Dance Local: Nicola Bullock’s UNDONE, and ADF’s NC DANCES

In Durham, you can still find artists working in warehouses. The "marquee" for UNDONE. Photo: ©Tim Walter.

The “marquee” for UNDONE.    Photo: ©Tim Walter.

Nicola Bullock. Photo: © Tim Walter.

Dance artist Nicola Bullock.          Photo: © Tim Walter.

Here in the Bull City one often hears the phrase “Keep it Durty, Durham,” an oblique slash at the city’s rapid slickification and a plea to keep the grit for which this former factory town is rightly loved. There could hardly be a better example of keepin’ it than choreographer and dancer Nicola Bullock’s project UNDONE, which took place in a former warehouse on Dillard St. Not only was the space rough and ready for anything, Bullock and her five collaborators were grappling with the classic “durty” topic of racism. Also in classic Durham fashion, there were posters, handouts and sign-up sheets for more involvement. But these six women hadn’t spent a year meeting and talking about how race “intersects with power, how it defines and transcends identity, and how it has informed the artists in their own lives” in order to keep talking–they wanted to show us.

UNDONE dancers in "the wings" prior to the performance. Photo: © Tim Walter.

UNDONE dancers in “the wings” prior to the performance. Photo: © Tim Walter.


UNDONE consists of a series of dance-theatre scenes examining different aspects of racism from different points of view and exploring three questions: “Who am I? Who are you? How do we understand each other?”  The sequences showed how much thought had gone into them, and how much heart. But it is a difficult matter to make successful theatre from good intentions. Each segment was strongest in its pure dance, and less so when it strived to make its points with too much narrative. There was in fact recorded spoken narrative, although it would have been better left out, as the recording, the sound equipment and the acoustics of the space made nearly every word incomprehensible.

Some scenes depicted various shy and delicate meetings between people of different races, and how the initial encounters could evolve or devolve. Leah Wilks was notable in one such scene that turned into a fight, and in a strange episode that seemed to have to do with minstrelsy and vaudeville performance prototypes. There was some smart expressive choreography, and all the dancers had strong moments (Bullock is beautiful to watch, and conveys emotions well with face and gesture), with their lifts and other contact moments being particularly good. The weakness in the work as a whole was its desire to be inclusive and complete–all the sections could be distilled for increased effect, and make their points more clearly in less time. Their length, combined with the time chasms that yawned between scenes, exerted excess drag on what could have been a buoyant and thoroughly engaging work.

Braiding is not dancing. Monét Noelle Marshall, near the end of UNDONE. Photo: © Tim Walter.

Braiding is not dancing. Monét Noelle Marshall, near the end of UNDONE. Photo: © Tim Walter.

Having myself spent decades trying to come to a greater understanding of racial issues, I did not find anything particularly fresh here, except for the wonderful fact that new waves of people have taken up the cause of understanding even as our larger society seems to become ever more racially polarized. Only one segment fed into that polarization, and artistically speaking, it did not fit well with the others.

In it Monét Noelle Marshall takes the stage alone, and begins re-doing her hair, and talking to the audience, eventually saying that since we’d already made up our minds about her, she wasn’t going to dance for us. This gratuitous insult shocked me.  I very nearly stood up and told her to get off the stage and make room for the dancers, because I’d come to a dance performance. My companion nearly walked out.  I had not in fact made up my mind about her, but I doubt I’ll pay money to see her now. This episode left a sour residue.

Still, I admired the effort and much of the work. I admire the willingness to GO FOR IT, with the most minimal resources and the maximum of spirit. Nicola Bullock is an artist to watch, and not only for the sunshine of her smile.

The cast of UNDONE: Monet Noelle Marshall, Leah Wilks, Zoia Cisneros, Lindsay Leonard, Jessi Knight Walker and NIcola Bullock. Photo: © Tim Walter.

The cast of UNDONE: Monet Noelle Marshall, Leah Wilks, Zoia Cisneros, Lindsay Leonard, Jessi Knight Walker and Nicola Bullock. Photo: © Tim Walter.



The following section was published June 20, 2014 with the title “Now. Here. This: NC Dances at ADF” on Reprinted here by permission.

The American Dance Festival has been easing in to regional inclusiveness over several years, using various programming methods to allow some representation of North Carolina’s choreographers and dancers. This year’s program, Here and Now: NC Dances, which was danced June 18th, (I saw the first performance) was the most successful of the experiments thus far.

This is partly due to the increasing maturation of local dance artists (and that’s partly due to the increased presence of ADF), and partly because the four participants were chosen by a jury of choreographers from outside the area who were presumably less influenced by politics or personal friendships than jurors from inside the local dance community might have been. These four choreographers and their dancers acquitted themselves well in the challenge to work up to the ADF’s high standards—thereby ratcheting up expectations audiences will have for them and other NC dancers (though these four choreographers are all based in Durham). It’s good for everyone.

