Following Footprints at ADF

The American Dance Festival that many of us locals tend to think of as a glorious 6-week binge of dance performances is in actuality so much more. The Festival, for its participants, is a time and place of sharing and learning; of adventuring into the unknown, and of paring away the inessential. The ADF School is one of the hubs of an art form, one of the important places where dances are passed from body to body, where the craft of the art of dance can be practiced by the passionate every waking moment. And, the American Dance Festival is a crucial node in the nexus of creative support that allows new dances to be made.

At the end of June, I met with ADF director Jodee Nimerichter in her temporary office at the heart of ADF summer operations on Duke campus, the Wilson Residence Hall, near the Ark, to talk about the Festival’s annual Footprints program, which Nimerichter described as “the most wonderful way the School and the performances are merged.”

A scene form Wynn Fricke's beautiful work in Footprints, SLOW THAW, in performance at ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

A scene form Wynn Fricke’s beautiful work in Footprints, SLOW THAW, in performance during Footprints, at ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

“At the core, ADF’s mission is about supporting the choreographer, so everything we do is about that. The Footprints program is about the supporting the artist and creating new works—and re-creating classic works.” In recent years, the emphasis has been on the new. “Reconstruction is really important, but—there are so many people right now who need an opportunity to make work,” she says. “Everybody needs money, that’s a given. But some may need time away from normal circumstances, and to work with new dancers.”

The student dancer ensemble in Gregory Maqoma's DRY WELL, in Footprints, ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The student dancer ensemble in Gregory Maqoma’s DRY WELL, in Footprints, ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

But how does this come about?

Over the course of the 10-month year between the end of one ADF performance season and the beginning of the next, Jodee Nimerichter travels the country and the world to see as much work as she possibly can. She identifies three or four mid-career, choreographers, to invite to Durham for the duration of the 6-week Festival. Each will create a 15-20 minute dance for the next Footprints program. The artists get regularly scheduled rehearsal time with student dancers they’ve chosen from among the 6-week students (6WS) who have auditioned, and they can choose as many dancers as they like, without having to worry about the cost. (At the auditions, the choreographers make their A-lists, and their back-up lists, because if a student is chosen by more than one choreographer, it is the student who ultimately chooses which one to work with.)

The artists are each allowed a small stipend for production costs ($1000-$5000, including the staff time of musicians, lighting designers, and costumers). In addition to their housing and food, they also receive the incalculable gift of time with other artists.

“All these choreographers are working so hard that they don’t often get a break to talk and work and play with their colleagues,” says Nimerichter. On the ADF campus, as they pursue their Footprints, they can shrug off the isolation, make new contacts and renew old friendships—and feel the strength and supportiveness of their common bond with their peers, mentors and students. The ADF doesn’t just want them to make a dance for the performance season, but to refill the well: We want, says Nimerichter, to “foster their creativity, to allow them to take from [the Footprints experience] something that will enrich their work” when they return to the daily grind. “It doesn’t matter what point you are in your career, she adds flatly, “commissioning support is crucial to building repertory.”

Even an internationally known artist like Gregory Maqoma, the South African who electrified ADF 2014 with his company’s performance, needs all those things. Of the three choreographers in the 2015 Footprints, I decided to follow Maqoma as he created his dance, to see one way the magic may be made.

6/18/15 1st Gregory Maqoma rehearsal, Brodie Gym

As I slipped in 10 minutes before scheduled start time, Maqoma was sitting quietly at the head of room, with a portable music player and a large clock, studying a notebook. Nearby stood a black upright piano, with a label indicating that it’s for ADF musicians only. Around a low, stage-sized sprung floor, dwarfed by the scale of the gymnasium, ten students stretched and chatted in whispers. Their belongings clumped along the sideline in casual foursomes: backpack, shoes, water bottle, phone. These upper level ADF School students–six women and four men–had been chosen in competitive auditions by the South African choreographer to dance a new work he would create on them. Along with two others by Wynn Fricke and Anna Sperber, Maqoma’s work would form this year’s Footprints program, which among other things, gives advanced students the opportunity to experience dance company work at a professional level, a key experience for an aspiring professional. Today, the work would begin, and the cool gym crackled with a queasy mixture of anxiety, bravado, hope and ambition.

