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Past glories don't ensure glorious futures

What's brought forward--and left behind 

Past glories don't ensure glorious futures

Legacy was the central concept on the minds of the planners of both the N.C. Dance Alliance and Duke Dance's fall concert during the weekend of Nov. 5-6. Amid rep classes devoted to Ted Shawn's Olympiad and Balanchine's Four Temperaments, one festival panel focused on "the Limon Legacy," and a blue-ribbon panel of present-day "legacy makers" probed the grittier realities--and shining possibilities--for minority artists in the world of dance. After these came Duke Dance's Saturday night concert, subtitled Dancing the Legacy. Truth in labeling: particularly when compared with recent programs at Duke, the emphasis this time was historical. Restagings of Anna Sokolow's Dreamer and Jose Limn's Chaconne by guest artists Jim May and Roxane D'Orleans Juste were interspersed among Anna's Themes by May and a choreographer-approved condensation of Donald McKayle's Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder. Even Barbara Dickinson's witty fusion of spoken word and choreography, Fugitive Visions, came from early repertoire. Only Tyler Walter's mercurial, curious fusion of Tortoise and Mozart Studies and Rhonda Harrison's Strength and Beauty originated in this decade.

Reexaminations of classical works can potentially reveal historical aesthetic shifts as well as ongoing inheritances. At points, Anna's Themes experienced difficulty superseding kitsch. If Limn's Chaconne once embodied the struggle between form and feeling, Juste's interpretation of it clearly left form holding the upper hand. We watched as emotion and expression struggled repeatedly within the cage of classicism. Her few moments of exuberance and bravura only underlined the comparatively stiff, constricted nature of the rest of the work.

On the whole, Friday night's N.C. Dance Alliance Showcase was a geographically unbalanced, puzzling display of solo and small group works just completed or in development. Since Amy Chavasse still claims home ties here, call five of the hour's six works local, with the final work, Shouze Ma's Voices of the Himalayas, virtually so, coming from just up the road at Elon University. Why did the choreographers and dancers in attendance from the mountains, the Piedmont and the coast bring no work with them?

An unclear festival program left me with the mistaken impression that Friday's show was in Bryan Center, not Duke's Ark. By the time I arrived, Amy Chavasse was ironically finishing her work about infallibility, "Not mIstakeN." Nancy Simpson Carter's new solo work, "On Fire," followed.

The news here is that a young choreographer is stretching fairly powerful wings in an edgy--and at least partially autobiographical--spoken word/choreography piece. Between the many discontents of being an apparently almost literally starving artist--("Last night was the first time I ate ketchup with a spoon")--Carter strews nearly as many modern dance cliches, preceding each with a kind of sudden head-shaking gesture that indicates, "Oh yeah, wait, I know how it goes."

Only after exorcizing those shibboleths is Carter able to delve into sharp, kinetic new space. We encourage her to continue that exploration. She clearly also needs to work with a director or acting coach to develop the character who confronts us to the same degree her choreography has already developed. Her writing is good, her script has decent insights. Now its words must be performed as strongly as the work is being danced.

Courtney Greer's Bhayam Aloft, Flight 408 does not display the strongest work we've seen from Enloe in recent years. Witty in concept--a work in which people on a plane partner up with their luggage--the work went too long without appreciable development or build, and had yet to take the everyday motion of its pedestrian sources far enough into elevated aesthetic territory.

Adjunct Meredith faculty member Joan Nicholas-Walker's solo, Not All of Me, was as intriguing as it was incomplete--possibly more appropriate for a workshop than a showcase at this point--while Shouze Ma's Voices gave a first glimpse of a choreographer we want to see more of. At points, a student group made dazzling streamers of white garments with elongated Tibetan sleeves in a work graced with intriguing geometry.

But legacy is a term with two built-in tensions, not one. It bespeaks inheritance and responsibility--the stewardship of something with considerable value. In doing so it points simultaneously toward the past's contributions to the present, and what the present is preparing for the future.

