Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Footprints at ADF

Unsteady ground: The Footprints performance at ADF


In recent years, ADF has offered a performance (previously called Past/Forward) that gives its students a chance to be a part of both new works by emerging choreographers, and the resetting of classic repertory, such as Merce Cunningham’s Inlets 2, Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story Suite, and Laura Dean’s Infinity.  This year, the program (renamed Footprints), features world premieres by three contemporary artists at various stages of their careers: Helen Simoneau, Jodi Melnick, and Reggie Wilson. 
Though each dance was characterized by a different style and overall feeling, the works shared a great deal.  First, all seemed to be designed to maximize performance opportunities for the ADF dancers—the casts featured 20 dancers, give or take a few.  This made for a very full stage and the need for “crowd management.”  A great deal was made of walking and running as a transition from one section to the next; sometimes the walking and running was the section.   In large part, it appeared the choreographers embraced this “crowdedness” as a theme.  Patterns emerged: Out of the blur of bodies, a few emerged as the focus; the large group watched as a solo or small group danced; a single dancer cut through the unison field; the group danced or posed together before erupting into a riot of movement, each dancer on her own.
Helen Simoneau’s all-female cast for Paper Wings wore dark blue skirts and shirts in shades of purple; the consistent costuming unified the group, while the variation in hue and body type marked this as a crowd of individuals.  The work, out of necessity or design, did not have the crispness of many of Simoneau’s other works for smaller groups, or the precision of both large and small gesture. Rather, this dance had blurry edges, a constantly shifting patterning rippling through the dancers’ movements.  Though there were sharper small group moments, characterized by Simoneau’s sensual groundedness and punctuated by more explosive bursts from arms and legs, the images that have stuck with me involve the full group.  These moments suggest images from the natural world: the dancers pour down the diagonal into the corner, a rushing current, and then roll back, their legs undulating in the air like seaweed.  Or, the dancers roll back and forth over their knees, catching momentum, and working their way into a jump, roll, and jump again.  They join up with different groups—now rolling one way, now pausing, now rolling the other way—creating an uneven visual surface that suggests sunlight glinting through an active sea. 
Other moments did not hold my attention as well, particularly a section in which the dancers—alone or with small groups—walked matter-of-factly forward, then rolled into a reclining pose at the front of the stage, freezing in a posture of semi-alertness.  The raised heads, flexed feet, knees halted in mid-fall were intriguing, but the static-ness of the section and lengthy repetition of the idea lost my interest.  There was also a great deal of purposeful watching in this dance, but I could not find the purpose.  Sometimes the dancers watched each other, sometimes they fixed their eyes outwards, above the audience.  As the dance ended, they looked around at each other, seeming a bit lost, or bewildered. 
The aesthetic was decidedly quirkier in Jodi Melnick’s The Darling Divide.  For the most part, Melnick used the group in a different way than Simoneau and Wilson.  This stop-and-go dance brought us a sparer stage, with pairs or small groups dancing, posing, and then abruptly walking off.  The sequencing seemed almost random, with no discernable connection between the groups of dancers.  The dynamic was mostly constant and quiet, with little theatricality in the dancers’ demeanor.  Melnick did not direct the audience’s attention to some of the more interesting moments (surely an aesthetic choice); everything seemed to be weighted equally, and felt a little flat.  I’m not usually one for theatricality, but the dancers didn’t ask for me to care about them, and I found I didn’t.  The end did bring me in a bit more, as the dancers jumped and caught each other, jumped and caught, before leaving a pair of women lying on the stage, their ponytails undone.  It was a moment tinged with sadness, loneliness—the first emotional connection I felt to the work.
Reggie Wilson’s ­­­­­­­Akulalutho was the most energetic and dynamic of the night.  His explosive movement, a fusion of African, African-American, and contemporary styles, showcased the stamina and power of his cast well.  However, the dance was a clear demonstration of a shortcoming that all three works shared—too many ideas, and not enough time to hone and edit them down to a strong dance.  There were many potentially interesting movement ideas ­­­­­­­in Akulalutho—enough for a few dances, in fact.  It became tiresome to see each new seemingly separate idea added in, one more bead on the choreographic strand.
On the whole, I found that the concert felt a bit sprawling, a little unwieldy, without the grounding presence of the more classic repertory works included in recent years.  Not because the classic choreographers had better things to “say,” but rather more time to shape a clearer expression and find their balance.

