Monday, July 26, 2010

Shen Wei Dance Arts

The last performance of the ADF 2010 season was Shen Wei Dance Arts.  Here's the beginning of my review:

Shen Wei is back in familiar territory.  The Chinese-born artist has received numerous commissions from the ADF, and in fact, started his company, Shen Wei Dance Arts, at the Festival in 2000.  This year, the company presented two separate programs in their engagement at ADF, the final performance of the Festival’s 77th season.  Friday’s Program A included “Map” (2005), a mathematically precise investigation into Wei’s movement vocabulary; the supremely strange and lovely “Folding” (2000); and the new “Solo by Shen Wei.” 

“Map” is a relentless work, impressive in its musical sensitivity and the dancers’ stamina.  Set to Steve Reich’s repetitive, mesmerizing “Desert Music,” the dance illustrates the patterning in the score and creates visual patterns through the layering of movement.  Reich’s work has a symmetrical form in five parts (ABCBA), and Wei uses each of the sections to build up his movement vocabulary.  In each section, the dancers isolate the possibilities, bringing them together before our eyes.  The movement is quirky and beautiful, with the fluidity, precision, and sense of spiral that characterize Wei’s work.   

Read the rest here.

And stay tuned.  I hope to not be quite as silent during the upcoming semester as last year!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


This Monday I went to ADF's Past/Forward concert, where ADF students perform new and classic dance works. Here's the first part of my review:

The American Dance Festival's performance season is generally characterized by the presentation of acclaimed choreographers and dance works and the commission of new dances. However, the Festival's responsibility to the dance world extends beyond the cultivation of the latest and greatest; they also play a role in reviving and honoring works by classic choreographers. This dual role of the Festival is expressed most clearly by the annual Past/Forward concert. This year's concert was performed in Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University July 19-21, and featured a World Premiere of "Sepia," by Tatiana Baganova, Merce Cunningham's "Inlets 2" (1983), and the "West Side Story Suite" (1995), by Jerome Robbins, all performed by ADF dancers.

Baganova's rich "Sepia" spoke of the passage of time, decay and rebirth through images coalescing with an emotional resonance, although with no strong narrative. Large hourglasses were suspended above the stage, sometimes pouring down a stream of sand over the heads and shoulders of the dancers. The dancers moved with a sensual grace under the fluid sand, undulating their arms, circling their heads, letting the stream flow down their backs. The sound of ripping paper cut through the haunting music, as hands broke through a large paper cocoon at the front of the stage. Three dancers - although it seemed many more limbs writhing beneath the paper - emerged from the yellowing paper, crumpling it up and carrying it around the stage with scurrying steps.

Read the rest here.

Just one last concert of the season--Shen Wei Dance Arts. I'll be there on Friday.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Of Glitter and Tears: Rosie Herrera Returns to ADF

July 12-14, 2010

Rosie Herrera is a bit of a magician. She transports us into surreal, ridiculous, and unexpected places and jolts us with little surprises before we even have time to guess what’s coming next. She twists our emotions, our expectations, and our associations. With a skillful sleight-of-hand, she can turn the seemingly benign piñata—parties! candy!—into a darkly symbolic object, carrying disappointment, disillusionment, and violence. Or perhaps she just exposes what is already there, in the image, in us.

A Festival favorite from last year’s Past/Forward concert, Herrera has been invited back this year with the popular Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret (2009), set on her own dancers this time rather than ADF students, and the World Première of Pity Party, commissioned by the ADF. With a skilled eye for the theatrical, Herrera transforms the Reynolds Industries Theater to create vivid and striking images for her work.

