American Dance Festival 2016 Review

By Dilip Barman

Most of the 61 performances by 26 companies and choreographers from around the world are held in Durham, NC at Duke University and Durham Performing Arts Center, but there are eleven additional venues. In addition, for the first time, ADF has a New York City season August 1-6, 2016 at the Joyce Theatre, including Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre and the New York City debut of Provincial Dances Theatre.

In my July column, I reviewed Pilobolus and previewed a number of dancers and choreographers including Kate Weare, Stephaen Petronio Company, 5 by 5, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, and Koma. This month, I will review these and a few other troupes, and preview the last troupes in this year's Festival, including Company Wang Ramirez.

Kate Weare presented the world premiere of an ADF commissioned dance, Marksman on June 21, 22, and 23. Her inspiration for the dance came from philosopher Eugen Herrigel's1948 book Zen in the Art of Archery and the ideas that, through careful practice, a movement can self-focus on an inner and outer semantic that is beyond willfulness. The idea, surely, is one worthy of contemplation, but, at least for me, fell short in its execution. The six dancers seemed rather aimless in the choreography, with the dance having no real progress or dénouement, ending rather suddenly and arbitrarily. Perhaps this was existentially how the piece was meant to be but, for better or worse, philosophical explorations don't always resonate or, perhaps, take time to impart wisdom.

I much better appreciated Stephen Petronio Company. Petronio presented as part of his Bloodlines project, honoring key modern American dance masters, including Merce Cunningham's RainForest (1968) and its use of an Andy Warhol installation, as well as Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy (1979). Though I hadn't seen either dance before, I could only marvel at Petronio's interpretation of these pieces with ephemeral costumes subtly danced in fluid movements for Glacial Decoy, and an element of randomness as dancers in RainForest performed amidst the Warhol balloons.

As much as I enjoyed his homage to the greats, he himself has a long and respected history, founding his Company in 1984 and performing and inspiring around the world. I enjoyed all three dances that he presented, including his own Locomotor (2014). Featuring an unadorned dark set and meditative electronica score with primordial rhythms, the dance progressed with a surprisingly consonant detached robotic modality that somehow still was deeply humanistic. I was impressed with the dancers' subtle strength, including dancing while moving backwards.

5 by 5 featured five dances, each by a different choreographer. My favorite was Brian Brooks' Torrent (2013). I have enjoyed his dances in the past and found this to refreshingly stretch his style; I would not have recognized it as his. He used a fun “recomposition" of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons as the score to the dance. The dance reminded me of a “dressed down" Paul Taylor Dance Company piece with dancers dynamically forming smaller groups amongst themselves, breaking up, and reforming anew.

I knew not to take a child to the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company's Analogy/Lance: Pretty AKA The Escape Artist (2016). Bill Jones is well known for his strong dances and biting social commentary and his cultural references and language for some dances are rather mature. The dance at ADF this year was the second of a trilogy. As I described in the August 2015 issue of Saathee, the first in the trilogy, Analogy/Dora: Tramontane (2015), was one of my favorites last year. It “is based on a true story of Dora Armelan, Bill T. Jones' mother-in-law. A Jewish girl who was nineteen years old in Belgium at the beginning of World War II, she survived the Holocaust and worked in French camps as a nurse and social worker to save others, but lost many loved ones of her own."

I was disappointed by the theme of this year's dance, a true story about Jones' nephew, Lance T. Briggs. Lance's life of excess with illicit sex, drugs, and even gangsters is depicted through dance, music, and spoken word. I was reminded of the Holocaust piece from last year with the recurrence of the simple white stretcher-like bed that Dora had used and now was for Lance, in attendance at the show I was at and who was recovering from significant medical issues. The spoken word narrative was also a common thread, though I much preferred its affect last year. There is no doubt about the strength of the dancers and the seriousness of the choreography to narrate, but I question the choice of subject and his path in life, which was, to me, utterly non-inspirational or, frankly, interesting.

ADF presents each year both a Musicians' Concert and a Faculty Concert. I loved the former this year. Decidedly less formal than the dance performances, it featured the many musicians who perform to accompany the dances, set free to share their talent as they wish. The Faculty Concert has ADF faculty taking stage to showcase their own short dances that they put on with their students. These dances are, by design, quickly choreographed within a few weeks during the ADF School and are fun peeks into the creative process of the faculty.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago presented an exciting evening of N.N.N.N. (2015), Quintett (2012), and One Flat Thing, reproduced (2015), honoring the choreography of William Forsythe. In the children's matinee, we learned how the troupe got its name; they started meeting at a studio and, when it was clear that there was some future and they needed a name, the street sign outside of their studio informed the choice.

The energy and abstractions were delightful. The first dance was a quartet of constantly connected dancers. Originally designed for four men, it was re-designed for two men and two women. There is little music but the dancers' concerted breath sounds are amplified. It is exciting to see how the dancers form different shapes, often looking like four letter “N"s, hence the name.