The ADF season concludes with the Mark Morris Dance Group performing July 27-28 at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Anne Morris

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Brian Brooks Moving Company at ADF

Brian Brooks Moving Company in Descent.  Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Brian Brooks Moving Company builds and deconstructs, falls and soars at the American Dance Festival

July 17, 2012

Brian Brooks is a problem-solver.  A movement-investigator.  An explorer willing to take his time to probe all the possibilities, willing to let an idea evolve and develop.  Even when the central question seems clear within the dance, the solutions are so inventive that they—mostly—remain compelling, even riveting.  His company presented four works in the Reynolds Industries Theater: two longer works, including the new Big City (2012), and Descent (2011), as well as the propulsive, barely controlled freak-out solo I’m Going to Explode (2007) performed by Brooks himself, and an ode to endurance in the duet excerpted from Motor (2010) in which two men in black briefs spend nearly 10 minutes hopping—in unison—through stuttering back and forth pathways that gradually get more complex.

“What does it take to suspend a fall?”  This seems to be the question posed in Descent (2011), a non-stop, highly visual dance that explores weight, momentum, impulse, and flight in its multiple sections.  Unusual and striking lighting is prominent, further delineating the sections.  Visible beams of light are directed across the chests and heads of the dancers as they trudge a slow procession, each carrying another dancer on their backs, stiff-legged and rigid.  Occasionally, the bearers put down their charges to change sides, and the mannequin-like figures become human again, their weight and mobility remembered.  In another section, one man slows another’s fall, redirecting, catching, tipping, and sometimes cushioning the falling body.  Somehow, all of these actions seem to be happening at once, and the duet is a jumble of joints, as the active partner maneuvers swiftly around his leaning partner (sometimes rigid, sometimes limp), using knees, shoulders, back, feet, head, and hands to fulfill the task. 

Brian Brooks Moving Company in Descent.  Photo by Christopher Duggan.

The lighting shifts so that the top half of the space above the stage is lit, while the bottom is darkened.  The dancers are hard to see in that dim light, but their action is not the focus.  They traverse the stage, using what appear to be aluminum panels to fan the air, keeping translucent scarves afloat in the light above their heads.  Hovering on the updrafts, the fabric writhes and swoops, suspending and then floating downward, only to ride the next air current upward.  The effect is lovely and captivating, as the scarves undulate like jellyfish, transform themselves like gossamer clouds.  Such lightness and air—but what effort from below to keep them afloat!

The focus shifts back to the physicality of the body in the last section, a running-and-jumping section, in which the dancers catch each other in midair, suspending the leap.  This idea develops and builds, until the dancers seem to finally acquiesce to the demands of gravity, layering themselves one on top of another, in a tall pile of inert bodies. 

Big City opens on an angular structure, dozens (hundreds?) of pipes creating something of a metallic bamboo grove, knobby and jointed.  The dancers, in colorful suits and dresses, enter the stage, fitting themselves through the haphazard pattern of empty spaces created by the structure.  A man in a red suit steps onto a man lying face-down on the ground.  Like log-rolling in slow motion, the man on top struggles to keep his balance as the man on the ground shifts his body, rolling from stomach to back and over again.  It is a focused negotiation of weight and support, the first of several other explorations of this idea. 

The movement vocabulary of this first part of the dance centers on the elbows and forearms, as they circle and hug the space close to the dancers’ bodies.  At times, it appears the elbows are trying to crawl away, and the dancer must snatch them back; other times, the dancers seem to be juggling themselves in a convoluted sequence—dip and curve, wrap and unfurl.  Although interesting and unusual at first, it continues for too long without additional development; the momentum of the dance also stagnates as the dancers erect more sets of the metal structures.

The dancers offer themselves to each other as supports: A small woman gingerly steps onto her partner’s outstretched hands, and eventually his chest and feet, as he constantly repositions himself to keep her from touching the floor; in three pairs, one dancer stands tall upon the other’s back, balancing while the supporting partner pushes up and curls back to sit on his or her heels, lowering back down to the floor. 

