At the beginning, it seems so luxuriously long. But each year on the final weekend, the American Dance Festival season feels painfully short. The ADF’s 80th season–its 36th in Durham–ends tonight at the Durham Performing Arts Center with the second performance of a beautifully constructed program featuring a spectacular ending.
It won’t be quite the same as the 26th’s, when the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Lin Hwai-min, choreographer and founder of the breathtaking Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Another appropriate adjective for Lin Hwai-min’s work is “humane.” His choreographic language is most definitely not American: it comes very close to being universal. The award, with its $50,000 check, was presented by Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who met Lin Hwai-min by chance in Bali in 1990–“and beautiful things for both of us came out of that meeting.” Lin Hwai-min gave the most graceful acceptance speech I’ve ever heard. Here are the highlights.
“This is an enormous encouragement, especially for a person who did not begin taking regular dance classes until he was 23,” said Lin Hwai-min, going on to note that he had been inspired by the famous John F. Kennedy quote (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). “There was no Taiwan modern dance company, so I started one.” That was in 1973, and in 1978, he came to the ADF for the first time, in its first year in Durham. “The biggest thing I learned in 1978 was that I could do anything but American modern dance!”
“Running a dance company is tough anywhere,” he said, “but an award like this, a gesture like this, will sustain me for months.” He then went on to tell a moving story about a crucial incident early in his company’s life. “I first met Miss Graham [the great Martha Graham, priestess of high modern dance and a co-founder of the ADF] when her company visited Taiwan in 1974…’What am I going to do with Martha Graham in my own studio?’ I asked myself. I did what only the bravest, youngest would do–I held a Graham Technique class!”
Miss Graham, he said, was happy, and praised Lin and the company, which was just a year old. Imagine what this must have meant to them. Lin took her to the airport, and before she departed, she told him that many had helped her when she was starting out, and pressed into his hands a pile of Taiwanese money, “for your rainy days.” And now, Lin said from the podium, he would give his award money to Cloud Gate for a special project to nurture younger dance artists. A man worthy of honor, indeed.
An exquisite example of Lin Hwai-min’s work opens the dance program. Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate dances a solo from Moon Water (1998), to the Sarabande, Suite No. 1 in G Major (BWV 1007), from the Six Suites for Solo Cello, by J. S. Bach (the Mischa Maisky DG recording). It is an expression of the duality within wholeness–the dancer moves in a private meditation, untouchable, unreachable, but which we can see like we see the moon’s reflection in water. The reflection is not the moon, but it brings us closer to comprehension of the moon. The moon we see in the sky is too far, too separate; we know her by her actions as she throws her light onto water. The dance is not the dancer, but without her the dance cannot be known. The dancer is not the dance; she is as contained and apart as the celestial moon, but with her graceful motion she lures us toward the enlightenment conjoining shimmering illusion and dark substance.
There follows a reconstruction of the “Helios” section from Martha Graham’s Acts of Light (one of ADF’s lesser-known roles is that of restorer and preserver of modern dances that have almost gotten away), danced by students from the ADF School. In their golden unitards, in golden lighting (Beverly Emmons, recreated by David Ferri), the young dancers are like sunflowers: sprouting, burgeoning, turning, flowering, dying to sprout anew. There were some roughish moments in the ensemble, and one dancer who looked like he might be falling ill, as he was distractingly out of synchronization and clearly having balance problems, but the dance itself is charming and enlivening, and one feels grateful it has not been lost in the dust of history.
Next comes a reconstruction of a quirky Bill T. Jones dance from 1992 (how quickly dances can be lost!), Love Re-defined. It is restaged here by Leah Cox, who was a very memorable member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company last decade. She has gotten great dancing from the 10-member ensemble who zip through the strange little love-story vignettes with verve. Whether making the angular ideograms or performing the elastic partnering of Jones’ style, the dancers are right on it. The work is set to strange poetic lyrics and music by Daniel Johnston, and the dancers seemed particularly strong during the long involved song about the king–King Kong (he loved his woman).
The finale of this intriguing season is a new work by Twyla Tharp, which had its world premiere July 26. The ADF commissioned Treefrog in Stonehenge, with its original score by David Kahne, to be set on ADF students, and it is staged here by Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady, both former Tharp dancers. How wonderful is this? Not only does the ADF preserve old dances in new young bodies, they commission new artwork for new dancers. And Treefrog in Stonehenge is not a minor work, but a large, increasingly complex multi-section work for 16 dancers, larded with references to and quotes from many dance styles and particular choreographers, in addition to Tharp’s own inimitable inventions. All of the very advanced students excelled at Tharp’s demanding athleticism, moving patterns and split-second timing at break-neck pace. The entire troupe was electric, sizzling with the joy of a difficult endeavor going very right, but Ben Ingel, a member of North Carolina Dance Theatre 2, was gasp-inducing in his high leaping turns. After “Helios,” it was impossible not to think of Icarus. Ingel was flying, burning like a Roman candle, but he landed as gently as a spark–no crashing to this burn. (I shook his hand afterward. It wasn’t even hot, but it did smell mightily of Tiger Balm.) What a wonderful close to the American Dance Festival’s 80th season of bringing better living through dance.
The program repeats July 27 only, but it will be possible to see Ingel in Charlotte next season in NCDT II performances. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will appear in April, 2014, when Carolina Performing Arts will present Songs of the Wanderers in Chapel Hill.