ADF: Four Choreographers Dance ON THEIR BODIES

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.


An artist stands alone before the blank page.

A choreographer stands alone on a blank stage.

Any mark is possible. The infinitude of choice paralyzes. But the force of creative will touches the brush to paper, declares an arc through space with an arm–and choice disappears, paralysis gives way to the requirements of the images and actions pressing their way into the world through the body of the maker. The calculating, crafting artist becomes the tool of the art.

And so it is in the penultimate show of the 2014 American Dance Festival season. Four very different choreographers whose work we are more used to seeing on other dancers, perform personal acts of soul-baring, painting the stage space with their ephemeral kinetic inks, in a quartet of meditations on time, death and transitions. This special concert will repeat 7/23 in the DPAC.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei, the slim body of his youth given way to the thicker forms of middle-age, legs and torso draped in sheer white jersey and feet encased in white socks, danced his 2014 Variations alone on white marley to the gently solemn sounds of Arvo Part’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. He is no less graceful than the youth who so amazed us all as a young ADF student, but far more powerful now in his sinuous elegance that never fails to make me think of swifts and swallows soaring and swiveling through the sky. Shen Wei is such a man of the world that it feels extremely complimentary to have him consider Durham his summer home. The other night I was watering my garden and who should walk by, coming no doubt from rehearsal at the DPAC. It seemed so normal to see Shen Wei in my parking lot that I just waved and said hi. Turning his head in that impossible bird-like way, his arm rose seemingly of its own volition to complete the line of nose/shoulder/hand, and he smiled before disappearing down the alley. I got my own tiny personal solo dance, to treasure in my mental file of Shen Wei images, but the one he does on stage is not a fragment torn from time. It has a completeness that is enormously satisfying, even while one remembers this twist, that arm’s curve, those cloaked feet in stringent fifth position.


Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Three ADF-commissioned world premieres follow, the first and most emotional by Doug Varone. He dances his work The Fabulist to David Lang’s exquisite Death Speaks (uncredited, but probably Shara Worden singing) in cones of smoky light cutting the dark. Varone is, I believe, a great humanist. Something, probably honesty, makes his movement powerfully touching–you feel like he is telling you secrets in the dark. He’s got a bullet head and is built like a tank but moves like a…man. The bottom several inches of his pant legs are sheer, and through them you see his strong slim ankles, while most of his body is covered. I was brought to tears by this sight and pretty much all of the dance. If Varone has ever interested you, do not miss this solo.


Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

A less satisfying piece by Stephen Petronio comes next. Big Daddy is about Petronio’s father, and yes, there is talking. Petronio wears a suit and a headset–and speaks from a podium microphone as well. He wears too many clothes and does not dance enough. At first I feared the piece would be as dreadfully self-centered as Loudon Wainwright III’s one-man show about his father, but actually, Petronio’s writing was beautiful. I was just disappointed not to see him really open up with those huge shapes he can make.

The evening closes with the luminous Ron K. Brown, in his new work Through Time and Culture. Brown, who is brown, was dressed in pristine white pants and knee-length tunic, which set a meditative tone and set off his beautiful beaming face and expressive hands and feet. I never have perceived ideas in Brown’s work so much as feelings, and feelings pour forth with abundance here. Reverence is the greatest among them, and gratitude.

Each artist received much applause–Shen Wei being treated like home folks–and at the final bow, all received a long standing ovation, which appeared to surprise them all very much. Surprise them again tonight. ADF has been promoting the show with $15 tickets. Use promo code ADFLEGENDS.


Dedicated to the dancing memory of my aunt, Mary Carolyn Dobbs, who left her body July 23, 2014.

ADF: Paul Taylor: Dance Until You Drop

The Paul Taylor Dance Company in Marathon Cadenzas. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

The Paul Taylor Dance Company in Marathon Cadenzas. Photo: Paul B. Goode.


Leaving the annual American Dance Festival presentation of the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Durham Performing Arts Center last night, I eavesdropped on two women who’d loved the performance.

Woman One: “The truth is really overrated.”

Woman Two: “Oh, I agree. All this stuff about problems and war and everyday things…”

Woman One: “I mean, the truth is fine and all, but you don’t have to talk about it!”

While I’d hardly say that the truth is absent from Paul Taylor’s choreography, or his company’s dancing–quite the opposite, in fact–I think I know what those women meant.

The news has been unusually bad this week all over. To gaze at a stageful of beautiful humans engaged in the  high craft and mystery of making glorious art, sculpting with their bodies a purer world out of light and air and sound…well, it makes a person want to live to fight the culture wars another day.

Paul Taylor has been presenting his choreography since 1954, and he continues dance making today, although preparations are underway for his company, for the first time, to begin working with other choreographers. Next year, we may see something different. But this year’s program is all Taylor, with the new piece sandwiched between two works from the 1970s.

Marathon Cadenzas (2014), an ADF commission in honor of the company’s 60th birthday, premiered in New York this spring. It is not the most powerful Taylor work ever (though design and costumes by Santo Loquasto are strong), but its message is perfectly clear. Based on the dance marathons that took place during really hard times, where hungry couples strove to be the last standing and take home the prize that could stave off starvation if only they had stamina enough, it could be read as a parable of the artistic life. Take your talent and your love and work them without respite through every competition and in the end, you may get a meal(ticket). Dance until you drop. You’re going to drop anyway, may as well dance.

