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Flash Analysis, 7-31: Students Wow as ADF Closes
Festival Accelerates (But The Destination Remains A Mystery)

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2001 Byron Woods

DURHAM -- In terms of sheer acceleration, few things beat the last week of the American Dance Festival. You could swear that cultural terrorists have spiked Durham's bottled water supply with a mixture of ginseng, gingko and, above all, caffeine. Everything and everyone speeds up.

The temporary offices in Wilson Dormitory on Duke's East Campus is now a beehive of activity at high harvest. Almost everywhere, it seems, something is blossoming. Creation is at its peak -- and as a result, the staffers who track and coordinate the sudden flood of proposed showings and special events are trying to keep all of it from becoming a logistical meltdown. At times the scheduling offices resemble a stock exchange trading room floor as classes, groups and individuals vie for what are now the two most valuable commodities -- the space and time in which to show what they've been working on.

As a result, the classrooms and rehearsal facilities remain in play from sunrise to well past midnight, to an ad hoc confluence of final rehearsals, official programs and informal showings -- along with a few gatherings that don't easily show up on any radar. One night, the contact improvisation faculty declares the venerable Ark performance space a temporary autonomous zone in a secret after-hours jam that lasts well into the wee hours. As times get tight, people get creative. For the second year running, choreography student Alison Ayer responds to the space crunch by staging a new work outdoors. Sections from "The Posture of Leaving," a meditation on loss, gain much of their eerie atmosphere from its interplay with the faux-gothic architecture on Duke's West Campus.

Meanwhile, a series of unlikely marriages -- more of inconvenience than anything else -- are taking place indoors. Mere moments before the scheduled start of an afternoon showing, a choreographer negotiates with the presenter, just off-stage, for a few precious moments at the end of the scheduled performance. It's an opportunity to present a work in progress to the assembled crowd -- or, more accurately, to a handful of influential people in that crowd. After deliberating for a few suspenseful moments, the choreographer in question gets the nod -- and a chance to be discovered in the process. Co-producers Charles and Stephanie Reinhart are in the audience, as are some of the festival's guest choreographers.

Not all discoveries are entirely salutary, of course. In another concert, audience members stifle laughter when a student more advanced in technique than taste uses Bach for little more than a lengthy exercise in self-admiration.

But then there are moments like those final two exquisite duets in dean emeritus Martha Myers's choreolab showing. Heather Budd and Benjamin Levy, and then Maia Jones and Paulo Caldas fearlessly skirted the abyss in riveting, separate explorations of spatial -- and theatrical -- brinksmanship. In their brief duets, we saw robust, volatile characters take their passions into the red zone in relationships as vivid as they were volatile. Total commitment and total trust characterized sequences where only precision and practice repeatedly kept partners from sudden falls or fly-apart disaster.

It was some of the strongest work I saw on any of the stages this summer at the American Dance Festival, and a fitting reminder at the last that the festival -- and the future of modern dance -- belongs to its students.

And with that a festival vanishes once again, every bit as evanescent as the art form that it nurtures. We're told that temporality gives the time-based arts -- and life -- much of its savor. But such progress from a modest six-week all-star school year makes us pause. What would a year-round school like this do -- not only for the students, but the state of modern dance?

Hypothetical question? Perhaps not. Regional papers revealed last September that an influential group of civic leaders put together by the late former governor Terry Sanford had been asking similar questions in the process of developing a large and controversial arts-based campus project for Raleigh, the state capitol.

In December that group finalized a land deal with the state. They now have the rights to approximately fifty acres of prime real estate in western Raleigh, some twenty miles from the festival's present location. They also have a deadline: five years in which to raise an estimated $220 million dollars to build and then operate the facility. If they miss that deadline, they forfeit the land.

At this point nothing is certain, and any move from the ADF's present home in Durham would be highly controversial. But then, the festival has moved before.

What would a year-round school like ADF do? As fantastic as it sounds, the answer to that question may not be that long in coming. You can always see the future in the last week of this festival. You can read it in the faces of the students, in the work of international choreographers, in the newest of the best new work.

From everything I've seen this week, I can't wait for it to get here.

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