An Oral History of the American Dance Festival: How an Academic Enclave in Vermont Became a Modern Dance Lightning Rod for Durham and the World | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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An Oral History of the American Dance Festival: How an Academic Enclave in Vermont Became a Modern Dance Lightning Rod for Durham and the World 

click to enlarge Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2002

photo by Bruce R. Feele

Shen Wei Dance Arts in 2002

This summer, the American Dance Festival celebrates four decades of bringing global modern dance to Durham and Duke University. But ADF's fortieth anniversary tells only half of its story; the festival has existed in some form since the early 1930s, when modern dance started to flourish in concert dance settings and academic institutions.

To resituate ADF's wide modern impact in its cloistered, campus-bound, little-remembered origins, we compiled an oral history of the festival, from its birth in Vermont to the development of the ADF brand to its pivotal move to Durham and beyond.

Key figures who remain involved with the festival walk us from past to present, where we see afresh how the festival retains its academic origins while taking dance—and discussion about the art form—into unlikely spaces and widespread interest.

Dramatis Personae:

Jodee Nimerichter (ADF Executive Director)

Charles Reinhart (ADF Director Emeritus)

Gerri Houlihan (Former dean of ADF School)

Joseph Fedrowitz (Director of ADF School Tours, volunteer since early 1980s)

Tony Johnson (Local choreographer and ADF's Samuel H. Scripps Studios staff)

Jody Cassell (Local choreographer and faculty at Scripps Studios)

Tom Bonfield (Durham City Manager)

ADF BEFORE DURHAM

The origins of the American Dance Festival lie in the Bennington School of Dance, which began at Bennington College in Vermont in July 1934. The school's emphasis on modern dance—a developing form that rejected the stylistic and narrative confines of classical ballet—was unprecedented. Its directors, Martha Hill and Mary Josephine Shelly, centered the curriculum on contact with professional choreographers; students trained with modern-dance pioneers like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. In 1948, after the Bennington School of Dance's discontinuation, Hill adapted the program into the Connecticut College School of Dance in New London. It became officially known as the American Dance Festival in 1969. Combining modern-dance training and professional performances, it remained in Connecticut until it moved to Duke University in 1978.

Jodee Nimerichter (ADF Executive Director): I've always been fascinated by how this indigenous American art form, modern dance, has had such an impact on the field and how the major choreographers [in the 1930s] needed a sort of refuge outside of New York City to create work. They needed bodies as instruments, so they started teaching classes at Bennington.

Charles Reinhart (ADF Director Emeritus): The whole history of the festival was pretty academic, coming from and being run by colleges. Modern dancers were not like ballet dancers, who start studying at six or seven years old. A great deal of modern dancers, at that time, were coming out of classes they took in college. Paul Taylor discovered [modern dance] at Syracuse. Right from the get-go, they had composition and improvisation, which developed creativity.

Gerri Houlihan (Former dean of ADF school): My roommate at Juilliard was dancing with José Limón. She went to ADF in Connecticut with José, and I went to visit her one summer. At that time I was a ballet dancer, or so I thought. [At Connecticut College], I thought, This is interesting, these are all peculiar modern people ...

CR: In the sixties, great young choreographers were bursting out of closets all over the place. Within the next fifty to sixty years, across all art forms, it was one of the greatest artistic explosions of all time. In the first few years [after Reinhart became ADF's director in 1968], it was hard to get someone to perform in a theater. Douglas Dunn had dancers in parachutes dropping from planes. Laura Dean did a piece in a pond. Meredith Monk did one on the great lawn. Yvonne Rainer performed in a gym. It was just all over, all over.

Jody Cassell (Scripps Studios faculty): I was there [with former ADF dean Martha Myers's company] in 1974. It was just total immersion in dance. I didn't know there could be that much dance all over the place.

ADF IN DURHAM

In 1974, Connecticut College leadership changed, and the festival determined that a move was in order. After reviewing more than fifty inquiries from potential host institutions, Reinhart and the board chose three semifinalists: the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Duke University.

CR: When [Connecticut College president] Charles Shain left in 1974, I said, Make sure to get somebody sympathetic towards ADF. The new president said they were going to have to charge us more money and take away space. I said, I think we're going to have to look for a new home. [Duke president] Terry Sanford had it all lined up: corporate support, state support, city support, Duke support. When we were down there, they had a party with over four hundred people, and I thought, If they all buy a subscription, we'll be fine. So we moved [to Durham].

