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An eye for dance

"After the book I wished I had something more. I wanted to provide a channel for the dancers that went beyond what the camera could offer." With these words, renowned dance photographer Steve Clarke embarks on a new enterprise this week. It's designed to put a group of deserving young dancers and choreographers he's worked with in recent years in front of different audiences--and put different audiences in front of contemporary dance. That's the inspiration for Focused Fluidity, a full-length showcase Clarke is producing at Carrboro's Century Center Saturday night.

Though he's become a staple in the regional scene, Clarke's career as a dance photographer only began in 1996, after his retirement as a professor in the School of Government at UNC. Despite the late start, his achievements have been remarkable since then.

The difficulty with much of modern dance photography is that it keeps its distance. Too frequently it focuses not on the people onstage, but merely their positions instead: the intricate stage patterns and contortions dancers' bodies find themselves in.

Ironically, the static nature of most dance photography sacrifices precisely those qualities that make dance dance: the movement, breath, human exertion, and above all, the animating impulse that inspires or provokes the action in the first place. Why not shoot posable mannequins or figurines instead?

What sets artists like Clarke and Lois Greenfield apart--and the two should obviously be mentioned together--is the degree to which both communicate not only the full space and time of a performance, but the artist performing in that moment as well.

Clarke's photography is nothing if not candid: a close interaction with human beings at full extension, in at least two senses of that term. Where too many photographers settle for documenting, Clarke's work discloses. At points it borders on the photographic equivalent of an interview: an intimate conversation, one on one, with the artist.

Given that proximity, the title of Clarke's new book of dance photography, Seeing While Being Seen, just out by the National Dance Association Press, is particularly apt.

And given his eye for arresting imagery, most dance insiders must now be wondering what a concert curated by the photographer would look like. A roster of artists largely unknown to this area has only enhanced that air of mystery.

As in Clarke's photography, there's just a touch of audacity in nearly everything about this show, including the venue, the programming and even the price of admission.

Despite a lovely dance floor in the main hall, the renovated former church building at the corner of Weaver and Greensboro streets in Carrboro has remained largely off the flight path for regional dance concertgoers up to now. The nontraditional venue and decidedly nontraditional ticket price--free--seems likely to add a nontraditional audience to the dance faithful as well.

But the selection of acts also dares to cross-pollinate Triangle artists and audiences with Triad-based dancers and choreographers, many of whom have been affiliated with UNC Greensboro, and a number of them now just beginning to practice locally.

Raleigh's Renay Aumiller, who just finished her degree in Greensboro, staged her first regional performance at a downtown gallery last week. She performs an excerpt from it, a duet named Blank Canvas, with Greensboro dancer Erin Guthe. Though northern transplant (and Trisha Brown company veteran) Niki Juralewicz relocated to Carrboro last year, this weekend marks her first major appearance on the region's dance stage.

Add to that eight additional acts by 12 other dancers who aren't household names here--not yet--and Clarke's professed agenda, opening new channels in dance, continues by other means this Saturday night.

The dilemma is this: Indisputably fine performances by Jordan Smith, John Murphy and a supporting cast including Katja Hill and Sarah Kocz don't change the ethical corners cut by playwright Ronald Harwood in Taking Sides, whose co-presentation by Wordshed and Ghost & Spice Productions resumes this weekend in UNC's Swain Hall.

Harwood's one goal is to avenge the fall of Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler, the man who stayed behind to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi's rise to power and the Second World War. Widely considered one of the century's great musical minds, once considered the obvious successor to Arturo Toscanini, Furtwangler never shook off the effects of a war crimes tribunal that not only tainted--but quite possibly smeared--his reputation after the end of hostilities.

Though he was openly embraced by the Nazi top brass as a propaganda coup--an example to the world of culture flourishing under the Reich--the case against Furtwangler as a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator was never open and shut. He famously never joined the Party, and never gave the Nazi salute in public. By a number of accounts he not only did all in his power to keep Nazi politics out of the arts, he helped a number of Jewish musicians escape the Holocaust.

And yet there are other records as well: anti-Semitic remarks the Maestro made, exceedingly rare--but still questionable--appearances conducting at party functions, and the considerable largesse and protection given the orchestra and conductor during what, after all, was a time of war.

