Moonglow and Fireworks: ADF’s 80th Season Closes Tonight

At the beginning, it seems so luxuriously long. But each year on the final weekend, the American Dance Festival season feels painfully short. The ADF’s 80th season–its 36th in Durham–ends tonight at the Durham Performing Arts Center with the second performance of a beautifully constructed program featuring a spectacular ending.

It won’t be quite the same as the 26th’s, when the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement was presented to Lin Hwai-min, choreographer and founder of the breathtaking Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Another appropriate adjective for Lin Hwai-min’s work is “humane.” His choreographic language is most definitely not American: it comes very close to being universal. The award, with its $50,000 check, was presented by Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, who met Lin Hwai-min by chance in Bali in 1990–“and beautiful things for both of us came out of that meeting.” Lin Hwai-min gave the most graceful acceptance speech I’ve ever heard. Here are the highlights.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Lin Hwai-min, 2013 Scripps/ADF Award winner at the ceremony, 7-26-13. Photo: Grant Halverson.

“This is an enormous encouragement, especially for a person who did not begin taking regular dance classes until he was 23,” said Lin Hwai-min, going on to note that he had been inspired by the famous John F. Kennedy quote (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). “There was no Taiwan modern dance company, so I started one.” That was in 1973, and in 1978, he came to the ADF for the first time, in its first year in Durham. “The biggest thing I learned in 1978 was that I could do anything but American modern dance!”

“Running a dance company is tough anywhere,” he said, “but an award like this, a gesture like this, will sustain me for months.” He then went on to tell a moving story about a crucial incident early in his company’s life. “I first met Miss Graham [the great Martha Graham, priestess of high modern dance and a co-founder of the ADF] when her company visited Taiwan in 1974…’What am I going to do with Martha Graham in my own studio?’ I asked myself. I did what only the bravest, youngest would do–I held a Graham Technique class!”

Miss Graham, he said, was happy, and praised Lin and the company, which was just a year old. Imagine what this must have meant to them. Lin took her to the airport, and before she departed, she told him that many had helped her when she was starting out, and pressed into his hands a pile of Taiwanese money, “for your rainy days.” And now, Lin said from the podium, he would give his award money to Cloud Gate for a special project to nurture younger dance artists. A man worthy of honor, indeed.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min's Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre performed a solo from Lin Hwai-min’s Moon Water. Photo: Grant Halverson.

An exquisite example of Lin Hwai-min’s work opens the dance program. Chou Chang-ning of Cloud Gate dances a solo from Moon Water (1998), to the Sarabande, Suite No. 1 in G Major (BWV 1007), from the Six Suites for Solo Cello, by J. S. Bach (the Mischa Maisky DG recording). It is an expression of the duality within wholeness–the dancer moves in a private meditation, untouchable, unreachable, but which we can see like we see the moon’s reflection in water. The reflection is not the moon, but it brings us closer to comprehension of the moon. The moon we see in the sky is too far, too separate; we know her by her actions as she throws her light onto water. The dance is not the dancer, but without her the dance cannot be known. The dancer is not the dance; she is as contained and apart as the celestial moon, but with her graceful motion she lures us toward the enlightenment conjoining shimmering illusion and  dark substance.

There follows a reconstruction of the “Helios” section from Martha Graham’s Acts of Light (one of ADF’s lesser-known roles is that of restorer and preserver of modern dances that have almost gotten away), danced by students from the ADF School. In their golden unitards, in golden lighting (Beverly Emmons, recreated by David Ferri), the young dancers are like sunflowers: sprouting, burgeoning, turning, flowering, dying to sprout anew. There were some roughish moments in the ensemble, and one dancer who looked like he might be falling ill, as he was distractingly out of synchronization and clearly having balance problems, but the dance itself is charming and enlivening, and one feels grateful it has not been lost in the dust of history.

From the reconstructed "Helios" section of Martha Graham's Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

From the reconstructed “Helios” section of Martha Graham’s Acts of Light, performed by ADF students. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

Next comes a reconstruction of a quirky Bill T. Jones dance from 1992 (how quickly dances can be lost!), Love Re-defined. It is restaged here by Leah Cox, who was a very memorable member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company last decade. She has gotten great dancing from the 10-member ensemble who zip through the strange little love-story vignettes with verve. Whether making the angular ideograms or performing the elastic partnering of Jones’ style, the dancers are right on it. The work is set to strange poetic lyrics and music by Daniel Johnston, and the dancers seemed particularly strong during the long involved song about the king–King Kong (he loved his woman).

ADF students in Bill T. Jones' Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students in Bill T. Jones’ Love Re-defined, in the FORCES OF DANCE program. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The finale of this intriguing season is a new work by Twyla Tharp, which had its world premiere July 26. The ADF commissioned Treefrog in Stonehenge, with its original score by David Kahne, to be set on ADF students, and it is staged here by Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady, both former Tharp dancers. How wonderful is this? Not only does the ADF preserve old dances in new young bodies, they commission new artwork for new dancers. And  Treefrog in Stonehenge is not a minor work, but a large, increasingly complex multi-section work for 16 dancers, larded with references to and quotes from many dance styles and particular choreographers, in addition to Tharp’s own inimitable inventions. All of the very advanced students excelled at Tharp’s demanding athleticism, moving patterns and split-second timing at break-neck pace. The entire troupe was electric, sizzling with the joy of a difficult endeavor going very right, but Ben Ingel, a member of North Carolina Dance Theatre 2, was gasp-inducing in his high leaping turns. After “Helios,” it was impossible not to think of Icarus. Ingel was flying, burning like a Roman candle, but he landed as gently as a spark–no crashing to this burn. (I shook his hand afterward. It wasn’t even hot, but it did smell mightily of Tiger Balm.) What a wonderful close to the American Dance Festival’s 80th season of bringing better living through dance.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp's Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

ADF students gave Twyla Tharp’s Treefrog in Stonehenge its world premiere at the DPAC, 7-26-13. Photo: ©Grant Halverson/ADF.

