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Last dance, part one 

Our comprehensive wrap-up of ADF 2003

Had I only seen the opening night of the International Choreographers' Commissioning Program concert, the story would have been a lot different. The changes seen the second time around provided a telling reminder that critics with the earliest view of a new work don't always have the best or the final one.

Sonia Rodriguez's captivating moves, nuanced with pop-and-lock, jazz and martial arts influences, ultimately helped me make sense of Post-C.A.R.D.S. She mingled with others in Dominic Boivin's party mix, including a laconic Dwayne Worthington. True, Christy Pessagno's amateur video footage never effectively merged with the performance, and attempted frames involving road work and highways seemed tenuous at best. Still, the energy of the work engaged the audience--on night two.

When a work makes me as physically uncomfortable as Akiko Kitamura's Enact Oneself, something's going on. David Ferry's null lighting first finds four couples in chairs arranged in a diamond pattern. With deliberately excruciating slowness, one in each pair invades the space of the person next to them, manipulating their face, torso and limbs. What appears at first to be Matthew Sweeney's reticence to shake hands with Reba Mehan actually depicts his defining how much of her physical space he can invade and control without actually touching her. Brrr. Though the music stands on stage suggested a dysfunctional couple's chorus, the flying paper that ultimately covered the stage gave a chilly visual coda to a thought-provoking work.

But at the end of night two we were still waiting for Tatiana Baganova's Lazy Suzan to coalesce into more than lovely but disconnected vignettes, which elliptically dealt with the Mad Hatter's tea party from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The literary frame begins in the first moment, as Debbie Black's costume and Baganova's choreography enacts a tableau vivant of John Tenniel's famous illustration of Alice.

In Baganova's vivid scenarios, dancers literally bounce on oversized green exercise balls, a trampoline secreted behind a midstage scrim, and more than occasionally, each other. The metaphors for absurd and unsatisfying sexuality unreel through further scenes. A frustrated Matthew Beals enacts a friction dance while Denesa Chan walks along a supposed table's edge. The surreal pas de deux three couples perform in mid-work involves green apples passed from mouth to mouth by biting them. Unripened desire clouds the air before the advent of composer Chris Lancaster, who briefly channels Elvis with an accordion, aided by Destiny Shami.

But insufficient light obscures activities behind the scrim before Beals' harrowing duet with Chan who's suspended upside down in a bungee harness. And when dancers leave dead air between spoken lines from Lewis Carroll, the air just goes out of the work. It's not the first time we've seen choreographers try--and fail--to fuse literature, theater and dance. But would it be the last time at this year's ADF?

The question's particularly appropriate given the world premiere by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company--an adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's short story The Artificial Nigger. But before Thursday's audience saw it, we were treated to Ayo Janeen Jackson's powerful solo in Jones' uncanny opening, Power/Full. John Oswald's rave-up dance remix of a holy-roller preacher from yesteryear was starkly contrasted by Laurel MacDonald's transcendent Kyrie, as Jackson constantly stood apart, in a context all her own. If I didn't know the work involved I would have said she did so effortlessly. Instead, she only made it look that way, before Bain's stark visual frame suddenly segued to a more ambiguous one, as the true context of the African-American woman, the human soul--or both--remained unresolved at work's end.

Though Denis Boroditski, Malcolm Low and Germaul Yusef Barnes honor the give, take, bargaining and squabbles of Duet x 2, the work is necessarily different without the physical chemistry of the original cast who danced the piece in the early 1980s.

In Reading, Mercy and The Artificial Nigger, two actors on separate sides of the stage recite a reader's theater version of O'Connor's short story, while the company symbolically enacts the narration. It is telling that in our first vision of the work, the entire ensemble is slowly walking away from us--a physical representation of a past that is also fading from contemporary culture.

It's significant that dancers of differing genders and nationality play both the characters of Mr. Head and Nelson, as well as the African-American object of Mr. Head's scorn. Choreographer Jones' point, which he reiterated in a post-performance discussion, is obvious: to different people, sooner or later every ethnicity, nationality, gender and orientation is the pariah, the untouchable.

