audio by MWR--the only Arab rap group at the time in the state of Israel. Unsafe combinations appear to work for the 35-year-old choreographer who'll present the U.S. premiere of his salsa-based Rite of Spring.

You read correctly. And critic Rosita Boisseau with Paris' Le Monde sang its praises:

"On a red carpet at center stage, two men and three women, all in black, are ready to dance. As for the women, the choice is clear: One of them will be chosen--the sacrifice, as in the original version choreographed by Nijinsky in 1913... Within those circles we find, with great precision, the pulse of Stravinsky's music. Everything is dangerous and beautiful in this modern hunt. Suspense is kept alive--the two men mark an alternative victim to increase the tension until the final choice."

Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Co.
Air-Condition {world premiere}
South, Wall and After
June 30-July 2
Page Auditorium

Tip Sheet: Our Argentinian high priestess of mid-air mind games finally gets adequate support for a full-length evening--and the chance to top her twisto 1998 classic, South, Wall and After.

You might want to pack the Dramamine. Brenda Angiel's delightful but vertigo-inducing South, Wall and After gave ADF audiences the eerie sense of looking from ceiling to floor, and not from audience to stage, in its 1998 debut. Particularly given the steep pitch of Page's balcony, seat belts may be a wise idea.

We're hoping this outing provides sweet revenge to audiences who felt cheated when ADF inexplicably presented an earlier and clearly less accomplished work by Angiel the year following her stunning debut, and to audiences who patiently waited as she tried to teach inexperienced students how to fly in a disappointing ICCP performance in 2002.

Brian Brooks Moving Co.
July 4-5
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: Uh-oh. "Fun" dance advisory in effect. Devotees of irony, cheap laughs and shiny shallow surfaces, full speed ahead. Everyone else: exercise extreme caution.

Let it be said: There are a number of fairly effective jokes in Brian Brooks' new work. Unfortunately, the choreography that connected them on tape seemed ultimately repetitious, thin and uncompelling. A New York Times review we read after that viewing doesn't give hope for much more. An arch, ending sequence to Ravel--you guessed it! Bolero!--seems to have more going for it than most of the material that proceeded it. How many will actually still be in the audience by the time it begins is anyone's guess.

Compagnie Kafig
July 7-9
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: Prepare for a high-tech full-frontal hip-hop assault--by way of Paris and North Africa.

No advance video on this one--just intriguing word of teenagers in hoodies or baseball caps, representin' with delight last month on the streets of Birmingham, England in the high-tech, hip-hop roux of street dancer, martial arts expert and former circus performer Mourad Merzouki. Which is ultimately more amazing: that Merzouki is now choreographing for Generation Z? Or that New York Times critic Anna Kisselgoff and hip-hop avatar Rennie Harris can't get enough of it? Recommended.

Battleworks Dance Co.
Communion (World Premiere)
Repertoire: Rush Hour, Takademe, Two, Strange Humors
July 11-13
Reynolds Theater

Tip Sheet: This up-and-coming choreographer is going places. But will these works show us where?

Robert Battle's Bassline, a work he placed on students, was one of the delights of last summer's ADF. The best of the rep work in this concert reflects the same refreshing, hyper-acuity to the internal logic of music. While wowing us with strong technique and stronger ritual-based visuals, the duet Strange Humors pauses long enough to amuse us with an irregular series of witty asides. But since David Parsons has widely toured with Rush Hour, the overlong gender joke of Two and Takademe now for several years, it's not entirely clear how much the taped iteration we saw will actually add to what we've already seen. We're hoping that his new work, to the music of Arvo Pärt and Gregorian chants, will indicate where this intelligent artist is going, not where he's already (repeatedly) been.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co.
Another Evening
July 14-16
Page Auditorium

Tip Sheet: Clearly, Jones is one of the leading choreographic minds of our time. But does what he's trying to communicate need to take 90 minutes?