Furtwangler's situation poses a host of questions, curiously appropriate not only to his hour, but ours. In a scoundrel time, in a country whose government is violating human rights and international law, how much resistance is ultimately enough? Enough, that is, to retroactively exonerate an individual from the guilt (by association) of simply having lived there during that time? Who gets to determine the appropriate coin for such a payment, or the final amount?

Harwood briefly engages the difficulty involved in proving the negative, raising the ghastly, ironic premise that survivors following such a regime are to be blamed for not doing enough to have had themselves executed during it.

Still, in Taking Sides, Harwood consistently stacks the deck in Furtwangler's favor. Lieutenant Wills (minimally read by Allan Maule) is freshly reassigned to prosecutor Major Arnold (John Murphy) just in time to be his foil on the case against Furtwangler (who Jordan Smith ably gives the gravitas of a lifetime devoted to the arts). Even more felicitiously, Wills turns out to be an American soldier--and German native--whose first major musical experience was at the hands of the accused maestro.

The evidence of his resistance and aid to Jewish musicians is presented in abundance--in lists, letters and impassioned pleas from witness Tamara Sachs (the convincing Sarah Kocz). By comparison, the stickier questions involving his personal views and statements about Jews are merely glanced at, at the end.

The largest ethical questions are either ignored or placed in the mouth of Major Arnold, who by then has been defined as little more than a boorish, unsympathetic stick figure of a prosecutor. From the start, his one intent is to nail Furtwangler, no matter what the evidence suggests.

It is appropriate, then and now, to ask at what point an artist accepting money and favor from an unethical source becomes tainted by the association. But Harwood's script is clearly written to return a verdict of not guilty on all counts for Furtwangler--even if it has to gracelessly smear others (including conductor Herbert von Karajan and war reporter Delbert Clark) in order to do it.

The only problem with that is this: Particularly when proving a negative, it's much more difficult to return a finding of innocence than a mere verdict of not guilty. Knowledge of fact is all that's required for the latter. Knowledge of the heart--and nothing less--is a mandate for the former.

Harwood never demonstrates he has that knowledge in Taking Sides. Indeed, it's hard to know how any other human could.

The surprises kept unfolding in Duke Theater Studies' production of Hapgood, which closed Nov. 21 at Sheafer Theater. Tom Stoppard's homage to the cold war spy thriller has more than enough plot twists to keep an audience permanently off-balance. Indeed, the switchbacks keep on coming in this puzzle palace of a play, well after most audience members have lost all hope keeping track of them.

The far more pleasant surprises I refer to came from examining the program after the show--and learning that acting this good was coming from a student cast.

Where was Mike Dickison's professional credits preceding his accomplishment in the role of Blair, a British spymaster whose deceptively avuncular air suggested a slightly kinder, gentler version of John LeCarre's George Smiley?

Where had we seen Caroline White? Her crisp rendition of junior station chief Hapgood gave the sense of a woman for whom being iced out of an old boy's network could have fatal consequences.

And what of the refreshing Dylan Parkes, whose tellingly unnamed Russian became tangled in the lines between personal and professional connections in Hapgood's most dangerous game?

Director Jeffery West was clearly at the top of his game, nurturing vibrant characters from a student cast in this meaty British drama. So much so in fact, that the only major demerits one could take, aside from the occasional niggling slip in tech and supporting roles, involves Stoppard's script itself.

In this world of single and double agents (not to mention the triple and quadruple varieties that manifest before the work is done), we're meant to always ask who's turned who--and who's turning which way now.

Hapgood's plot focuses on proving a number of British agents either loyal or traitor when a briefcase ballet involving a Russian scientist goes awry. But Stoppard unfortunately belabors his overly clever attempts to superimpose the realities of cold war espionage on the world of quantum physics. Things do get lengthy as a result.

Is light a wave or a particle? Is an agent ours or theirs? After the 20th plot turnaround, we're not entirely certain anyone cares anymore. One of the inadvertent lessons from Hapgood is this: Dramatic reversals become a lot less dramatic when they show up in every blessed scene.

The only critique we might offer this production involves trusting--if not the material--then at least the integrity of its own performances just a little more. When the acting's this good, you don't need gimmicks like strobe effects and portentious music cues. What was at center in Hapgood was more than good enough without them.

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