At 3:45 p.m. exactly, Gregory Maqoma stood, beckoning the students onto the floor. They trotted toward him eagerly—immediately trotting back to fetch notebooks and pens. Sitting in circle with Maqoma its start and finish, they made many notes while he spoke softly and calmly, taking care of matters of business and telling something of himself, before eliciting their stories one by one, and making notes himself.

Preliminaries out the way, the atmosphere changed. Maqoma began to talk about the movement, about the work they will make together, using his vision and their particular talents. His body, which had been still, became constantly active, his words all accompanied by gestures and smiles. Frequently he touched his throat or his chest with his hand. He uses both hands, actively, as if his body were a drum. There are many outward moving hand gestures—opening, unfurling, pressing into the future—and, repeatedly, rolling arm movements, alternating side to side. The students, who’d been getting a little tired of all the talk, tossed aside their notebooks and leapt up, ready to move.

Maqoma was ready. He had a concept, a broad idea of how the dance would be, and he certainly knew what it would be about, but he needed to find out more about his dancers before he could know who would be most adept at which aspects of his vocabulary—and who might have physical prowess that would spark new ideas. He also had a series of short phrases prepared.

Leaning slightly forward from the hips, he began to swing his arms, and the dancers mimicked his action. His swing enlarged into a broader sweeping motion, then morphed into a windmilling whirl and a pivot on both heels. The arms whirled in closer and closer to the head, a protective double curve, before the hands locked behind the neck. The dancers stumbled through the sequence.

Maqoma went back to the beginning and began to work smaller chunks, then added a new bit: arms rise in supplication. Setting the tempo with mouth clicks, he adds fragment after fragment, before himself demonstrating the entire sequence, loaded with energy.

He introduces a much more difficult sequence, a whirling turn that spirals down and then up again. It’s obviously devilish to do, and the dancers struggle as they work it over and over, with Maqoma demonstrating repeatedly, slow and fast, just how the feet, legs, and arms must work together to allow the body to get down and up in one spiraling flow of motion. One woman has a particularly hard time, tangling in her own feet again and again—but she also seems determined to become mistress of this mystery.

After an hour, they run through the entire sequence. They aren’t in sync, they aren’t properly spaced, and they still stumble on the spiral, but they know the steps and gestures. After a few more tries, they manage to move on the same beats, stamping harder, reaching further. Maqoma then puts them into a tight cluster, and has them dance it so that all the energy buzzes among the closely spaced bodies, amplifying itself. Then at 5:20, he begins separating them, assigning different actions to be set against the group dancing. Work goes on until 6:30 sharp, breaking only for the dancers to make quick forays for water and power bars, to shed clothing layers or add bandages to abraded feet.

So it begins. Dancemaker and dancers have become acquainted, begun to share a body language. It has been made perfectly clear that rehearsal from 3:45 to 6:30 means precisely that. But still to come are all the developments that will test trust and egos, that will reveal just how hard a dancer is willing to work and just how loyal any of them will be to the group and to the choreographer’s vision.

The whirlwind in DRY WELL, Gregory Maqoma's work set on students for the Footprints program, ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

The whirlwind in DRY WELL, Gregory Maqoma’s work set on students for the Footprints program, ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

6/22/15, the third rehearsal, 4:55 p.m.

Maqoma is working with the four men, trying a range of options for a section that seems to be about the forces working against the solidarity of the little community he’s conjured into being. The men start in a close square, arms linked to shoulders, facing outward. Suddenly, they twist inward, stretching apart while grasping tightly. Then, undulating, wave-like, they roll over, lift and spin into two pairs. In a funny moment that leaves them all laughing on the floor, centrifugal force gets the better of them, and all fall down. Maqoma demonstrates and physically guides their bodies through the weight and energy transfers until they have control of the lift and spin sequence.

