ADF: Story Fragments

The American Dance Festival has been a little short of dancing so far this year, and although it is composed of movement, the current program by Beth Gill, Brand New Sidewalk, doesn’t remedy that lack of dancing. The tri-partite program repeats Thursday, June 29 in Reynolds.

I had very much admired Gill’s dance Footprints, in last year’s Footprints program, and the same elegant, poetic aesthetic is at work in the new piece, but…it……slow. (Not deliciously, intensely, slow, like Eiko–just slow.) The imagery/symbology/indications of narrative are at once too clear and too obscure, and the tension this causes is aggravated by the sound score, which contains sounds like distant, prolonged ringing combined with the ugly urban huffing of giant chillers and HVAC systems.


From the first section of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk, at ADF in Reynolds Theater, 6/28/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.


Brand New Sidewalk is composed like a triptych, and seemingly modeled after altar triptychs, in which the central panel is much larger (longer) and concerns some aspect of devotion, while the side panels may concern some act of a saint, or depict another transformative teaching moment from a religious story.  Brand New Sidewalk begins with a single figure on a pale fabric covered stage–the figure is very bulky in a silver garment such as might be worn by an astronaut, a polar explorer, an outdoor laborer, or a homeless person. Eventually the figure moves, sinking to the ground. After a while, it begins unzipping its coverall and removing layers.

There are many layers, in bright saturated colors, and the garments are very stretchy, allowing cool shape-making, à la Martha Graham. One thinks of various kinds of metamorphosis and growth; pupation, cocoons splitting, snakes shedding–but the image of the homeless person both protected and hindered by layered clothing remained, and seemed to be reinforced by a little bit of scurrying around on the part of the performer (after she’d gotten stripped down to one or two tops and pants that looked like they’d been made out of garbage bags), during which she snatched and hoarded invisible items off the stage floor, like a street person picking up cast-off cigarettes that might have a puff or two left.


From the central section of Beth Gill’s Brand New Sidewalk, performed 6/28/17 in Reynolds Theater as part of ADF. Photo: Ben McKeown.


After a longish pause, the curtain rose again–this time the floor was a glowing green. Two dancers in cropped pants, loose tunics and close-fitting headcoverings, all white, moved (slowly) through a series of repeating phrases that all seemed to do with worship, prayer, meditation. There were moments of almost-dancing; the soundscape even expanded to include some music. The gestures, the motions, the space between the bodies, were all very beautiful, in a distant sort of way. The piece’s internal structure, however, was not strong enough to support its temporal span.

After another long pause during which the green floor was removed, the second wing of the triptych returned to the theme of stripping, peeling or merely sloughing off external layers. In this case, the layers were more like swathes of gauze bandages. The bodysuit under all the shreds was a stunningly ugly color, and the woman’s movement was strangely choppy and disoriented. Perhaps she was a newly unwrapped plastic surgery patient; maybe there was no human under there, just a mannequin. By that time, all I really cared about was getting out from under the throbbing headache induced by that depressing noise soundscape. At least there was no talking.


Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. perform Interleaving at ADF in Reynolds Theater, June 23, 2017. Photo: Ben McKeown.


There was some fine dancing–talk-free, too!–last week, when Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co. presented Interleaving. For this piece, Young split four of his earlier dances into thirds, and combined them: all the beginnings, all the middles, all the ends. The dancers and the costumes were different for each original dance, so in theory you could tell which was which, although I think that if you hadn’t had the information on this cut-and-paste, you would have simply seen one dance with four story lines crossing. Either the music for each piece had been very similar, or the music (Wayne Horvitz) had been reworked, because there were no startling sonic changes.

When I first read about Interleaving, I thought it said all four dances were to be performed simultaneously, which would have been quite something, but perhaps a little too much like real life. Young achieved a little bit of simultaneity, overlapping some of the sections, but never all four at once. As it was, with the segments grouped by life-period, I came over and over to the idea of a group of friends, growing up together, and also looking back on their stacked and linked lives, lives that in all their parts and eras have made a community of them and their shared stories.

The choreography had a clarity, and a humanistic quality that illuminated its deceptively simple steps and designs, and there was some heart-lifting dancing. Several minutes in, I realized I was holding myself aloof from it because the flow was going to get interrupted, and I didn’t know whether there would also be talking. But once the segments had cycled through the beginning phase, I realized–it’s a dance! and gave myself over to the joy of it.


Gabrielle Revlock and Darrin Wright, both former ADF students, dance in Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co.’s performance of Interleaving in Reynolds Theater, 6/23/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.


Gabrielle Revlock (she of the charming hoop dancing last year) stood out among the dancers for her joie de vivre, but every one of them exhibited the balance and precision, the elasticity and quickness, of Cunningham dancers (and many have been; some are now teaching Cunningham technique). Despite being made of bits, Interleaving was clean and uncluttered by verbal agendas. Dance theater is all very well, but it simply can’t salve the sore soul like pure dancing can, with its non-verbal tinctures and spells.

The Dance Cure opened for Bill Young/Colleen Thomas & Co., and performed Natalie Marrone’s Thresh, another short story well-told without words. Marrone draws heavily on her southern Italian ancestral background and its “vernacular” dances. In this piece, she also utilized the repeated agrarian motions that formed the bodies, and the time-sense of her wheat-farming grandfather and his community. Using the economical repetitive movement language of scythe, thresh, winnow, bale, bag and drag, dancers Lucas Melfi and Rachael Mehaffey beautifully communicated the elemental struggles of farming, its simple grandeur and its plain hard work, while Marrone’s staging conveyed their smallness against the scale of the land (excellent lighting by Ross Kolman). All the rhythms of work have been put to work dancing.  At ten minutes long, Thresh felt complete, but I was sorry to see it end, and hope it will become one dynamic chapter in a much longer dance.


Rachael Mehaffey and Lucas Melfi in Natalie Marrone’s Thresh, at ADF in Reynolds Theater on campus, Jun. 23, 2017. Photo: Ben McKeown.

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