Dancing Durham: ADF Opens, and Local Dancers Provide Even More Action

Zoia Cisneros in UNDONE. Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.

Zoia Cisneros in Nicola Bullock’s UNDONE.
Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.

Each year it seems like a miracle, with this year being no exception–this difficult year of budget cuts and grant shrinkages. The American Dance Festival, one of the world’s great ones, continues to beat the odds and will once again open its performance season here in Durham–its 81st year of presenting great modern and contemporary dance. Beginning Thursday, June 12, 49 performances will occur over a six-week span in venues at Duke and in downtown Durham. There’s a very fresh feeling to this year’s schedule, with assorted new and experimental works by a wide variety of artists from around the world. But some of the freshest will come from Durham itself. On June 18, the ADF will present Here and Now: NC Dances–but check this out! All four choreographers–Renay Aumiller, Gaspard Louis, Diego Carrasco Schoch and Leah Wilks–chosen for this program are based right here in the Bull City. The Here and Now performances will begin at 7 pm and 9 pm in Reynolds Theater, for the one night only. Seats are cheap at $16.25. House is heavily sold for both shows–advance purchase recommended.

Performer and choreographer Nicola Bullock. Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.

Performer and choreographer Nicola Bullock. Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.

But ADF’s not the only dance game in town this year. Nicola Bullock, a dancer whose compelling stage presence and choreographic talent graced the recent Little Green Pig production of Tarantino’s Yellow Speedo, has been working for a year with six dancers on a project called UNDONE. Billed as an evening-length dance-theatre work on race, power and identity, UNDONE will open its three-day run in an un-airconditioned warehouse space at 305 S. Dillard Street at precisely the time the gracious opening-night speeches will begin in the well-chilled Durham Performing Arts Center a few blocks away.

“This piece developed from a desire to better understand how systems of domination, specifically racism, affect our relationships, worldview, dreams, and bodies,” says Bullock. A great deal of artwork, maybe more than is strictly necessary, explores questions of self-identity and otherness, but Bullock’s sensitivity and kinetic expressiveness make me expect real honest exploration of Durham’s favorite topic. The dance will include Leah Wilks, whose own work will be seen the following week. Go here for more on UNDONE. Tickets $15 at the door or online.

On June 14 at 7:30 pm, the Carrboro ArtsCenter will present something really special, for one night only. The Best Tap Show Ever will be danced by the tap stars who will be in town teaching at the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival. These include Chapel Hill native Michelle Dorrance, fresh from her highly-praised appearance at Charleston, SC’s Spoleto Festival with her company Dorrance Dance. Musicians Robbie Link (bass), John Hanks (drums), and Jim Crew (piano) will augment the song of the shoes. Tickets $15 advance, $17 at the door, if there are any.

Yet another one-night-only performance will take place the following week, when multi-disciplinary artist Kaitlin June premieres her solo work Lightyear in the PSI Theater of the Durham Arts Council at 7:30, June 20. The artist will probe at the workings of memory and time with a fusion of dance, acrobatics, live music and spoken word. Tickets $10 at the door.

The company rehearsing UNDONE, which will be presented June 12-14 in Durham. Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.

The company rehearsing Bullock’s UNDONE, which will be presented June 12-14 in Durham. Leah Wilks (L) will also perform with her company, Vector, in ADF’s Here and Now program June 18.  Photo: Noah Rosenblatt-Farrell.


Go Down, Moses

This article was originally published by INDYWEEK, 10/23/2013, and appeared in print with the headline “A night different from other nights.” I gave the production 5 out of 5 stars.

A powerful post-Civil War encounter in ArtsCenter Stage’s The Whipping Man

Through Sunday at The ArtsCenter


Art necessarily takes on the issues of its own time, but it is in its processing of history that art often excels in feeding civilization. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Carrboro ArtsCenter Stage has focused its season on that event and its long aftermath, beginning with a stunning production of The Whipping Man, a 2006 play by Matthew Lopez.

ArtsCenter Stage has always been the little theater that could, and this production proves once again that a tiny stage, nonexistent back-of-house and minimal staff cannot weaken the transformative power of drama. The Whipping Man is two hours long, and for many of those 120 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. The script’s intricate folds open slowly; but during the second act, the intermittent popping of secrets becomes a fusillade leading to cannon-fire of explosive knowledge, which exposes both characters and audience in the fiery wreckage.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez' THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez’ THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The story takes place over three days in April 1865, less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. As the play begins, we see Caleb DeLeon (Victor Rivera, moving effectively from callow and commanding to chastened awareness), dragging himself, grievously wounded, into the remains of his father’s once-grand Richmond house (all the production design work is very strong). Caleb is a Jew and a Confederate soldier, and his parents have fled the city, which is now under Federal control. But two former slaves have remained in the house for their own reasons: Having been part of the household all their lives, they too are Jews. John is a young man, about Caleb’s age; Simon is of a solid middle age, and the man without whom the household cannot run.

It is a season of mud and blood, of despair and rejoicing. And it is Passover.