Meanwhile, the six women work individually, scattered around the gym. The same two who’d seemed the hardest workers on Day One were again setting themselves to the tasks with visible resolve, making each iteration of their parts more forceful, more precise, more energized, more passionate. One is focusing on arm and hand work, refining, refining. The woman who struggled so with that devilish spiral has gotten past tripping on her feet and now is working the whole sequence until she owns it: each time, she gets a little more undulation of hip and shoulder, more snap, harder rhythms, longer extensions and sharper endings to her phrases. By 6:15, she’s the only woman still working, while behind her, Maqoma continues rehearsing the men into sweaty, quivering exhaustion.

At 6:19 Maqoma dismisses the men to stretch out, and calls the women up to demonstrate their progress. For exactly 21 minutes, he watches and comments, and once he smiles: for the spiral woman.

7/3/15, last rehearsal before the July 4 mini-break

Those arm movements the woman had been working on turn out to be part of a sequence in which the dancer seems both a conjurer of rain and a tree lashing in a windstorm. She’s in the center of all the other dancers, who hold her feet and legs like spreading tree roots, as she cantilevers her body far out, flailing and swaying. The hands climb her body and suddenly she’s lifted on the hands—and almost falling, almost dropped! She didn’t quail, but everyone else suddenly became more attentive. This is life and death stuff. They are working on a dance about a community whose water has dried up, a people who are increasingly desperate for the water of life. Since nobody got hurt, this almost-accident was beneficial—the dancing became infused with the feeling that they were not playing here, the stakes were real. The next time the group lifted the tree-woman read very differently. Trust had arrived, and commitment.

Maqoma has begun giving very specific descriptions and instructions. “The wind is blowing!” “You are like a fish fighting for life—flop, heave!” “Get out of the idea of making it pretty!” The young fish-man—one of the two men who are showing eagerness to go where they’ve never gone before in their dancing—flops for all he’s worth. He must be bruised all over.

Maqoma talks about things that he knows, but these students could not—about animals migrating, about their arrival at a riverbend, a drinking hole. They are fighting for survival, both individually an as a group. Who will drink first?

He speaks about what will give the dancers’ movements power, physically and mentally.

As they go over a particularly sensuous section, he begins to shout: “all the senses be awake!…touch…it’s your body, touch it!…the fingers, the toes, arms to the sky—where are the arms? It must be clear!”

The dancers all look drained, but Maqoma is fresh and demanding. “It’s a horse, the rhythm of a horse,” he exhorts them. “Exaggerate, be dramatic about it!”

A lot has changed since the gentle low-voiced instructions on Day One.

7/8/15, the first rehearsal with musicians

Maqoma’s preferred working method, he has told me, is to develop the music simultaneously with the dance. In this case, he’s had to make a complete draft of the dance before the musicians were available, using recorded music to give the dancers an idea of mood, tempo and rhythms. The mood in the room is even more electric and nervous than on the first day.

The choreographer is quietly watching as the dancers practice a stamping, undulating section to the music of a thumb piano, but he keeps glancing toward the door, waiting for the other musicians. Finally, they arrive and while they get set up, Maqoma runs the dancers through their various parts. When everyone is ready, they dance the whole piece, so that the musicians can begin to respond. All the little bits and pieces have melded into the dramatic story Maqoma has wanted, but the music will take it much further.

The first riff that Amadou Kouyate played on his 21-string Kora elicited a smile from Maqoma so beatific and intimate that I decided to leave the rest as a beautiful surprise, and see Dry Well all complete–lights, costumes and music on the Reynolds Stage.

Lighting designer David Ferri outdid himself; Cybele Moon’s simple dark red robes and minimal onesies beneath were ideal, and the beautiful music–delicate, propulsive, desperate, pleading, rejoicing–by Khalid Salem, Amadou Kouyate and Sherone Price brought the performance into the realm of the mystical. The choreographer’s still, silent vision was fully realized in a storm of motion, made flesh by dancers who took the big leap beyond their own skills and knowledge. Footprints may be aimed at supporting the choreographers, but everyone benefits from this art adventure.

ADF student dancers performing Gregory Maqoma's DRY WELL at ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

ADF student dancers performing Gregory Maqoma’s DRY WELL at ADF 2015. Photo: Grant Halverson.

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