The program repeats July 27 only, but it will be possible to see Ingel in Charlotte next season in NCDT II performances. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will appear in April, 2014, when Carolina Performing Arts will present Songs of the Wanderers in Chapel Hill.

Martha Graham Company closes super-season at Carolina Performing Arts

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham's Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Abdiel Jacobsen in Martha Graham’s Errand into the Maze. Photo: Terry-Lin.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Ben Schultz in Errand, in Chapel Hill. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham herself was my introduction to modern dance, when I was so fortunate as to see her perform during her 1967 tour. So I have a special place in my  heart for the Martha Graham Company, which on April 26 and 27 closed Carolina Performing Arts’ spectacular season examining Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on the centennial of that stunning music and its associated choreography and design. The company, now in its 87th season, has survived several near-death experiences and more recently, the lost of many of its costumes and sets to Hurricane Sandy, but I’m happy to report that the dancing  is still sublime.

Graham died in 1991, but her technique with all its emotional power and soulful force is very much alive. Many of her dances have been preserved or reconstructed and remain in the repertory of the company, now led by former Graham dancer Janet Eilber. The program both nights featured work from the 1940s and 1950s, including Errand, pictured above, as well as Graham’s own Rite, but the biggest thrill was Rust, a work by the great Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato commissioned by CPA for the Martha Graham Company, that had its world premiere in Memorial Hall on the 26th.

One tends to think of the women when thinking about Martha Graham dances, but Rust is set on the company’s men, and exploits both their physical power and their access to their own deep vulnerability. Set to music by Arvo Pärt (from his De Profundis), sung by the men of the Carolina Choir and UNC Chamber Singers, with additional music (strange noises, increasingly threatening) by Pedro Alcalde, Rust is deeply shocking. It’s about torture.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato's RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Martha Graham Company on the Memorial Hall stage in the world premiere of Nacho Duato’s RUST, April 26, 2013. KPO Photo.

Near the end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

Near the corrosive end, under the Klieg lights, in RUST. KPO Photo.

The aestheticization of any kind of violence is deeply disturbing–but how else do you get people to face up to something like torture of captives? Rust was hard to watch, but impossible to turn away from. The horror, the bleak horror, the imagined terror, the pain, the blinding lights–when they turn on the audience, slowly, slowly raking across our dialted pupils, we know: This could happen to us. To me. Any time. First suffering, then ignominious death. For something or for nothing.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham's MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

Wendy Whelan and Lloyd Knight in Martha Graham’s MOON, 4/26/13. KPO Photo.

The brutality of the blows on the beautiful body of Lloyd Knight (center, above photo) was only heightened by Rust immediately following the little confection of Moon (Graham, 1952), which was danced by Knight and guest artist Wendy Whelan from the New York City Ballet. It was fascinating to watch a ballerina dance Graham. Whelan does not at any time seem rooted to earth. She is ethereal, floating just above the ground, even while lying upon it. I don’t think this would work too well in many of Graham’s dances, but it was gorgeous to watch in Moon. It was as if the dark-skinned Knight was earth and gravity both, while Whelan was the shimmering moon, always distant but never leaving. Although CPA has not formally announced its line-up for next season, the word is that Whelan will be returning with a project of her own.

The final dance both nights was Martha Graham’s The Rite of Spring, which premiered in 1984–when she was 90. Graham had danced the role of The Chosen One in a 1930 revival of Leonid Massine’s choreography, which had supplanted Nijinsky’s in the Ballets Russes’ repertoire after Nijinksy infuriated impresario Diaghilev by running off and getting married–to a woman! Massine’s work has mercifully faded into the historical background.  Graham’s version–funded by fashion designer Halston, with costumes by Halston–varies considerably from the earlier models. Graham focused on the Shaman and the Chosen One, and brought a holiness to the sacrifice that is glaringly absent in most versions before or since. Ben Schultz as the Shaman was by turns magisterial, tender, heroic, and implacable as he brought the poor girl to acceptance of her fate in a succession of amazingly visualized scenes. He captures her in his cloak; he binds her with rope; he throws her over his shoulders like a lamb being taken to the altar; he raises her on his shoulders to a celestial position; he wraps her in the endless reel of renewing earth. On the 26th , the Chosen One was danced with aching beauty by Xiaochuan Xie, who is about half the size of the towering Schultz. On the 27th, she was performed by Blakeley White-McGuire, whose vivid life-force made the sacrifice all the more poignant.

Saturday’s program also included a brighter Spring: the wonderfully buoyant Appalachian Spring, set to Aaron Copland’s music, with set designed by Isamu Noguchi.  The trio’s contribution to the war effort (oh, that last “great” war), it premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944. Perhaps Graham’s best known work, it bolsters the spirit today just as it did then. The picture says it all.

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

Appalachian Spring, the Martha Graham Dance Company. Photo: John Deane ©

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