The ADF signaled its commitment to nurturing and presenting local as well as national and international dancers by producing this program as part of its ADF at Duke series—with the NC Dance Festival as co-producer, as was the case last year. There seems to have been a greater allocation of tech resources, too, as each piece had specific scenic needs and each was beautifully—and differently–lit.

From Gaspard Louis' Annatations, at ADF's Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halvorsen ©ADF.

From Gaspard Louis’ Annatations, at ADF’s Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014.          Photo: Grant Halverson ©ADF.

The program opened with Gaspard LouisAnnatations (2013), for nine dancers, which he premiered last fall on the same stage with different dancers. Here, it had the same haunted cello music written and performed on stage by Josh Starmer; the same swimming angels by Steven Silverleaf hanging overhead, the same lovely cloud-colored costumes by Jakki Kalogridis—but the lighting (John Kolba) was strikingly different and more entrancing, as was the dancing. From the first sequence, the dancers created a sense of oceanic forces at work on their global-scaled kinetic patterning. Throughout the dance the feeling of waves rushing continued. The dancers were able to change directions with lovely fluidity, and all that fluid coming and going generated a sense of the infinite. For all the group synchronicity, the dancers were well differentiated, but not particularized into characters. They are souls in the sea of souls—like water, all the same but every moment different. Louis’ choreography allows each dancer to claim generous space with raised and extended arms and legs, so it’s particularly exciting when lines cross and when pairs come together for lifts and turns. Often tender, these encounters are never romantic or sentimental. There are also some refreshing outbursts of acrobatics amid the balletic grace. Altogether, this version was clearer, more sharply focused, and at the same time spiritually wider and larger than the earlier version.

Leah Wilks in her dance Mess, at ADF's Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halvorsen ©ADF.

Leah Wilks in her dance Mess, at ADF’s Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014.                   Photo: Grant Halverson ©ADF.

Leah Wilks brought us back from the vast unknown with her tightly focused solo, Mess (2014), set to Quiet 6 by Michael Wall, with video backdrop by Jon Haas. At the outset, we see Wilks crouched midstage, wrapped around herself into a ball, poised in a circle of light from a single overhead spot. She unfolds, extends and inverts herself into an astonishing headstand with some daring leg action challenging her balance. Eventually she rolls out of the circle and the lighting becomes more general while she explores the chaos. There’s more play with a projected circle of light. When it rises on the back wall, she moves toward it, her silhouette and her shadow merging. Although Wilks moves wonderfully and has a big stage presence, the choreography did not sustain my interest at every moment.

From Diego Carrasco Schoch's A Place Apart, at ADF's Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halvorsen ©ADF.

From Diego Carrasco Schoch’s A Place Apart, at ADF’s Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson ©ADF.

A Place Apart (2009) by Diego Carrasco Schoch came next. A duet for two men, it was both charming and annoying. The two begin the dance in the aisles of the theater, a golden light revealing first one then the other as each performs some graceful moves balanced on the steps, accompanied by intermittent bursts of obnoxious news and patter from TV and radio sources. This continues as the men take the stage, then a note, a chord, a run of notes, from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata begin to sound between the audio-trash lines until finally we and the dancers hear the music. They perform a romantic duet with some great lifts, fine développés, lovely arabesques, and tender delicacies of interaction—there’s lots of touching—but not much real emotion. The dance ends downstage in a square of golden light, dancers glowing, while we were left to wonder why the choreographer had introduced ugly reality into his pretty stage world. It is not like we don’t all know about its “assaultive” qualities.

From Renay Aumiller's Acquiring Dawn, at ADF's Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halvorsen ©ADF.

From Renay Aumiller’s Acquiring Dawn, at ADF’s Here and Now: NC Dances, June 18, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson ©ADF.

Another multi-dancer piece completed the program. Renay Aumiller’s Acquiring Dawn (2013) became such a whirlwind after its quiet orderly beginning that is was hard to credit that there were only six dancers onstage. Set to Aurora (edited) by Hans Zimmer, with fashionably post-apocalyptic costumes by Karl Green and eerie lighting by Bill Webb and R. Mitch Fore, Acquiring Dawn is a dance that sticks in the mind, demanding more consideration, although it struck me as a little studied at the time. It begins with six women in tattery dresses standing far upstage in the gloom, each behind a little pile of white fluff. Each woman takes up a double handful and, walking forward, spreads it into a stripe running toward the audience. And again, while desultory flakes fall from above. And again—but one dancer begins to drag through her line, then to toss and scatter. Soon all but one has given herself over to disorder and confusion, dancing like a storm coming up, spinning pale dust devils around themselves until they drop into dark exhaustion. The one remains to see the dawn, which sends in its splendorous colors as the music swells. I particularly admired the choreographer’s willingness to not dwell on this moment. It lasts no longer than a camera flash, but reignites a sense of hope as Aurora sparkles on the ashes of the wrecked world.