There is an intriguing relationship between the dancers and their environment—both a juxtaposition between the shiny metal of the structure and the malleable softness of the dancers’ bodies, and a consonance between their shared fragility and sturdiness.  The many-legged structure is made up of hard parts, but, with its spidery hinges, is not meant to bear weight—the potential for collapse is great.  The bodies, on the other hand— simple machines made up of hinges and levers—also have the potential to give way, to collapse (and they sometimes do, here), but again and again, they prove resilient, strong, reliable structures of support.  Brooks’ slow, steady exploration of this idea mostly works in Big City, giving a sense of the gradual evolution of human relationships and the construction of our shared space.

The ADF season continues with two more concerts this week: Shen Wei Dance Arts at the NC Museum of Art (July 18-19), and Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Durham Performing Arts Center (July 20-21).

Anne Morris

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Vertigo Dance Company at ADF

Vertigo Dance Theater in Mana.  Photo by Gadi Dagon

The Parts and the Whole: Mana at ADF


Jerusalem-based Vertigo Dance Company, directed by Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al, brought their highly visual Mana (2009) to the Durham Performing Arts Center this weekend.  Translated from the Aramaic as “a vessel of light,” Mana sets out to create a rather mysterious landscape, with the help of an original score by Ran Bagno.

I loved the movement.  Great sweeping leaps, low internal gestures; restrained rocking steps, wide scoots and slides.  There is a recurring back and forth action that the dancers do alone and in pairs, each pushing the other.  It is striking to see the group of nine dancers in unison, blown and tossed and skimming the floor.  At the beginning, the dancers have a softness, a slow ripple that rides their spines.  They show their palms almost reluctantly, glad for the shadows that settle around them.  As the dance progresses, they cock their elbows matter-of-factly, one hand raised, palm out, or arch backwards, palms reaching, pressing blindly.  The movement takes on a more aggressive quality—harder, with a sharp edge of sexuality.  An unmistakable air of violence infuses their previous communal relationships.

I loved the costumes—long, heavy, layered robes that accentuate both the flight of their jumps and the weight of the landing.  The fabric swings and settles after the body comes to rest, giving the movement a slight sense of echo, of reverberation.  At first the women wear scarves over their heads and long sleeves; as the dance continues, they begin to show more skin—uncovered heads, bare arms, skirts that they lift as they dance.
Vertigo Dance Theater in Mana.  Photo by Gadi Dagon

I loved the set.  A simple white profile of a triangular house, with one wide door cut into the middle of it, on a stark white floor.  The set is not static.  The square of the door pulls backward to frame the entering dancers, and once, it pushes forward, a pleasant shift against expectations.  The house also glides forwards and backwards, as if propelled by the energy of the scooting dancers, or shifts to the diagonal, creating cinematic effects that make us feel as if we have moved to watch the dancers from the side, or zoomed out for the bigger picture.  A large, shiny black balloon rises from the shoulders of one of the dancers, gently pulling her arms, knees, spine upwards.  Its pull is not enough to keep her from falling, collapsing into her gooey joints, crumpling into the arms of the man who props her up again and again.  For much of the rest of the dance, the balloon hovers over the roof of the house like an ominous dark moon.

For all that there is to love about Mana, I found its promise ultimately unfulfilled.  The visual effect of the dance carries it a long way, but the sum of the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole.  The choreographic structure, especially in the group sections, became a bit predictable and too reliant on unison and canon, despite the energy and effect of the group moving together. The development from the dance’s shadowy, ritualistic beginning to its more presentational, hard-edged ending left me looking for a dramatic arc that did not reveal itself. Comprehensive program notes suggested a “mystical journey” through light and dark, freedom and constraint; I felt the dance dipped occasionally into these rich depths, but ultimately stayed closer to the surface.  I was ready to be transported by Mana, but this vessel only carried me so far. 

Next week, ADF brings Brian Brooks Moving Company to the Reynolds Industries Theater (July 16-18), Shen Wei Dance Arts transforms the North Carolina Museum of Art (July 18-19), and the Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to DPAC (July 20-21).

