American Dance Festival has introduced diverse groups, marvelous performances

Kyle Abraham's A.I.M. presents "Dearest Home," solos and duets representing an intimate probing of relationships and our deepest feelings of love, longing and loss.Paula Court

Midway through anything, it’s good to reflect on how things are going. This goes for the American Dance Festival.

This year’s festival, which started June 14 and continues through July 21, features world premieres, returning favorites and commissioned pieces. All told, there will be 53 performances by 26 companies and choreographers.

Then there are about 350 dance students from 16 countries and 37 states, along with 44 faculty members and musicians.

On opening night, Durham mayor Steve Schewel said the ADF has an $8 million economic impact on that city each summer, some 21,000 people drawn to dance events.

So, how is this year’s festival going? Here’s a look at our observations and highlights from what we’ve seen so far. Plus, there are still some anticipated productions remaining.

Changed sense of reality

Audiences are perceiving what’s performed with changed eyes. This applies for newer works as well as older ones. What’s different seems to be our very sense of reality.

Here’s an example. Five pieces were presented by former ADF students, now emerging artists. “Coming Home: ADF Alumni Return” included “TedX on Love,” a sort of Ted talk choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly, artistic director of the feath3r theory, a New York-based dance-theater-media company that explores pop culture.

Kelly has dedicated his work to Andy Warhol, and his six dancers were dressed in hipster, 1960s-style outfits, with stockings over their heads. At one point, they ran around saying how seven danced on stage.

This critic began to doubt her own count. What do you believe these days?

Meanwhile, normal crowd-pleasers Pilobolus and Paul Taylor Dance Company pointed to a rumbling undercurrent. Pilobolus’ world premiere of its latest comic piece, “Eye Opening” met with less than rave reviews, especially from some festival students. The piece featured dancers with giant eyeballs stuck to their heads as they listened to a science lesson about an eye’s construction and function. One woman was overheard saying, “Pilobolus has problems.”

Paul Taylor presented two Taylor works from the 1980s — sumptuous, balletic yet modernistic pieces. Although dancing in the last piece, “Mercuric Tidings,” was shaky. What the crowd roared for, though, was guest choreographer Doug Varone’s “Half Life,” seeming to be about wild atoms.

One audience member described it as “radioactive and unstable. Kind of like our civic affairs.”

Range of choices

“I really want to show a range of what’s happening,” ADF executive director Jodee Nimerichter said before the festival began.

Rather than a single theme, she wants to showcase dance quality and diversity in a variety of venues. She’s succeeding. Her achievement is noteworthy, because in the arts these days, it’s often about how a curator perceives his or her place professionally rather than the art itself.

Performances have included a drama of the African-American experience, as well as the tackling of an anti-opera. One night, two dancers pushed aside life’s curtain for a backstage comedic turn, including serious notes. On a different night, choreographer Ronald K. Brown saw his life and work celebrated with a $50,000 Scripps Award. Community members joined company’s members for joyous dancing to Stevie Wonder’s music.

Venues have ranged from the mammoth Durham Performing Arts Center to the more intimate Reynolds Industries Theater on Duke’s campus to the black-box theater of the new Duke Rubenstein Arts Center, a gem.

Here are mini reviews of some of the shows I’ve seen.

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company

Dayton Contemporary Dance Company gave a once-in-a-lifetime performance, performing better than ever. The audience marveled.

Setting the tone for the night’s emotional triumph was “Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder” by Donald McKayle from 1959. Dancers portrayed the heartache and strength of being imprisoned on a chain gang. You felt the pain as well as the power in a fling of a head, a jerk of shoulders, a stomp of a foot. The muscular line of an extended leg or arm was unbelievably crisp. Technical prowess was astonishing. Beneath the surface, you could sense today’s news.

In Asdata Dafora’s piece from 1932, “Awassa Astrige/Ostrich,” dancer Christopher Ward truly transformed himself. When his back was to the audience, he brought his shoulders around so evocatively, you felt as you were watching a warrior’s spirit animal.

“Indestructible,” a world premiere by Abby Zbikowski, had six dancers perform a power-surge of some crazy cross-fit class of life in tough times to hard-core music — a break-dancing drill of punishing moves: stomping, kicking, punching, slides and rolls across the floor.

The last piece, “This I Know For Sure…” choreographed by Broadway dancer Ray Mercer was softer, more moody, a fusion of multiple dance strands woven into something darker and more edgy than anything seen on Broadway. Some runs into partners’ arms were stunning but also risky.