Michael Trusnovec, center, feet off the ground in Marathon Cadenzas at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 7-18-14. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

Michael Trusnovec, center, both feet off the DPAC stage in Marathon Cadenzas at the ADF,  7-18-14.  Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


It’s not necessary to think about all that truth, though. You can just revel in the pleasure–something made very easy by the first piece on the program, the comic Diggity (1978), with its endearing set of cut-out dog figures and closely-toned costumes by Alex Katz (under magically even lighting by Jennifer Tipton). How wonderful when a dance makes laughter bubble out of the audience, the laughter of uncomplicated happiness. The dance includes, among all the frolics, some swell sequences in which the men lift one woman aloft to show off some very fancy tricks.

Michael Novak, Michael Apuzzo, George Smallwood and Michael Trusnovec in the men’s dance from Cloven Kingdom, at the ADF @DPAC, 7-18-14.         Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

The final work of the night is the fantastic Cloven Kingdom (1976). If you’ve never seen this, I encourage you to go tonight. It is classic Taylor, with the beautiful and the strange, the old-fashioned and the futuristic, the reassuring and the frightening, racing through each other as the beautiful bodies fly and tumble across the stage. Eight women in silver slippers and billowing  jewel-toned gowns, and four men in black and white formal clothes flow and syncopate on and off the stage in a symphony of color and shadow. At the dance’s center is a ferocious, angular piece for the men that will engrave itself on your brain. And then there are the headdresses and helmets that turn the dancers into human disco balls. It is all wonderful.

Not the least of its wonders is Michael Trusnovec. It strikes me as somewhat of a miracle that, because we are so lucky as to live in the same town as the American Dance Festival, we can watch, year by year, great dancers on the turning wheel of time. Trusnovec has been with the Taylor company since 1998, longer than any of the other current dancers. We’ve seen him as an incredibly talented young man, still immortal in his joints and his daring; we’ve seen him in the full glory of his prime, flesh full and powerful but controlled by will and practice. Now we see him fined down closer to the bone, elegant, strong but not jumping so freely. Now every gesture and each inclination of the body must carry more meaning, and they do. He was absolutely splendid in Cloven Kingdom last night, more electric, crisper in his attitudes and sharper in his turns, than anyone else on stage (this is saying a lot). I could recognize him from the back with a disco helmet over his face, upstage behind eleven other dancers. I’m trying not to mourn in advance, but one year–he won’t be back. Don’t miss this moment.


Go until you can't go no more. Paul Taylor's Marathon Cadenzas. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Go until you can’t go no more. Paul Taylor’s Marathon Cadenzas. Photo: Paul B. Goode.

ADF: Tere O’Connor, part 2


The dances are studded with moments that seem like drawings on the stage. This one from poem, July 15, 2014, Reynolds Theater. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

The dances are studded with moments that seem like drawings on the stage. This is one from poem, July 15, 2014, Reynolds Theater. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


Tere O’Connor Dance presented two more works in its American Dance Festival series on the 15th in Reynolds Theater, and another on the 16th. Secret Mary (2012) and poem (2012) are, the word is, “interconnected” with Sister, which was danced Sunday in the Ark. The final dance BLEED is meant to be the culmination of a two-year-long project during which O’Connor made the first three with different casts and different “source material.” The ADF presentation of all four dances is the first time they’ve all been performed together, in sequence. BLEED is its own dance, but having seen the other three, it does look like Connor put the earlier ones in the blender and hit chop before pouring all eleven dancers onto the stage. You could see whole chunks of previous dances adrift in the movement soup. Possibly this takes the idea of re-mix a little further than is useful.

I was quite taken with Sister, but maybe it requires the humidity and closeness of a space like the Ark to juice up this work for me. In Reynolds, up on the stage in a cool room, the dances seemed less like important communications from the nonverbal world than clever mind games set on bodies. The distinctive combination of different movement types with piquant gestures of O’Connor’s devising began to feel more contrived than inventive. Neither Secret Mary, for four dancers, nor poem, for five dancers, has anything in the way of emotional force, narrative arc or dramatic tension; both do mimic life in its erratic swing between exhilaration and boredom, with long marches and languid pauses along the way. Sadly, all of O’Connor’s sparkling variations in movement, dancers, lighting and sound could not counteract the deadening effect of his long pauses. Another problem was that each dance included a dancer with noticeably more refined technique than the others, which skewed the design because the eye wanted to linger on that one. An even bigger problem was that the two dances, performed without intermission–the two casts cross leaving and arriving–were too much alike, as well as being too much the same throughout. One felt that both could have been stopped at any number of places, without detrimental effect. Judging from the number of people shifting and surreptitiously checking watches, I was not alone in this thought.

This instant from BLEED shows O'Connor's skillful use of gesture big and small. Silas Riener front right. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

This instant from BLEED shows O’Connor’s skillful use of gesture big and small. Silas Riener front right. Reynolds Theater, July 16, 2014.  Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


It’s possible that the fractured, elastic, circular way that we experience time, and therefore each other, is O’Connor’s real subject. You can just just glimpse the idea beyond the nearly opaque screen of smart dance references. That idea seemed to drive BLEED, which has a clearer structure (and being one dance, doesn’t go on at such tiresome length), and with eleven dancers, much more possibility of meaningful variation. It also makes more of the big rhythm of repetitions, especially of a ritual element involving circling and stamping (that, rather delightfully, seemed to refer to “dance to the death” of The Rite of Spring). The larger cast made the discrepancies among the dancers’ skills less noticeable–and there were some lovely duets for the two powerful men, Silas Riener and Ryan Kelly. And, as the photographs show, there were striking moments throughout, as well as bursts of wonderful kineticism and real dancing among the pauses.

Tere O’Connor will discuss his work tonight, July 17, at 8 pm in the Ark. Free.

Tere O’Connor Dance in an arresting moment near the end, but not the end, of BLEED. Photo: ©Ian Douglas.

Tere O’Connor Dance in an arresting moment near the end, but not yet the end, of BLEED.          Photo: ©Ian Douglas.

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