Anne Morris

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ragamala Dance at ADF

Ragamala Dance in Sacred Earth.  Photo by Hub Wilson.

Ragamala Reveals a Sacred Earth


Ragamala Dance unfurled an intricate, complex, and lovely world last night at the Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University, with the evening-length Sacred Earth.  The circular rice flour designs the dancers drew and drizzled on the floor, the glowing gold, orange, and green pleats of the dancers’ skirts, the precise hand and head gestures, and the detailed Warli wall paintings projected throughout the dance—all conveyed a sense of reverence, of unfolding mystery, of celebration.

Trained in the South Indian classical dance form Bharatanatyam, Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy (the directors of Ragamala Dance) understand the dance as a dynamic art form.  They do not fuse the classic dance with contemporary dance forms, but rather draw on the tradition to create dances that speak universally, that have relevance for our 21st century world.  The sense of tension between tradition and innovation seems to heighten both, rather than take away from either, creating a bridge, not a tug-of-war.  A similar tension seems to bind other elements of Sacred Earth, as well: secular and spiritual life, inner and outer worlds, rhythm and stillness, human and natural concerns.

After a slow, meditative opening, in which the 6 dancers walked a slow circle, knees bending softly with each step, rice flour powdering down from each open palm, the live musicians transitioned into a more rhythmically complex and percussive beat.  The dancers contributed to the music with each pound and tap of their feet, the bells around their ankles lending a raspy jingle.  The performance was structured around sung poems in the Tamil Sangam literary tradition, celebrating mountainous, forest, seaside, and farmed landscapes.  The songs were strung seamlessly together, though each section seemed to feature both a soloist and the group.  Each soloist told a story through the deliberate, precise, and evocative gestures that are characteristic of Bharatanatyam—a wrist turned just so, the elbow at just this angle, fingers fluttering like the wings of a butterfly or bird.  The specifics of the narrative did not always come through, but the essence, the image, was clear. 

During the final section, the dancers snaked across the stage, lunged and reached side to side in a low, wide-legged stance, traced their arms in an arc overhead as if describing the sun’s path through the sky.  In their multiple passes, they recombined in varied groupings, their satisfying unison modulated by an occasional variation.  The ending image was particularly striking.  An intricate drawing of a tree was projected upon a translucent screen, behind which Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy could be seen.  All the thematic tensions of the dance coalesced in their movements, as they reached down into the roots and up towards the branching limbs—their physical bodies bridging groundedness and mobility, history and new growth.

ADF continues with Vertigo Dance Company this weekend at the Durham Performing Arts Center (7/13-7/14).

Anne Morris

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Pilobolus at ADF

Another guest post by Michele Trumble!

Pilobolus by John Kane

Pilobolus Returns to the American Dance Festival

In theory I am in love with Pilobolus. The company was founded on the belief that each individual is as important as the next and together they could make something larger than themselves while still maintaining a personal voice. To this day collective creative process and collaboration remain at their core, even as they enter their 41st performing season. Unfortunately, I was anything but in love with Pilobolus on stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center on July 5, 2012.

The almost two and a half hour long program consisted of five works, three created in 2012 (two of these commissioned by ADF) and two older works. The variety of repertory shown was impressive, as were the visual images created by the talented dancers. Besides Azimuth and Transformation, however, Pilobolus failed to capture my imagination.

Opening the show was Azimuth, an ADF commissioned collaboration with award winning master juggler, Michael Moschen. As the red curtain rose, a black and white film of cells dividing, fungi growing and amoebas shifting started to play on a little screen. As the film ended, lights faded up on angled bodies, large silver hoops and arcs, and brightly colored balls, creating what looked like an abstract sculpture of the solar system. The six dancers brought the props to life as they juggled balls, partnered the silver hoops like ballroom dance partners and balanced the silver arcs on their shoulders, thighs, hips and feet. Toward the end of the piece a male and female broke out in a lovely duet downstage. The two slid, spun and supported each other in lifts, all the while holding a ball between them with various body parts, like penguin parents trying to keep their egg off the cold ice. The music by Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yann Tiersen and Rene Aubry created an eerie circus-like atmosphere that was delightful yet mysterious. 