I was excited to see Various Stages of Drowning again, and was relieved to find the moments preserved in my memory still fresh and full of life. Besides the hilarious Titanic scene, where a drag queen lip-synchs to “My Heart Will Go On,” smashes a block of ice to the floor and “swims” off stage in a wet suit and flippers, I found myself noticing the darker veins that underlie this work. Tinkly, cutesy music plays as a tiny woman (Ana Mendez) in a short, puffy pink dress giggles and blows kisses. Three men in bow ties carry her around the stage where ten birthday cakes sit atop tall stools. The men position Mendez above a cake, lowering her gently down. “Ay!” she squeals, giggling, as the icing oozes from between her legs. As she is carried from one cake to the next, the mood turns sinister; Mendez begins to scream in protest, crying, as she is roughly dropped into each cake. It becomes hard to watch this violation, hard to watch her helpless desperation. Immediately after she is dragged off stage, a young child—two years old, perhaps—is wheeled through the ruined cakes in a bathtub. The juxtaposition of the child’s lightness and innocence with the violence just done to the woman takes one’s breath away; it feels overwhelmingly ominous—and yet, tinged with hope.

As Pity Party begins, the curtain opens to reveal a wall of shimmering gold tinsel, hanging ceiling to floor at the back of the stage. The now-classic love ballad, “A Total Eclipse of the Heart,” plays, belted out by one of the performers and a man from the audience. The dancers fill up the drama of the song with intentionally angst-y gestures and facial expressions, pounding their fists against their thighs and clutching their hair. This over-the-top expression of emotion is countered by subtler scenes: one of the performers, Liony Garcia, bobs for Barbies, lifting the dolls from a bowl of water with his teeth and distributing them to the other dancers, who cradle them solemnly and mournfully.

Pity Party, like Various Stages of Drowning, shifts swiftly between celebration and grief, the ridiculous and the deadly serious. The performers pose in a sultry tableau, holding suggestive smiles that eventually begin to droop, until they are all weeping. Piñatas, imbued with memories of child-like excitement and anticipation, float just out of reach of the performers, who swing blindly for them; indeed, they swing with such commitment that it becomes clear it is the swinging itself that is the point, despite its futility. Later, when one of the women breaks up a dance party, blindfolded and swinging a bat, the other dancers direct her to a piñata on the floor, which she proceeds to pummel to death. The violence of this scene is palpable, as the performers’ encouraging shouts become stares of horror, and the woman with the bat swings until she is too exhausted to continue.

Although there are still a few rough edges in Pity Party, Herrera draws us easily along with her quirky touch and sense of humor. It is clear that just beneath the outrageous, glittery surface is something true, something honest. Herrera seems to suggest that perhaps the glitzy veneer is true, too. It is part of Herrera’s magic that she can offer up a landscape that feels so deeply familiar, so human, for all its strangeness.

Anne Morris

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company

Taking the Tango to a New Level—Literally

Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company flies into the Durham Performing Arts Center, July 8-10

Choreographer Brenda Angiel is no stranger to the American Dance Festival. She made her Festival debut as a student, and since then her company, Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company (based in Buenos Aires), has performed at the ADF twice, in 1999 and 2005; she has also been selected for several International Choreography Residency programs through the Festival. Widely lauded for her inventive aerial dance work, Angiel now devotes an entire evening to re-envisioning the tango with 8cho. Her dancers are joined by a five-piece orchestra playing a jazzy, funky tango score (composed and arranged by Juan Pablo Arcangeli and Martin Ghersa), and a singer, Alejandro Guyot, who appears in a few of the numbers. The dramatic lighting and separate scenes give the sense that we have happened into a vibrant nightclub. We meet several sensual couples, two men competing for the attention of a woman, a lonely man without a partner, and a woman longing for a lost love; although the scenes progress successively, I could imagine that all of this might be happening at once in various parts of the club.

Using bungee cords or ropes and harnesses, Angiel enhances the traditional tango form with sweeping spins, playful bounds, and daring dips that hover just above the floor. Most often, although not always, the woman in the couple floats and glides through the air while the man remains earthbound, directing her motion. The sensuality and fancy footwork remain, amplified through the use of the vertical dimension. The possibilities for partner work are multiplied as the pairs flip upside down and use the back wall of the stage as their floor.

