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.

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ADF: Paul Taylor Dance Company, testing survival strategies

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company, Heather McGinley, center, performing Taylor’s Cascade at ADF in the DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Paul Taylor has been one of the greatest dance makers of all time, and for decades his company has performed the works that have poured out of him, and only his works–but even Paul Taylor won’t live forever. What’s a troupe to do, when its leader glides off into the spirit world? What’s the best way to preserve the dances, while carrying on into the future? There’s the Merce Cunningham method, in which the company is closed down, but the dances are licensed and their production controlled by a trust. There’s the Martha Graham method, in which the company continues, keeping the Graham works in repertory, while adding suitable works by other choreographers. Both extremes have merit, and pitfalls.

But if the company remains dedicated solely to the works of its founder, after he or she has crossed the bar, sooner rather than later, it will become a mausoleum. Can the founder’s spirit and aesthetic be carried forward via new dances made by other artists?

That’s the question for the Paul Taylor Dance Company, which has begun commissioning and performing dances by younger choreographers. This appearance of the company at the American Dance Festival offers the first opportunity in this area for viewers to see how that might work. The July 7 program in the DPAC sandwiched a 2016 dance by Larry Keigwin between two classic Taylor pieces. The July 8 program will feature a Doug Elkins work.

It doesn’t look to me like Keigwin is the man to take the mantle. His Rush Hour showed off the extraordinary physical abilities of the dancers, but it lacked the openness, vitality and variation that mark a Taylor work, no matter how minor. Paul Taylor dances make one actively glad to be alive; this particular Keigwin work focused on the struggle of staying alive. No playfulness here. The dancers’ bodies were rigid, their gestures constrained, and almost all the action took place at the same level, although during some of the more aggressive bits, bodies did hit the floor. Maybe the saddest thing was that the dancers were drained of specificity; they were moving ciphers, sexless zeroes–not the rounded human characters who inhabit a Paul Taylor dance.

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The Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Larry Keigwin’s Rush Hour. Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec, front. The American Dance Festival at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

Rush Hour begins at speed and maintains relentless velocity throughout, racing along to abrasive music by Adam Crystal. There’s not an instant to catch one’s breath, or consider. It’s a portrait, in black and gray, of ruthless competition for space and place. Although impressively energetic and precise, it is cold in affect. And although highly designed–the pattern-making is its greatest strength–it is mechanical, even arbitrary, and damn near humorless. Whereas Taylor makes sequences that seem natural and absolutely necessary, in Rush Hour, everything felt inconsequential, and as if something else could have been substituted with equal effect, as long as it was fast and slick. It was exciting, though, to see all those bodies slicing so close to each other, hurtling around, and the crowd roared as if at a circus. But Rush Hour is a junk food rush, with no real nutrition.

The paucity of its movement language, and its lack of musicality, were obvious enough in contrast to the evening’s first work, Taylor’s lovely Cascade (1999), set to portions of three Bach concerti, but were made even more evident by the program’s final dance, the celestial Syzygy from 1987. While you could hardly call Taylor’s style Baroque, he does have a genius for elaboration, for the movement or gesture that continues far beyond the limited pedestrian shorthand utilized by Keigwin. While Taylor has developed a stock of positions, phrases and sequences that he utilizes again and again in very different works, he also goes far and wide to bring back the unexpected, the off-kilter, the odd angle, the silly riff. He surprises you. People sometimes tell me they think Paul Taylor is boring; I think they haven’t been really looking at the work.

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Paul Taylor Dance Company performing Syzygy, Madelyn Ho leading, at ADF at DPAC, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

The company dancers were in rare form last night–the dancing was gorgeous beyond words in Cascade, with George Smallwood really standing out. Parisa Khobdeh’s solo was wondrous, and Michelle Fleet and Michael Trusnovec in the Andante of Concerto no. 7–well, it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s program position tonight will be taken by Book of the Beasts, with a diverse selection of classical music performed on pedal harpsichord. Doug Elkins’ The Weight of Smoke will follow (and will probably include all the humor missing from the Keigwin work), and the evening will close with a reprise of Syzygy, by the same cast the performed it so well last night, led by Madelyn Ho. It would be worth going for that last dance alone. Note that the Saturday night program will begin at 7 p.m.