Skyscrapers started off with a drawn out film where all we saw and heard was the view from the front of what one can imagine is a moped or motorcycle as the driver careens down a European city. Like most of Pilobolus’ work in the program (both film and choreography) the idea is interesting, but somehow it never evolves to where it can hold my attention. The small screen disappeared and the cyc was suddenly lit up with a picture of a bright red building. Three couples took turns sashaying in different ballroom dance styles across the backstage to music by one of their latest collaborators, Ok Go. Each time the background picture would change to another color of the rainbow, the dancers costumes of suits and dresses would change to match. Skyscrapers was fast paced, contemporary and cute, but technically awkward.

The first half closed with a repertory work, Sweet Purgatory, which was commissioned for ADF in 1991. A soloist shuffled in jagged little lines across the stage, one arm bent over her face, the other reaching for the sky, like a leaf that was just barely hanging onto a branch in the wind. Five other dancers shuffled onstage joining the soloist in the journey from purgatory to hell and back again. The beautiful weight sharing and slow, almost magical lifts that Pilobolus is known for were showcased wonderfully in this work. At times the dancers melted into each other for support while at others they threw themselves to the ground and pushed each other away in a fight against something larger than the six of them.

The Transformation, an adorable play of scale and puppetry where a giant transforms a little girl into a dog, opened up the second half. Clever, humorous and to the point, The Transformation was a breath of fresh air in the program.

Automaton closed the program with a look at the human within the machine. Like Skyscrapers and Sweet Purgatory, this piece started off promising. The six dancers, dressed in layers of gray, beige and white pants and shirts were accompanied onstage by three large mirrors. A fourth mirror was attached at a forty-five degree angle to the back wall so the audience was able to view the mirrored world at multiple angles. With bent elbows and twitching heads, the dancers mimicked machines and robots – coming together to create images with their bodies such as a car or assembly line. The visual appeal started to fade, however, as the choreography stayed stagnant. Even when the mood changed and the dancers began to shed their clothes and partner each other in a sensual and soft manner in what I imagine was a look at the human being amongst all the machinery, I was not invested. It seemed fluffy and self-indulgent.

I left the concert feeling very torn about my experience. Pilobolus had sown many creative seeds within the pieces of the program, but as the choreography never felt fully developed, so too, the creative ideas never came to their full blossom.

The American Dance Festival continues with Ragamala at the Reynolds Industries Theater (July 10-12) and Vertigo Dance Company at Durham Performing Arts Center (July 13-14).

Michele Trumble

Copyright Michele Trumble 2012

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Monica Bill Barnes & Company at ADF

Look for a few reviews coming up by guest reviewer Michele Trumble.  Like this one:

Monica Bill Barnes & Company by Christopher Duggan

Exciting or Exhausting?: Monica Bill Barnes & Company Returns to the American Dance Festival

July 1, 2012

The world of performing can be intoxicating, but it can also be heartbreaking. The tumultuous world of showbiz was a common thread binding Monica Bill Barnes'  three works, "Luster", "Mostly Fanfare" and "Everything is Getting Better All the Time" performed by the Monica Bill Barnes & Company at the Reynolds Industries Theater on July 1, 2012. Blending a wide range of movement styles from vaudeville to Latin, Monica Bill Barnes showed the audience the hopeful and sometimes fragile human being behind the bold and attention seeking performer. 

"Luster", an ADF commissioned duet for Monica Bill Barnes and her long time collaborator, Anna Bass, opened the evening with a look at camaraderie and endurance, two keys to success in the business. Barnes and Bass, clad in sneakers and sequined gowns, bopped around the stage hand jiving, clapping, and snapping pictures of themselves holding bouquets. The chemistry between the two was contagious as they shimmied, saluted and sambaed in perfect unison, while each maintaining an individual flair. Sitting on two wooden chairs, the women flapped their arms, leaned back into smooth fan kicks and hit punctuated poses as though jamming out to the radio on a road trip. Somehow all the scattered elements of sweat wiping, sneaker squeaking, and formal posing made sense, as though two friends were looking back on a scrapbook of moments shared and triumphs celebrated.