Choreographer, humanist, author and documentarian Bill T. Jones receives this year's Samuel H. Scripps/ADF Award for lifetime achievement in modern dance. One devoutly wishes the advance DVD we received conveyed a work more cohesive than Another Evening for the occasion. At the opening of the work, while a monetary odometer clicks ever upward over the stage, dancers wear blue uniforms with what seem to be marathon racer numbers on the front and back.

Looking closer, the number on Jones' front reads 1952. The back, 1988.

The numbers, different for every dancer, and the disjunctive narratives suggest that Jones is thinking about time, mortality and the lifework from which no one is truly excused. But the choreography seemed largely ambling, centerless by contrast. The technique in Another Evening remains astringent, even if Jones himself clearly moves now with more care than he has in recent years. But there seemed a more than momentary aimlessness, particularly at this work's junctures.

While we've witnessed Jones' strengths in creating aural and visual collages in previous years, we're accustomed to them adding up to more than what we saw on DVD. Sometimes video misses the mark when documenting dance. As of now, we hope we see more into this work in Durham than we did in our preview.

Intl. Choreaographers Commissioning Program
Charlotte Griffin, Martinus Miroto and Anouk van Dijk
July 18-20
Reynolds Theater
Tip Sheet: The series that gave us Shen Wei, Tatiana Baganova and David Grenke in recent years presents two new strangers and one familiar face. Place your bets... .

Indonesia's Martinus Miroto has fused Javanese trance-dance with modern sensibilities in previous work, which have included collaborations with Pina Bausch and Peter Sellars, that have been inspired by social unrest in his part of the world. Anouk van Dijk, from the Netherlands, has played with the chaos of everyday life in work with the Rotterdam Dance Group and the Pretty Ugly Dance Company. Somewhat closer to home, Charlotte Griffin has been a part of the ADF community in recent years and contributed dance and some choreography to the latest Archipelago Theater work, The Woman in the Attic. The geometry of works like Practicing Joy, and the wit of her formally dressed--and barefoot--couple in Intersection leave us wondering what happens when she, like the others, are unleashed on some of the world's best dance students for six full weeks.

Paul Taylor Dance Co.
Repertoire: Company B, Dante Variations and Spring Rounds
July 21-23
Page Auditorium

Tip Sheet: The American master comments on WWII--and possibly others--in a concert featuring a new work commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet.

Songs from the hit parade reel off the jukebox, while men in khaki trip the light fantastic with striking young women. Meanwhile, all around them, darkness encroaches in this commentary on war and popular culture in the 1940s. After that, Taylor catalogs different damnations from the Divine Comedy. Wonder what he's thinking of. But before the concert closes, we see Spring Rounds (commissioned by the San Francisco Ballet), two weeks after its world premiere in Paris.

Name Children? Adults? Dance snobs? The rest of us?
1. Shen Wei Dance Arts uncertain yes egad, yes Contemporary Chinese opera? Shen's done the impossible before...
2. Urban Bush Women yes yes two words: Pearl Primus particularly those into African-American and dance history
3. Pilobolus need you ask? most fugeddaboutit... accessible, entry-level modern dance--a good introduction to the field
4. Chunky Move maybe not yes definitely ...particularly anyone who digs psychological thrillers
5. Festival of the Feet II no-brainer yes ...will be unsatisfied Are mini-sets of African, tap and Irish step dance worth the highest $$?
6. Emanuel Gat Dance nope yes shoot the dice A new Israeli troupe does a salsa Rite of Spring...and gets away with it.
7. Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance totally yes yes Request seat belts if you're prone to vertigo.
8. Brian Brooks Moving Co. might get bored ditto still questionable ...perhaps those with an infinite capacity for irony...
9. Compagnie Kafig most of all yes heh heh heh...sure... Your hip-hop boundaries are about to be relocated--intercontinentally.
10. Battleworks Dance Co. yes yes some a gifted rising choreographer, but are these his strongest works?
11. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane not tonight... yes totally a proven genius, but this seems a lot more centerless than his best
12. ICCP can't tell yes take the risk three dark horses in a program with a radically varied track record
13. Paul Taylor Dance Co. yes most 50, yes. 25. Risky dark comments on recent wars, with something new at the end...


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