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.