Gaspard & Dancers Give Powerful Concert at Duke; repeats October 19

DSC_0080Gaspard Louis, the Haitian-born dancer and choreographer who settled in Durham in 2009, presented his first Gaspard & Dancers annual concert that year. It was successful in a mild sort of way–enjoyable, but the work was a little too derivative of the Piloblean style in which he had been immersed from 1996-2001, and the dancing was uneven. Louis has continued to work the dream along with his day job as creative movement outreach director for the American Dance Festival: This year’s fourth annual concert shows Louis’ growth as a choreographer and demonstrates that he has been able to draw a skilled company of dancers around him, dancers capable of engaging and collaborating at his level of imagination and ability. Gaspard & Dancers will appear again tonight, Oct. 19, in the Reynolds Theater at Duke University.

Tonight’s concert-goers will not have the fun of seeing the company spell out a birthday message to Louis’ wife, Jodee Nimerichter (director of the ADF), in which, naturally, Gaspard himself formed the “I” in “I love you,” but nonetheless they should receive gifts of pleasure, beauty and passionate empathy.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The evening opens with a premiere by Louis with the two other dancers, Kate Currin and Sebastian Alexis. Clever, physical and stylish, Rubix is an ever-shifting puzzle of parts fitted and refitted into numerous possible combinations, set to an interesting score by Paul Leary. It is the least dancey of the evening’s works, and involves much shape-making and weight-sharing in service of dramatic forms, which are intensified by Jakki Kalogridis’ excellent black and white costumes and John Kolba’s sharp lighting. Louis is adept at the deployment of lifts, inversions and corkscrewing movements that evolve into spins. In a particularly thrilling moment here, he spins, arms extended horizontally from his shoulders, moving ever faster as Kate Currin clasps his neck, her body flying outward with the centrifugal force.

The heart of the program is Louis’ Souke, which means “shake” in his native Haitian Creole language. Torn by the suffering and death in Haiti following the terrible 2010 earthquake there, he struggled to find a response in his art, even while organizing benefits and teaching crash courses in the language to those on their way to help on the ground. Not until 2012 when he was completing the work for his MFA degree in dance from the ADF/Hollins program, was he able to choreograph a coherent dance in which motion and stillness combine to convey the horror, hope and heavy sorrow. I had the good fortune to watch Louis rehearsing his ADF student dancers as he developed the work in July, 2012, but lesser upheavals in my own life prevented my seeing the finished work until last night.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

From this opening moment, when one upright survivor turns to see the pile of bodies and begins to pull them up–all alive–the dance shakes and lashes you through the shocks and aftershocks, culminating in the sorrowful relinquishment of other bodies to the mound of the dead. To richly textured, emotional music with driving rhythms by Randall Love and Paul Leary, the dancers shake, waver, catch, spin, race, collapse and rise with crisp speed and an undaunted quality. The poignant emotion comes to a stabbing conclusion as the living hands let gently fall those of their dead.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke's final sequence, July 2012.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke’s final sequence, July 2012.

This is a mature choreography. It draws on Louis’ experience as a dancer, but it burst the bonds of habit with its heartfelt force; it is a beautiful example of art expressing feelings for which words are inadequate. I expect it will remain in his own repertory, and most likely be taken up by other companies. Perhaps needless to say, Louis received his Master of Fine Arts degree after presenting this work.

There follows a sexy dance so bursting with life-force that the cadmium 0range Lyrca costumes (by Melody Eggen) appear to have shredded from the energy. Andy Hasenpflug provided the magnetic music to which Louis and Kristin Taylor get elastic. Magical Cusp is from 2010, but its magic has not faded a bit–and it was  perfect to bring us back from Souke.

After intermission comes a special guest appearance by Gregory B. Hinton, performing (at age 63) the demanding 1947 Tally Beatty solo, Mourner’s Bench, which balances Souke with its deep emotion. Mourner’s Bench is tough to perform and tough, like any mourning, to watch. It’s music is the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” but watching Hinton, one had to wonder if there is enough balm, even in Gilead, for all the suffering.

Fortunately, the evening closes with a lovely new work that is itself a balm. Louis, in collaboration with the nine dancers, has made something quite balletic in Annatations. The word combines the Italian “andare,” to go, with the Latinate “natation,” swimming, and makes a play on “annotations.” The music, written and played by Joshua Starner on solo cello with electronic assistance, is quite beautiful, evoking dream-states and the languid pleasure of underwater movement. Jakki Kalogridis’ delicate costumes reinforce the dreaminess, as do Steven Silverleaf’s four pale sculptures suspended above the stage–perhaps they are swimming angels. The sense of connectivity is very strong in the choreography and in the dancing. There’s an emanation of love, of relieved safety…perhaps an idea that the dead are not truly lost to us. Some of the dancing is very beautiful, including that by Alain Molina, who physically is the work’s pole star. Molina was a founding member of Carolina Ballet, but has not been seen there in quite some time. His grace and heart were instantly recognizable, and well-matched with the same qualities in Gaspard & Dancers.

Tickets through Duke Box Office, 919-684-4444.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

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