In addition to taking the three-dimensionality of the dance to a new level, Angiel has found new ways to abstract the elements of tango. The opening image reveals two women suspended in a mist, arms and legs twined around each other. Slowly, the two swivel their hips and their knees, wrap and unwrap their lower legs as tango partners do. With extreme control they turn each other around and hang upside down--somehow without setting themselves swinging like pendulums. In another scene, “Footango,” three pairs of legs appear from above the top curtain. Angiel shows us how expressive feet can be as they gesture to each other, flick their feet, and play out a scene in which the two women fight over the one man.

One of the most exciting scenes is “Tangay,” in which Ana Armas and Pablo Carrizo have just finished a playful tango. She flies backwards out of his arms….and lands in the arms of another man! She bounds back and forth between them as they try to win her attention. The partners keep switching, and they even dance a tango for three, with Armas enclosed in a circle of their arms, all three of them stepping quickly and sharply between and around the others’ legs. Finally, the two men decide she is too much trouble, and finish the tango themselves.

Despite the novelty of upside-down tangos and endless spiraling spins, the material starts to feel repetitive by the end. Although the last two numbers feature multiple pairs, it seems that we have already seen many of the ways they interact with each other. While each scene starts with a strong dramatic image and intriguing uses of the aerial apparatus, the ideas did not seem to develop enough to sustain my interest for the duration of each scene. The women, weightless, usually swung around by their men, begin to feel a bit like fairies, visions—a little imaginary. Perhaps I tired of this fantasy because the illusion was incomplete; I could not ignore the ropes for long, although it seemed I was meant to.

Nonetheless, Angiel approaches—and expands—the possibilities of aerial dance with imagination and vigor. Despite some clumsy technical work in last night’s performance (and an odd snippet of eerie, electronic recorded music that plays during every transition—baffling, given the live musicians on stage), 8cho’s dancers make the enormous effort of aerial work look easy and fun, and the live orchestra is outstanding.

Anne Morris

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

"Angel Reapers" at ADF

Simple Passions? 

Martha Clarke’s Angel Reapers at the Reynolds Industries Theater, July 5-7

The tension of line against curve. Hard-edged panels of light; rows of chairs, placed at right angles; a single file, stamping line of dancers crossing the stage.  And yet—the rounding of long skirts over hips; arms spiraling upward as the body twists; an ecstatic, rotating circle within a circle.  So much seems to hinge on opposing tensions in Martha Clarke’s new work in progress, Angel Reapers, a dance theater work about the Shaker community and its founder, Ann Lee.

Clarke’s dance work is set to a cappella Shaker songs sung by the dancers, and it is fortified with text by award-winning playwright Alfred Uhry; Christopher Akerlind lights the dance with simple, painterly strokes.  The dancers remind each other of the strict rules of their society (including celibacy), celebrate the chores they do to keep the group functioning, and confess their desires, their sins.  There is a loose narrative to the work, and characters distinguish themselves as the performance develops: Mother Ann Lee, the charismatic founder of the religious community, her brother William, a young couple that transgress the rules and are cast out, and a former member of the group who later denounces the believers.

The dramatic momentum of the work is really driven by the dancing and gesture more than the text.  Clarke works with a minimal movement vocabulary, mostly consisting of stylized pedestrian movement.  The dancers employ an assortment of hand gestures—sometimes clasping both hands at their chests, sometimes holding their palms upturned.  The women swish their skirts; the men hang onto their hats.  Walking patterns carve through the space as the dancers scurry, keep time, and sometimes tip and lean in a measured pass back and forth through the space.