Incisively directed by Mark Filiaci, with a restraint that makes late revelations all the more forceful, the three actors obliterate this time in a modern town and replace it with desperate days in ruined Richmond. This is not a play where you are forced to always keep in mind that it is a play. It is not art about art. The actors do not speak directly to the audience. They speak to us through the power of the dramatic story, and with their fearless acting.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Led by Phillip B. Smith as Simon, they make us know some essential things about that past and the way it has shaped our present. Without spelling them out, playwright Lopez has Simon engage us with a range of moral quandaries—what is good, what is right, what is necessary, what can be forgiven, what cannot be allowed to pass without counteraction? Simon holds the most knowledge of the three men, though he doesn’t know everything he thinks he knows. He chivvies the feckless John (Alphonse Nicholson, again leaping ahead of himself in nuanced understanding), who’s frittering his freedom liberating whisky, fancy clothes and piles of books; he saves Caleb’s life; he feeds all three of them. And he insists on holding a Seder at Caleb’s bedside, even though Caleb lost his faith in the trenches of Petersburg.

That Seder scene, with its celebrations and revelations, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed on stage. Do not miss it.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in the Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The ArtsCenter will also present a free screening of the documentary film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” followed by a discussion led by scholars Robert Marcus and Leonard Rogoff, on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 4 pm. For more information or tickets call the box office at 919-929-2787.

10 x 10, #12: The ArtsCenter’s Festive Annual Short Play Extravaganza

For the 12th year running, the Carrboro ArtsCenter has produced and is presenting the high-energy theatrical event, 10 x 10 in the Triangle. Once again, it offers fast-paced fun well laced with clever observation and sharp insights. I look forward to this show all year, and so do many others: be early if you want tickets to the two remaining weekends (July 11-4 and 18-21). The Playwrights Gala will be held at 6:30 pm, before the show, on July 13.

10x10_in_the_triangle_logo_2.2The brainchild of Lynden Harris, 10 x 10 is currently led by Jeri Lynn Schulke, the artistic director of ArtsCenter Stage. Schulke puts together a team of readers, who spend January to May choosing among the new 10-minute scripts that pour in from around the world. This year there were 750 submissions for the 10 slots. Then 10 directors and 10 actors are chosen (sometimes, as Mark Filiaci does this year, one person fills both roles–in different plays). The team gets a complement of tech people, but sets and props are minimal, and are changed out by the actors in the very brief interludes between the plays. The presto-chango aspect is one of the things that makes 10 x 10 such a fun evening at the theatre.

I found this year’s first half very strong–full of surprises and believable strangeness. The 10-minute form lends itself to situations where something can occur completely in a brief series of actions and interactions, but playwrights are very clever about pushing the edges of time and space. In the opener, My Name is Yin, by Tom Swift, smoothly directed by Ian Bowater, Mark Filiaci gives a wonderful turn as a journalist whose big story, picked up by AP, is about an “installation” in which the artist filled dozens of pairs of shoes with butter. In the play, he and his typewriter sit off to the side, interjecting information and lament into the action, which involves an expat American Brown Bear, a hiker enlightened by the art; her bewildered husband and a raving right-wing government functionary. It’s a sizzling little skewer of commentary on making, seeing and being understood.

will/did/is, by Patrick Gabridge, directed by Josh Benjamin, comes next, and features Amanda Scherle and Alphonse Nicholson as time-travellers looking for their future on the Boston subway. Wearing conical aluminum foil hats. It’s a sad, smart, hopeful little play, and seeing Nicholson in that hat, above his little Malcolm X goatee, just made my night. Nicholson is extremely versatile: he’s at least as good as the peculiar super-hero of The 5564 to Toronto, very well directed by Lori Mahl, who gets such good interaction from the characters that you really care for them within the first moments. In Karen JP Howes’ story  that closes the first half of the evening, Nicholson’s character saves a young woman (Mary Forester) from certain death…but the moral seems to be, you can’t save everyone. [UPDATED 7/9/13]

And you can’t make everyone happy. The night’s most affecting work, directed by Jerry Sipp, is David MacGregor’s New Year’s Eve, featuring LaKeisha Coffey as a nursing home worker and Owen Daly as a very cranky old man. Both actors do lovely work here, in a story taken straight from life.

Another theme seems to be that kindness and aid come at unexpected times and ways. Amanda Scherle and Brett Stafford, scraping up roadkill for the highway department perform an almost accidental kindness in Durham writer Mora Harris’s What you Don’t Know, and director Gregor McElvogue gives us a very prickly kindness in Carol Mullen’s Zero Mile Mark. Actors Coffey, Forester and Scherle do fine work as two women attempting a strenuous wilderness hike, and their demanding guide.

Mark Filiaci appears again, with Bonnie Roe, in the acerbic A Gun on the Table, by Margy Ragsdale. Directed at just the right tempo, with just enough exaggeration, by Chris Chiron, it plays with the idea of potential in marriage and drama. Fortunately, this is a short play, without a third act, so the gun does not go off.

The three remaining plays struck me as heavy-handed.  Although the directors and actors did their best to infuse them with style and wit, the scripts seemed mired a TV mentality out of kilter with the super fresh theatricality of the rest of this year’s 10 x 10.

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