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“…all shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun…” The Paul Taylor Dance Company orbiting in Taylor’s Syzygy, at the American Dance Festival, 7/7/17. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

 

 

 

ADF: Pilobolus–with Banjos

Whether you’ve never seen the ever-regenerating dance troupe Pilobolus, or you’ve seen them so many times that you think you’re done–this is a very good year to watch the company at the American Dance Festival. The Pils and ADF go back together to the beginning of time (at least, to the beginning of Pilobolus), and it is easy to feel jaded about their annual re-appearance in the ADF summer season. And like any long-lived entity, Pilobolus has had times when it was less brilliant–but this is not one of them. The current group of dancers has that special magic together, and each dancer exhibits the full splendor of the Pilobolus style. Yes, it is the most expensive ticket of the season, but you will absolutely get your money’s worth. The program length was listed as 105 minutes–but that was before they added in a new work, and it does not include the onstage pre-show warm-ups. The show presented June 30th in DPAC repeats July 1 at 7 p.m.

Friday night saw the world premiere of yet another ADF-commissioned piece, Echo in the Valley, for which Pilobolus collaborated with the world’s greatest banjo duo, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. This is a very dark work for the company, and unusually narrative, with scenes of struggle and death in Appalachian coal mining country (the bad old days, dark as a dungeon way down in the mine). The staging is fantastic, with piercing lighting by Thom Weaver, and clogging boards set up with amplification for both Washburn (she and Fleck play on stage) and the dancers. Who are wearing shoes! When Heather Jeane Favretto stepped up and began clogging, I nearly fell out of my seat. Talk about trying something new! Holy clogging Piloboleans! (And check out Washburn’s double rhythm when she dances at the microphone.) The music is great–a mix of atmospheric riffs and bursts, with some of the old songs, which Washburn burns into the listener with her amazing voice, ranging from pure high lonesome to scorching gravel in the space of a phrase. Also burned into memory is a long scene in which the giant dancer Jacob Michael Warren looms in frozen mourning over his dead beloved, the violence in his soul contained until his friend tries to draw him away. The friend takes a beating, but really, he has given the only gift of love that can provide solace to the mourning miner–some place to release his rage. Echo in the Valley is profoundly moving.

The program opens with the very beautiful 2014 work On the Nature of Things (ADF co-commission). Two men, one woman and a raised circular stand–and Vivaldi. Three magnificent human bodies doing graceful, impossible things in as little clothing as the law allows. The performance on the 30th was phenomenal, with Antoine Banks-Sullivan, Nathaniel Buchsbaum and Krystal Butler. Ms. Butler is ALL THAT.

The troupe added into the program a new work called Branches, in which they appear as a flock of birds, with scenes from dawn to sunset. It was completely delightful and made an excellent bridge between On the Nature of Things and Echo in the Valley. I expect this piece will become a program regular, it is just so much fun to watch people become birds. And speaking as a person who spends a lot of time watching birds being birds, I can say that Pilobolus gets the behaviors just right.

After intermission comes the clever [esc], which is really a magic act. Once before was more than enough of this piece for me–I really have a hard time with a woman being bound with duct tape and a plastic bag taped over her head. Even knowing she’s going to escape, it makes me sick. The other tricks are not upsetting, but still, once you’ve seen them, you’ve seen them.

However, once is not enough for the 2007 piece Rushes, one of the early collaborations by Pilobolus with makers outside the company, in this case, Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak. It involves a dozen small white chairs, a white floor circle, six dancers and a suitcase, and a harmonious mix of the most unlikely musical bedfellows. Rushes evokes so many things, most of which have to do with journeying–and seeking and hiding and finding; escaping and rescuing and surviving. I had remembered it quite well, but it burst upon me afresh with this spectacular cast, who carry out their amazing feats of balance, strength, endurance and grace with gorgeous vitality, imbuing the resolutely non-verbal composition with visual and kinetic clarity.

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Pilobolus performing Rushes at ADF, 6/30/17, in the DPAC. The mystical lighting is by Yoann Tivoli. Photo: Ben McKeown.

 

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