In "Mostly Fanfare", blue lights rose up on Monica Bill Barnes, Anna Bass and Christina Robson dressed in simple white tank tops and black skirts with cumbersome feather headdresses reminiscent of vaudeville showgirls. The trio carefully pranced down the diagonal with heads held high and elbows jutted out to the side, like show ponies in a parade. They reached downstage only to chaine, run or stumble back upstage where they stopped and stared at the curtain, feet wide and arms outstretched in a grand gesture, waiting for some sort of entrance. They transversed the diagonal several times, each journey ending upstage, where they waited expectantly. Whatever they hoped for never came. Instead Barnes and Robson trotted offstage leaving Bass in the spotlight alone to entertain us. Bass weaved through slumped shoulder turns  and generous arabesques with outstretched arms as she wavered between her own need to perform and the obligation of entertaining one's audience. Complicating Bass's search for approval were large boxes thrown out of nowhere into her open arms. Bass strove for composure, stacking the boxes into piles as though trying to make sense of failures, regrets and broken dreams even as more boxes tumbled from the rafters. Just when Bass's struggles reached a crossroads of hilarity and heartbreak, Barnes and Robson returned to the stage. In a final attempt to woo their audience, the trio balanced chairs in their mouths, pranced into the wind from an offstage fan with silver confetti flying and hit pose after pose with wide smiles, hoping and yearning for applause, the one thing that might keep them going. As the piece ended and the women stood with an elegantly pointed foot in second position and wide expecting arms, I was not sure whether to applaud or cry for them.   

Crew members rushed onto the stage, whisking away the ruins of boxes, chairs and fallen confetti. Giulia Carotenuto stepped out in a business suit interrupting the bustle by dropping into a grande plie while cycling her arms in front of her, signaling the start of "Everything is Getting Better All the Time".  Barnes, Bass and Robson in matching suits, joined Carotenuto center stage as the crew members scurried off.  Keeping in close proximity to each other, the four women shadowboxed, primped, clapped and cheered their way around the stage to live recordings of Otis Redding. At first the individual, quirky gestures of the foursome were heartfelt and light, but the circus-like atmosphere that unveiled as the piece continued became overwhelming and off-putting. The dancers tried to top themselves by balancing chairs, twirling batons and stripping down to white tanks and basketball shorts, all the while smiling and winking in the spirit of showmanship. While it was clear that Barnes was examining the culture of performance and entertainment, "Everything is Getting Better All the Time" walked a fine line between using ridiculous gags and repetition as witty commentary and tripping over itself into a trap of excessiveness. 

With a fresh and witty start, I was surprised to find myself slightly disappointed in the choreography towards the end of the program. However, what surprised me even more, was how much I started to care about the dancers on stage. Barnes and her dancers are endearing and infectious - you cannot help but root for them the entire show, even as their antics become repetitive and exhausting. 

The week of performances continue with Pilobolus returning to the American Dance Festival, July 5-7 at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

Michele Trumble

(copyright Michele Trumble 2012)

Monday, July 2, 2012

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at ADF

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Too Beaucoup.  Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Here is an excerpt from my review from this past weekend:

The curtain rose on William Forsythe's "Quintett" (1993) to reveal a stark square of stage, two sides covered floor to ceiling with white screen (I could not see the stage right side, but discovered later that the regular black wings remained). A large projector on wheels and a round, convex mirror balanced the diagonal, with the dancers standing or crouching around the edges of the stage. The music started quietly at first, so that it gave the sense that someone was singing backstage, but gradually became louder, a quavery voice singing "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," set to a simple instrumental accompaniment in a repetitive loop. The movement was characterized by Forsythe's distinctive style, a tightrope between vertical classical technique and disjointed, off-balance collapse. The five dancers passed in and out of solos and duets and an occasional trio; some of the duets were formal, while others seemed more emotionally connected, with intimate or playful gestures. The movement seemed to unravel as the dance continued, becoming harsher, more out of control. In a memorable solo, a man dressed all in green tossed himself around, lunging and falling as if fighting an invisible opponent, though the one throwing punches and cutting his legs out from underneath him was himself. 

Read the rest of the review here (and excuse the typo in the title!  It should say: Beaucoup?  Yes.).

I might have more to say on this concert later, but I wanted to get the review posted quickly!