At times, Daniel Bernard Roumain's music for string trio and tape floats like a cloud across Bjorn Amelan's Georgian moon, a guileless cross between Johann Pachelbel and John Adams, who similarly played with the speed of another protestant hymn in his "Christian Zeal and Activity." But sly, skidding accompaniment in strings and keyboards soon recall the work of Mingus (and Randy Newman, for that matter), as Roumain snaps strings to underline particularly vexing points in the story, before a polyphonic thunderstorm late in the work.

No doubt the intentions surrounding Opening Acts were golden, and by all accounts, development director Cindy Carlson's behind-the-scenes efforts were heroic. Still, it should have humbled festival management to have its summer audiences learn that, given the proper lack of funding, support and knowledge, even the ADF could produce a showcase series whose design and execution was frequently more inept than most of the locally produced ones we see here year-round.

For those still wondering if North Carolina dance actually deserves to be at ADF, the following comparisons might prove instructive: Two Near the Edge's Common Law versus Paul Taylor's In the Beginning; Melissa Chris' Birdseye versus Pascal Rioult's Veneziana or Firebird; and alban elved's harrowing excerpt from Lux Eterna versus Pilobolus' sterile My Brother's Keeper.

For those who weren't there, the initial Carolinian works in the comparisons above demonstrated significantly more imagination, technique and artistic achievement than the secondary mainstage offerings by Taylor, Rioult and Pilobolus.

But festival audiences rarely actually saw the best North Carolina works in Opening Acts. Credit the last-minute nature of a late spring announcement for the series, which disadvantaged companies that have to schedule their appearances months in advance. In retrospect, the festival's traditional production calendar, in which mainstage companies are chosen the preceding fall, made this spring surprise look even more like an afterthought in comparison.

And also note the ADF's uncurated, first-come, first-served approach, which clearly signaled the degree of inattention the festival had given North Carolina art over the past two decades. Since senior festival management admittedly lacked direct knowledge of modern dance across the state, they had to hope a required two-year record of public showings and performance videotapes from companies would provide an adequate net against mediocrity, or worse.

Actually, those standards might have worked in New York, where festival management routinely stays for 10 months out of the year. But not in North Carolina.

As a result, Andrews Arts bombed on June 24 with The Bottle Tree, and The New York Times dance critic who sat next to me chortled, with reason, at Julie Becton Gillum's faux-Butoh Mound. So much for that witness' first--and possibly last--impressions of N.C. dance. Particularly since the July 10 edition's outdoor space, in front of Duke Chapel, proved acoustically and choreographically disastrous as well for Tiffany Rhynard's Anatomy of a Heart: Diagram #1, a work so interior that it should have never been taken outside, and a decidedly lackluster showing from Open Air Dance.

Then consider that indoor venue limitations also prevented a number of choreographers from even submitting their work for consideration. The lighting requirements for Caroline Williford's Via Negativa and Tyler Walters' While Going Forward (which won the coveted Choo-San Goh Award for choreography), and the space requirements for Choreo Collective's The Firm Believer guaranteed that those works--which outshone almost all we saw in Opening Acts--could never be considered for the series.

Still, in fairness, North Carolina talent repeatedly failed to capitalize on the opportunity handed them. Jan Van Dyke's Reliance was the weakest work I've ever seen from the noted Greensboro choreographer, and as an artist, Julee Snyder has grown considerably since the days of her Kitsch Unison. It's mystifying: With a national audience at the ready, why did regional choreographers bring forth work that wasn't their best?

For that matter, will they have another opportunity to do so at ADF? At mid-season, festival officials were non-committal, citing limited resources and personnel.

But the packed houses the series quickly generated--on next to no publicity--shows that the series almost effortlessly found a substantial and loyal audience. Wthout a doubt, those weekly standing-room-only crowds wanted to see North Carolina dance in the worst way.

Clearly the ADF should renew the series. Just as clearly it should curate it more appropriately than it did this year. And finally the festival should allocate adequate support to do so well: No one, including the apparently superhuman Ms. Carlson, should be expected to single-handedly produce--and then run tech--for such a series.

As we reported last month, the new Theater Studies studios behind Bryan Center should be online next summer, providing an alternative venue for the series. And should the ADF prove unwilling, unable or underfunded to learn from this summer's lessons, the locals should do it themselves. We saw proof this summer that they could do worse. An ADF Fringe Festival, anyone? EndBlock


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