As much as I enjoyed it, I loved the last piece, One Flat Thing, reproduced. The curtains open to an array of steel office tables which the dancers almost immediately push out with gleeful noise toward the audience. The dance continues with an element of improvisation as dancers engage with tables. Even the industrial noise score, quite appropriate and appealing for the dance, is generated as the dance unfolds. I wouldn't have guessed it, but in the question and answer period, it was revealed that the dance is about Antarctica with dancers experiencing the difficulties of exploring the geography of the icy (table) continent.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company had shows on July 11th and 12th. The choreographer Lar Lubovitch was presented with an annual Samuel H. Scripps/ADF award for lifetime achievement, which included a generous cash recognition. Trained as a dancer at The Julliard School, Mr. Lubovitch created his Company in 1968 and has choreographed over 100 dances, and been featured in film and Public Broadcasting's Great Performances.

The performance included a whopping five dances. My seven-year-old daughter and I liked the first dance, North Star, 1st Movement (1978) the best. Set to the music of Philip Glass, the dance was reminiscent of inviting and relaxing ocean waves; my daughter said that it “made me want to move with it … [and] jump off and start dancing". All the dances were artful with beautiful music.

Koma Otake brought his innovative and contemplative The Ghost Festival to ADF. The first part was held in the contemporary 21c Hotel and then the second part was outside, where Koma danced in, around, under, and on top of a trailer with his artwork. The idea of dancing in a performance space that doubles as a visual art installation is an intriguing one that allows the audience to imbibe both visual and dance art forms in a cohesive and dynamic whole. Koma was very accessible and as soon as the performance ended, welcomed spectators to visit with him and look around his trailer and art.

Perhaps the highlight for me for the season so far was Russian choreographer Tatiana Baganova's Provincial Dances Theatre. I encourage those who can make it to take advantage of ADF's free tours through their teaching studios. I enjoyed seeing a number of instructors at work in the ADF Six-Week School, including Baganova just two days before seeing her troupe perform.

I saw Provincial Dances' Maple Garden (1999) during ADF at their Russian Festival program in July 2004. I loved it then and I loved it when I saw it this year. The dance “presents strong, compelling, and mysterious visions. A bare-branched tree, bird sounds, and a man with a large butterfly net are just some of the images that make this work appear part fairytale and part grim dream. Beautiful, if grotesque, and bewitching." The program's description nicely sums up this visually lush and rather humorous piece with elements of aerial dance and seemingly absurd kissing connections between dancers via string.

But an even stronger if somewhat more restrained dance awaited after intermission. Sepia (2010) uses falling sand from beautiful suspended hour glasses to shower (on demand) dancers, representative of time and changing consciousness. I heard strong influences of Igor Stravinksy's The Rite of Spring in thundering discordant drumming, which helped me to visualize the change of a person through adolescence. The set was stunning and the dancers strong.

Hours before my press deadline, I saw Rioult Dance NY's triptych WOMEN ON THE EDGE…Unsung Heroines of the Trojan War, based on Euripides' tragic heroines Iphigenia, Helen of Troy, and Cassandra. Choreographer Pascal Rioult, a former French track and field athlete whose love of social dance morphed into his profession, reinforced Euripides' elevation of women to that of peace-loving visionaries through costume and lighting. Euripides' stories are narrated by the voice of actor Kathleen Turner.

I came away from the first two dances, Iphigenia (2013) and On Distant Shores … a redemption fantasy (2011), satisfied but, frankly, a bit underwhelmed. I was distracted by what seemed to me to be a poorly displayed backdrop of clouds in the second dance. The dances were worth attending, but perhaps I need more viewings for them to excite me.

However, I was impressed with the last dance, Cassandra's Curse (2016). Trojan Princess and seer Cassandra warned her fellow citizens that the “gift" of the Trojan horse hid soldiers, but she was ignored. The ensuing truth of her vision resulted in the destruction of Troy and the end of the Trojan War. Dancers in Cassandra's Curse had a strong and precise urgency to their movements, including an effective way of enacting the carnage.

A clever cage cum wall was an important stage element, made even more dramatic not just with the dancing around and encased by it, but by the effective video projected through it. I didn't realize till the question and answer period that the film was from the contemporary Syrian conflict, furthering choreographer Pascal Rioult's use of Greek mythology to condemn the folly of war.

At press time, several performances are pending, including Company Wang Ramirez and the annual Footprints show. The Festival ends on July 29 and 30 with Paul Taylor Dance Company, as I described in the July column.

Company Wang Ramirez gave a very well received performance in 2015. Their dance Monchichi (2011) was an energetic melding of genres including hip hop, martial arts, and ballet with exciting “use of silhouette, Zen sensibility, and minimalistic white stage with a simple tree that is depicted differently depending on how it is lit" (from my August 2015 column). This year's Borderline (2013) is said to address the meaning of democracy again through a multi-genre approach and the use of cables to describe freedom.

Full more details on ADF, visit americandancefestival.org.

Note: Photographs and American Dance Festival logo and schedule courtesy of American Dance Festival and used with permission.