The dancing was so powerful all night, in fact, and perfect, that this repertory company not only incorporated others’ choreography seamlessly into dancers’ bodies, but also somehow managed physically to raise the experience to a new bodily dimension. Unbelievable!

Shen Wei Dance Arts

Shen Wei Dance Arts left the most after-images. Choreographer Shen Wei set his piece to American composer Morton Feldman’s anti-opera, “Neither,” from 1977 with 16 lines of original text by Samuel Beckett, of “Waiting for Godot” fame.

Wei’s dances are like 3-D paintings, and Feldman, an avant-garde experimentalist and friend of composer John Cage, was himself drawn to American painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock. Wei combined projected text, a mostly monochromatic set and costumes, a chair stuck to one wall, dancers who writhed, melted into the floor, offered smooth runs and small backbends – with an amazing flexibility and a constant flow– to the discordant sounds of a soprano’s shrieks.

The audience got a rather dystopian portrait of confined distress. A few audience members walked out. Then dancers appeared like goddesses wrapped in plastic – images of strange aliens or religious participants in a Medieval pageant. Audience members later remarked how the piece was disturbing and challenging. One called it “viscerally painful.”

‘Places Please!’

The piece, starring Nicole Wolcott & Larry Keigwin, began as the audience drifted in with Wolcott checking a rack of clothes and doing some club dancing. This backstage comedic look at dancers’ lives had Wolcott and Keigwin shedding costumes, calling out to the audience, a requisite cell-phone interruption, Keigwin admitting he had to use the bathroom, and a nod to the Broadway show “CATS!,” plus sparkles and confetti.

Each dancer offered a poignant monologue: Wolcott’s on motherhood’s effects on your body and Keigwin’s of being told he might be too gay for Broadway. The audience left dancing.

‘Ronald K. Brown/Evidence’

This traced the evolution of the choreographer’s work about the African-American experience and its physical and spiritual journey, including three excerpts from larger works. Brown takes the moves of rural and urban Africa and melds them with the American experience, aiming at the heart of this country’s underpinnings.

He’s a master of emotional states, using dips and spins, flinging arms, evocative lifts with knees drawn-up. His dances were full of drama and poignancy, with a street flavor and a modernist flair, set to music ranging from Bobby McFerrin to Philip Hamilton & Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Especially arresting was “Lessons: March (excerpt),” danced by two women, instead of the original two men. The piece featured words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. about “strange illusions” held at times in America about superior and inferior races. It was haunting and beautiful when one woman carried the other in her arms, a needed coda for our times.

What’s next?

For tickets, locations and schedules, go to americandancefestival.org. Note that some shows are sold out.

▪ Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre will present “Make Believe” — originally conceived at ADF in 2013 — which uses religious iconography to explore themes of love, romance, and religious spectacle and how these rituals are unified by themes of paganism, magic, and celebrity worship. July 6, 8 p.m.; July 7, 7 p.m.

▪ Muriell Elizéon, French-born but now creating dances in Saxapahaw, presents “Brown” about gender and racial stereotypes. Adult content and nudity. Durham Fruit & Produce Company warehouse, Sunday, July 8, 2 p.m., 7 p.m.; Monday, July 9, 7 p.m.

▪ Tere O’Connor presents one of his abstract works, “Long Run,” Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater, Tuesday to Wednesday, July 10-11, 8 p.m.

▪ Wondrous Women with five women doing five solos, including tap wonder Michelle Dorrance, street-jazz artist Rhapsody Jams, South Indian dance artist Aparna Ramaswamy, Beijing choreographer Yabin Wang and African-American storyteller Camille A. Brown. Carolina Theatre, Friday, July 13, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 14, 7 p.m.

▪ Dana Ruttenberg Dance Group gives a gallery tour with four dancers acting as museum guards. Audience members get to select their own music and dance along. Ages 6 and up. Raleigh’s N.C. Museum of Art, Saturday to Sunday, July 14-15, 8 p.m.; Monday, July 16, 12 p.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m.; Tuesday, July 17, 6 p.m., 8 p.m.

▪ Kyle Abraham’s A.I.M. presents “Dearest Home,” solos and duets representing an intimate probing of relationships and our deepest feelings of love, longing and loss. Duke’s van der Heyden Studio Theater in Rubenstein Arts Center, Wednesday, July 18, 2 p.m., Thursday, July 19, 8 p m.

▪ “Footprints” with ADF-commissioned world premieres by three emerging female choreographers. Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater, Friday, July 20, 8 p.m., Saturday, July 21, 7 p.m.

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