The term also questions the limits of what can be passed on. One of the most disquieting findings from the weekend involved the handful of conference members who attended Saturday afternoon's "legacy makers" panel. In it, Mel Tomlinson and Carlota Santana disclosed how they confronted racism and the marginalizing of "ethnic dance" in their careers--and divulged how they surpassed. Such wisdom might be of use to developing artists--but it will only be passed on if the young artists actually make themselves available to it.

The uncomfortable crux of legacy is this: The posterity--the next generation--has to actually value the inheritance enough to show up to receive it. A few actually did on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 6.

Duke Dance tape-recorded the session. If anyone who wasn't there needs to know how artists actually survive under less than optimal circumstances, the tape might have useful insights. You could possibly get a copy if you call 660-3354.

Both were completely guileless questions--and telling ones nonetheless--from audience members after Friday's N.C. State Dance Program Concert . One asked what a work by Robin Harris was specifically trying to communicate about the life of Chattanooga journalist Blanche Clift. Another commiserated with the assumed frustration Mair Culbreth experienced putting things like a grandmother's nightgown in her work Marriage, things "an audience could never get."

Inadvertantly, perhaps, both fingered one of the fundamental bases on which we evaluate not only modern dance, but all art--its efficacy as a communicative act. If an artist has to tell you what a piece was about after the fact, why didn't the work communicate it instead?

Harris' concert opener, Wilt thou? ... and she wilted (Among the Daisies) was danced with acuity, precision and wit, as two women trampolined on parallel bed mattresses festooned with daisies around the borders. It was funny and sharp. What, if anything, it conveyed about its subject's life I couldn't say.

Not every work must be narrative-based or telegraph a literal text, of course. But successful artworks ultimately speak to us on some level. They relate a story, a feeling or ambiance, an intellectual sensibility, a question, a joke, a common or uncommon experience--any, all of these or more. They communicate content. They do so explicitly, implicitly or through allusion and suggestion.

That differentiated our experience, for example, of Nancy Zagbayou's moving solo, Pearls are Stars on the Night of Your Skin from Daydream Cafe, which closed the concert. While the latter work had largely yet to transcend its origins--a set of assigned student movement exercises with a chair--Zagbayou's strong, stringent work fully embodied the narrative in Senghor's poem Black Woman, which was recited during the dance. Though its force faded when the dancer turned her back to us toward the end, the dance's content was fairly robust and complete. The other work's content was less developed than its form.

The content of Culbreth's The Anatomy of an Argument was an amusing, ironic primer on how unclear human communications frequently are. While a narrator used medical terminology to define a series of gestures that are ultimately anything but universally understood, Culbreth and Marielle Amrhein demonstrated them. Attempting to communicate only with body gestures, their two characters first achieve confusion, sagging good faith and then open conflict.

Jacqueline White's Promenade seemed a pastiche on 1960s chic, with performers in period costumes and crucial accessories--handbags that ultimately wind up on feet and heads as well as other extremities. Coy looks paired with ridiculous gestures and improbable, ungainly poses underlined the absurdity of those in headlong pursuit of style, both then--and, by implication, now.

Carol Kyle Finley's In the Kitchen, Preparing an Apology is off to an interesting start: a metaphysical cooking show in which the host ostensibly demonstrates a recipe for an act of contrition. Why does it feel vaguer than useful? Perhaps because there's no such thing as a universal apology. Different gaffes require different forms of redress.

The dramatic stakes remain substantially reduced as long as Finley's speaker is simply demonstrating a hypothetical--as opposed to making something she really had to use for something big she did (or didn't) do. Perhaps that's why the work presently has the feel of a surface scratched and not delved into, an apology lacking something crucial: sincerity. If it is a surface apology, what's underneath? If Finley's work is ultimately about how not to make an apology (still a possibility, given what we saw), we still need more info--and the work more development.

  • Past glories don't ensure glorious futures

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