JN: It's interesting that, while I think there's so much incredible, rich history in those early years, the festival grew with all that Durham offered and what Duke provided, in terms of multiple theaters and the campus landscape. Charles has said this to me before: ADF hit the big time when it moved to Durham.

CR: We were welcomed by the community outside of modern dance and the university. I think that was because they felt they wanted something—they had no idea what it was, but they came to love it, and they came back. It would've been so easy to say, What the hell is this? and never return. I think being in the summer helped, too. If we came in basketball season, forget about it.

Joseph Fedrowitz (Director of ADF School Tours): People forget how important ADF was for Durham and Duke at the time. It was the only game in town. People would plan their summer around it. Shows were on Monday and Tuesday and then Thursday, Friday, and Saturday—two different programs during the week. People would go to every single performance.

Tony Johnson (Local choreographer): ADF brought a new form of energy to the community, and they looked forward to it. I think the city has always been hungry for some sort of really authentic creativity.

JF: Wellspring, now Whole Foods, would print the ADF schedule on their shopping bags. The festival gave life to restaurants and other places. You could sit in a restaurant on Ninth Street—and I don't want to be ageist or sexist here—but you'd hear two little old blue-haired ladies discuss the merits of [Japanese performance duo] Eiko and Koma. That's a pretty amazing thing to have happen in a place like Durham.

CR: In the beginning of ADF's time in Durham, no place was open after nine p.m. We said to our audiences, We need you to hold a party after the performance so we can feed the dancers. We had drinks for everyone else but a special room where dancers would eat.

GH: When I first came here [as ADF faculty in 1981], I remember there was nowhere to go after a performance. We used to go to a place on Main Street; all the waitresses had beehive hairdos and said "y'all." I had never imagined just wanting to come visit. I mean, I thought Durham was this little out-of-the-way oasis for a summer, and then it felt its way back into being some odd little Southern city after that.

CR: We used to have a senator—Jesse Helms. I can't remember what artist performed, but what they did was controversial. Helms wrote Dr. Baker [of Lenox Baker Children's Hospital], who showed me the letter. Helms said something like, And I helped [ADF], bah! So, yeah, we had some negative reactions. But it's such a mixed crazy state, and continues to be.

THE ADF SCHOOL ETHOS

The ADF Six Week School brings dancers from around the world to train in Durham for the summer. Students take classes in an array of techniques, including modern, ballet, hip-hop, and improvisation, as well as composition. Students dance for upward of six hours a day, in addition to taking supplementary classes like yoga and Pilates, making new work, and seeing ADF performances. This intensive approach harks back to ADF's time at Bennington and is typical of other nationally known dance intensives, such as the Bates Dance Festival.

click to enlarge 1990. ADF Scripps Award to Twyla Tharp. Square Dance in East Gym on Duke’s Campus. - PHOTO BY JAY ANDERSON
  • Photo by Jay Anderson
  • 1990. ADF Scripps Award to Twyla Tharp. Square Dance in East Gym on Duke’s Campus.

GH: The whole idea of dance as an intellectual community pursuit, I found very interesting. I feel like I grew up as a teacher at ADF. When you're not teaching, you can go take a look at, you know, What is this release technique stuff; how does [Merce] Cunningham start class? What are the real elements in Gaga [technique]? So, as a teacher, I feel like I can stay more current in the field.

JN: Duke has been really incredible in allowing us to use multiple spaces and creating dance studios that are not dance studios, using gymnasiums, cafeterias, all kinds of spaces.

GH: [In the late 1980s] we were in Brodie Gym [on Duke's East Campus]. For a while, a lot of modern teachers were doing ballet barre. [In Brodie] there's a running track around the top [of the basketball court]. Doug Varone's classes there were always packed, and there would be a group of about twenty people downstairs holding onto chairs, and then you'd have another twenty people up around the track holding onto the railings, doing the barre there.

JF: I could watch teachers teach class forever. I think it's quite an experience for people [who take ADF tours] to be able to do that. I think it's important for people to realize how hard dancers work.

GH: Day-to-day, semester-to-semester kind of teaching is very different than at ADF. You can see how much people glean from six weeks of intensive training where you wake up in the morning and start class, and then you go to a performance that night, and then you go get ice cream at The Parlour and talk about what you saw.

JN: Convocation is the one time that almost everybody comes together as part of the festival. It's a big pep rally. This year it's open to the public. It's the moment when we see everybody, as eager as can be, people who think they're going to be the next Paul Taylor or the most amazing teacher.

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