At the heart of the work seems to be the tension between human and divine nature; the Shakers aspired to transcend—deny—their human passions, yet encouraged religious ecstasy in worship.  Clarke’s work seems to highlight the physicality of the community, emphasizing their humanness.  The singing moves the body, as air fills the chest, throats open, shoulders sway to the melody.  The rhythmic dancing this group does, patterned clapping and stomping, pitching forward as they circle the stage, is all imbued with the body’s weight, sound, pulse.  Even the work that was so central to the Shaker community—sowing seeds, washing dishes, mending clothes—requires sweeping arms, dexterous fingers, strong backs.  Certainly the worship depicted here is a full-bodied affair, complete with convulsions, energetic spinning, and even collapse.  At the end of the dance, Mother Ann Lee’s brother William confesses the inner turmoil he feels, with the soul of an angel and the body of a man, and begins to undress.  For a brief scene, he joins the other men, who enter stripped bare, and they trace a hasty spiral of turning leaps before exiting again—it is clear that these are men, not angels.

It is this tension—human versus angelic—that begins to break apart the community in Clarke’s work.  From the straight-backed, angular posture of the beginning, the dancers begin to yield, to curve away from (and towards) the touch of others.  They begin to lose the order that characterizes the beginning of the dance as their bodily desires are not always denied.  The last scene seems a fractured portrait, no longer a unified, supportive—if rigid—community, but one with deep, internal fissures.  The chairs are no longer in straight rows, but scattered in small groups around the stage; some chairs are empty, as members have left the group.  Mother Ann seems uncertain, as if questioning her own resolve.  And yet—the group hums, a droning, spreading hum, as the lights fade, still finding unity (and maybe even the Divine) in their merging voices.

Anne Morris

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Beyond Human

The performance duo Eiko and Koma performed at ADF this week.  They have been performing together for 40 years, and are in the middle of a multi-year Retrospective Project.  As they tour for the next couple of years, they will be performing selections from their repertory (usually abbreviated from the original length) and a new work, Raven.  I had seen works of theirs (or excerpts, really) on video, but nothing live.  I had thought their work to be primarily site-adaptive, often in outdoor, natural environments, and so was curious how they would transform a standard, proscenium theater for their performance.  In some sense, they brought something of the outside world into the theater, using natural materials like feathers and straw, but also created a sort of in-between space with a canvas backdrop and floor covering; the theater space was clearly still a theater, but made into an environment that suggested a natural setting.
I was really struck with a certain quality of their work, almost a paradox of human vs. beyond human.  In a sense, the very essence of human nature and human needs seems to be at the center of their work.  They often perform with minimal costumes, and sometimes no clothes at all, so that the human body in its entirety (in its "natural state"?) is visible.  And yet, the two do not draw or pay any attention to their nakedness, seeming not to even notice.  This attitude, plus the white paint that covered their skin in this performance, made them seem almost inhuman.  Separate from human.
The work also reaches beyond human scale, where human desires and needs meet the natural world, with its internal and external cycles, development and death, regeneration.  They don't just link the human and natural world, but show them to be indistinguishable, inseparable.  I'm still wrapping my mind around how to make sense of it, in words or in feeling.

Here is the beginning of my review:

 “To live is to be fragile,” reads the poem, “A Moth,” adapted from Mitsuharu Kaneko, which is printed in the program for Eiko and Koma’s Retrospective Project.  Certainly, Eiko and Koma’s work reveals the fragility and desperation of human life, but also the fierceness and determination.  The duo presented three works this week (June 28-30) at the Reynolds Industries Theater: “Raven,” a new work, “Night Tide” (1984), and an excerpt from “White Dance” (1976), their first choreographed piece. 

 It is impossible not to think about the passage of time with respect to Eiko and Koma’s work.  Their Retrospective Project intentionally emphasizes this; displayed in the lobby of the theater are set pieces, props, and videos from their work together over the past 40 years.  Detailed program notes about their habits of recycling performance ideas, props, costumes, and music, and the literal regeneration of past work on the program reinforces the awareness of evolution through time. 

 But this awareness is also embedded in the performance work itself.  The notoriously slow pace of the pair’s movement allows the passage of time to be felt and consciously seen as we notice how their bodies move, work, and balance, creating striking movement images; we watch the evolution—development and decay—of each gesture, each step.  We have time to take in how their bodies relate to the performing environment, to consider the way time works on the environment, and by extension, the human body.

Read the rest of the review here.