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.

ADF: Tere O’Connor Dance, part 1

From Sister. Tere O'Connor Dance in the venerable Ark on Duke's East Campus, July 13, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.

From Sister. Tere O’Connor Dance’s Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson in the venerable Ark on Duke’s East Campus, July 13, 2014. Photo: Grant Halverson, ©ADF.


I had my introduction to the work of choreographer Tere O’Connor Sunday evening in The Ark, that fine old un-airconditoned white clapboard ship of a building on Duke’s East Campus. It’s one of the main studios for the Duke Dance program, and in the summer is used by the American Dance Festival. All wood and light, with large windows running down both long sides, it is an oddly proportioned room and somehow very homey, especially with the box fans stuck in the windows. What with the heat and the fan-wielding crowd, it was probably the perfect venue for O’Connor’s Sister, with its breathtakingly intimate moments between the two dancers.

There was no talking, not on the stage or on the soundtrack. In fact, the dance was so completely non-verbal, so resistant to explanation with words, that I’ve had fun imagining that it was all made and revised and rehearsed in motion language. Jodee Nimerichter has been taking us through a brilliantly crafted season in which we have been coaxed to consider the uses and abuses of language in dance, but I admit to a sigh of relief when I realized that these dancers were going to be eloquent with everything except words. The movement vocabulary, both gesture and motion, has an artful plainness, with much beautiful hand and foot work.  Another joy–the dancers looked at each other, long and closely. They were interacting every minute, and touching often. Such a pleasure, in contrast to the many dances in which the moving bodies seem unacquainted.

Here’s a quote from the Tere O’Connor Dance website, emphasis mine:

In his work, O’Connor attempts to bring into evidence aspects of consciousness that are present in the contingencies of dance. The complex coexistence of time passing, metaphor, constant change, tangential thought, and memory play is central to the work and delineates the spectrum of corporeal and structural choices he makes in his work. He is committed to the power of dance as a sub-linguistic area of expression and revels in its ability to braid together the personal and the universal.

Before the dance began, an ADF staffer turned off all the fans, raising quite a murmur of discontent. But it was good for the recorded music mix (eclectic and more about mood than rhythm) and for the added aural textures drifting through the open windows: Cicadas, sirens, trains. The dancers, already dripping, entered on a powerful olfactory wave of sweat and Tiger Balm. Other than the Tiger Balm, the performance felt more like a poetry reading or jazz in a small club, with the hushed, close-packed crowd reveling in the extreme closeness of the dancers. It was special. And, incredibly, it was free.

The performances tonight and tomorrow in Reynolds will naturally feel different. Tonight’s 7 and 9:30 pm shows will include Secret Mary and poem. Tomorrow, a new work, BLEED, made from the memories of the older pieces (?), will be performed at 7 and 9:30. These are not free, but Thursday’s 8 pm discussion with Tere O’Connor will be, and it will be in The Ark.

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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