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Flash Review 1, 5-23: Modern Masters Millennium Mistake
No Theater for Duncan, Weidman, Limon: Kennedy Center, Dance/USA Say Go play in the Foyer
In a Number of Cases, Not the Dances as Their Creators had Hoped We'd Ever See Them

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2002 Byron Woods

WASHINGTON -- Were it a yearly institution, we'd already look to the American College Dance Festival for significant statements concerning the state of dance in the academy. At present, however, such statements come once every two years -- in marked contrast to the annual American College Theater Festival, also held at the Kennedy Center. Inevitably such a gathering provides a real-time demonstration of several things, including: the present state of the art, and how the dance community of practice believes that art should be properly treated. It also unavoidably reveals the present standards for the professional public presentation of dance.

Which makes particularly troubling what we witnessed last week at the 2002 American College Dance Festival in Washington, D.C.

Over the past year, Dance/USA's National College Choreography Initiative spent $510,000 in public, National Endowment for the Arts money to fund the reconstruction and restaging of a number of classic dance works and the creation of new choreography throughout all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The American College Dance Festival Association encouraged Dance/USA to show a series of these works in Washington while the ACDF was in session. This they did, in parallel afternoon productions each afternoon in the Kennedy Center just prior to the festival's evening shows.

Monday afternoon, May 13, saw a Ball State University restaging of Isadora Duncan's 1921 "Varsahvianka," followed by the Duke University reconstruction of the "Venus" and "Neptune" sections from Antony Tudor's 1934 "The Planets." "A Choreographic Offering," Jose Limon's 1964 interpretation of Bach's "Musical Offering," came afterwards by way of Pennsylvania's University of the Arts, before the program closed with Wichita State's production of David Parsons's "The Envelope" from 1986.

Tuesday's program began with the University of Wyoming reconstruction of Bill Evans's 1991 "Velorio - a Vigil for the Deceased" and Charles Weidman's "Lynchtown" from 1936, performed by the University of Nebraska - Lincoln's Dance Division. Tuesday then closed with two new works: Sue Schroeder's "Wish," from Huntington College, and Howard University's presentation of Ron K. Brown's "Traveling Guards (Opening the Doors)."

Wednesday's final production in the series focused on three new works: Montclair State University's production of Sean Curran's "Metal Garden," Mikey Thomas's "DEBT" from the University of Southern Mississippi, and "Clear Field," a new John Jasperse work from Sarah Lawrence College. It closed with a restaging of Paul Taylor's 1956 "3 Epitaphs" from Western Michigan University.

But the inappropriate venue Kennedy Center and Dance/USA chose -- Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage -- turned these three concerts into an unfortunate object lesson in what the dance community of practice is willing to excuse when it comes to the public display of some of its rarest jewels. Tudor's "Planets," for example, had not been seen anywhere on the world stage in over 60 years before its springtime resurrection at Duke.

The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage occupies no theater at Kennedy Center. It sits at one end of the enormous, sunny Grand Foyer, which spans the length of the rear of the building. It has no curtain, and since it's not in a room of its own, and no architectural amenities like walls or doors separate it from the rest of the concourse, sound and light control are limited. Nothing approaching a blackout could ever be achieved on this stage, and overhead plane noise and hallway traffic sounds are clearly audible. Furthermore, no sets could be hung or placed upon it -- further limiting the Tudor reconstruction.

More problematic than these elements was the stage's size. It was clearly too small for a number of the dances, marring Limon's "Choreographic Offering," Thomas's "DEBT" and Evans's "Velorio." Movement and spatial relationships repeatedly had to be significantly readjusted. The structures, forms and movements in large ensemble pieces devolved on more than one occasion into herd-like negotiations.

Without curtains or blackouts, we saw dancers walk on, walk off, break scene and set up different sections out of character and aesthetic moment, in relationship to sets that were not there, on a stage where many had to take care not to crash into one another. In Evans's "Velorio," a hapless dancer tripped over a colleague at the end of the "Pie Jesu."

Fundamental impediments such as these made the unprofessional behavior of the Center's ushers on Wednesday almost qualify as comic relief. After his colleagues seated flocks of people in the middle of performances, not between them, usher Michael Cheatham, in the depths of "DEBT," apparently felt the need to walk down in front of the stage, stand there for a while looking at the audience, and then slowly, unsteadily weave his way back down the center aisle, glaring at us. A person next to me asked if he were part of the performance.

In short, in a number of cases these were not the dances as their creators had hoped we'd ever see them.

The Kennedy Center, we are told, is a world-class institution charged with the professional preservation and presentation of our most perishable live art forms. Dance/USA is a national service organization for not-for-profit professional dance.

The operative term in both cases here is "professional." It is a term than cannot begin to be applied to the conditions we witnessed that week on Millennium Stage.

That both of these organizations would willingly put these works in a venue this inappropriate speaks to an appalling lapse in judgment and professional practice. Doing so at the ACDF certainly taught the students and the audiences a lesson -- although perhaps an inadvertent one.

The NCCI Millenium Stage presentations were a clearly slapped-together afterthought by two entities which clearly knew better, and should have done likewise.

If Duncan, Weidman and Tudor's work were regularly available one could perhaps afford to be as cavalier as Kennedy Center and Dance/USA were in this instance. But their rarity and their brilliance clearly calls for more respect than I saw paid in Washington last week.

It's puzzling that the sponsoring agencies cared enough about dance to spend over half a million dollars on it in one year, but when it came time to collect and present the dances in our nation's capital, they did so in a manner which fundamentally compromised their achievements.

But then, I forget: they were only student performances, after all. Even if one of those performances was only the third public showing of a work the world had not seen in over 60 years, it clearly deserved no better venue than Millennium Stage. To give these dances an adequate theater was, apparently, inexpedient.

Message received. At the ACDF, of all places.

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