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Flash Review & Analysis 5-24: ACDF Growing Pains
Allocated Space and Time Tapped Out, College Fest Must Find Way Out of Box

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2002 Byron Woods

WASHINGTON -- The metrics were impressive, when announced from the stage of the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center. The 37 dance works performed over three nights at the Tenth American College Dance Festival were selected from 413 pieces presented in nine regional festivals, by over 5,000 participants from over 250 colleges and universities -- five/sixths of the 300-odd current member organizations in the American College Dance Festival Association.

And similarly impressive were the works we saw on the evenings of May 13 to 15 -- a broad range of artistic expression, technique and choreographic achievement.

But we come from the 2002 Festival with the sense of an organization now at a crossroads. It's heartening to know that the ACDFA has grown significantly over recent years. This, paired with the quality of the work we witnessed, gives us significant hope for the present and future of dance in this country.

Growth, however, must be accommodated and adequately planned for -- or stopped, one of the two.

The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater was an enviable venue at one point for this national gathering. Now its 475 seats aren't enough to accommodate the Festival's own personnel, much less admit the general public. Similarly, two nights were once enough to professionally present the fruits of contributing artists. The 2002 Festival packed 37 performances into three 12- and 13-work marathons -- verifiably the outer limits for a public concert.

Even viewed with a decidedly critical eye, the overwhelming majority of the works we saw clearly belonged there. Significantly reducing their number at this point can't be supported on the merits. If we are all very lucky, the future will add to this dilemma, not subtract from it.

Such a gathering in Washington, DC provides a priceless opportunity as well to present this art form to a larger, prestigious -- and potentially quite influential -- community -- besides the one of the dance insiders who contribute to it. That opportunity is wasted when the general public is told, as callers to Kennedy Center were this year, that the Festival "is a private event and no tickets are available for it."

Plus there is the double-standard implicit in the presence of a yearly college theater festival at the Kennedy Center, but only a biennial one devoted there to dance, which remains to be addressed. If a young artist has the misfortune to create a work of art in an inauspicious year, it may never be seen.

According to executive director Diane DeFries, the ACDFA has an agreement with Kennedy Center through 2010. This news is of limited comfort, though, given that the Center blatantly ignored professional presentation standards, in the presence of the assembled collegiate dance community of practice, in its Millennium Stage showings of Dance/USA's award-winners last week.

If the Center similarly concludes that dance doesn't merit further accommodation, will the ACDFA stay trapped in a box which fundamentally limits its scope, size, influence and success? How will those limitations, in turn, limit dance in America? And if that box didn't fit in 2002, what's it going to feel like in 2010? If no better accommodations exist at Kennedy Center, where can the ACDF go?

With fundamental questions like these facing the ACDFA, points of practice seem like small potatoes in comparison. But the 2002 Festival did bring up a question that even the organization's executive director was at a loss to answer when we interviewed her. Since the regional festivals already completely determine the makeup of the national gathering, why is it necessary for them to further dictate to the national judges what works can and cannot be considered for the ACDFA/Dance Magazine Award? Why can't the national judges award any work they believe most worthy -- particularly if the regional judges can?

The dance community of practice should do more than watch carefully as the ACDFA takes up these and other questions over the coming months. Its members should voice their opinions as well, not only to the Association, but in all such public forums where the practice is discussed, engaged and debated.

Here, then, is a sampling of Festival highlights.

"Lemon Wemon" -- Hollins College
"Captive Swans" -- University of Alabama
"Perfiction" -- Mills College
"Aftermath" -- Florida State University

Ann Liv Young was preaching squarely to the dance community congregation, and asking it some pretty pointed and useful questions about the politics of the beauty aesthetics applied to -- or inflicted on -- the female form in "Lemon Wemon." But this all-out anarchic assault on rarified image, costume, movement and gesture raised the question "When you subtract all politically problematic aesthetics from dance, what's left?" more effectively than it ever answered it.

Christopher Dean Bottoms's "Captive Swans" raised the same constellation of issues. Instead of jettisoning technique like Young did in large part, Bottoms used it to prosecute classical ballet, torpedoing excerpts from a series of famous works -- to the music of Janet Jackson. Lesley Braithwaite's marvelous satire solo, "Perfiction," laid hands on the same issues, though using craft and technique to critique the political underpinnings found in same. Finally, Florida State's melodramatic "Aftermath" seemed a near textbook example of what these pieces were in protest against. "Aftermath" reassures us that only beautiful people will survive the Apocalypse -- and that they'll all be costumed by Victoria's Secret.

"Quadrabox" -- Montclair State University

Guest artists Tigger Benford and Martha Partridge's fun, Stomp-like quartet, featured four dancer/percussionists seated in a diamond of red blocks, enacting a childhood clapping game run amok, using hands and feet to lay down complex syncopation and counterpoint. One section quoted the rhythm track from Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk" verbatim.

"Subconscious Faults" -- Virginia Commonwealth University

Students Lisa Jones and Darby Iva Pack's self-choreographed duet to Tracy Chapman's "Nothing Yet" was one of the festival's strongest works; a sinuous, strong achievement in choreography and performance. Daniel James' sambient lighting placed us on the Serengeti near dusk in this dance of elegy and resistance, where two women support each other through trouble.

"Remembering" -- University of California Los Angeles

Though this work experienced difficulty in building and sustaining intensity, Sri Susilowati's interpretation of poet Zieba Shorish-Shamley's "I Remember You," an homage to the present-day plight of Afghan women, closed with one of the festival's most haunting images. The long trains of print fabric three women have worn throughout this dance of conscience are wrapped around their bodies at the end -- either as burkas or winding sheets. Saffron veils conceal their faces, as they stand, and slowly turn to face us: mute, powerful icons which somehow, though faceless, still bear the countenance of reproach.

"Table of Content" -- Weber State University

Scott Halford and Jill Heslington were equally amazing in Erik Stern's detailed physical exploration of the top, bottom and four legs of a conventional table. Heslington was nominated for best performance from the Northwest region, but Halford's singular physical control through an extended gravity-defying navigation of the tabletop's underside demonstrated why Spiderman should have gone into modern dance instead of that crime-fighting thing.

"Stripped" -- Harvard University

Tina Yap Tanhehco's fast-forward list of interpersonal discontents starts off funny and ends up fighting mad. First she and Neil Grams Ellingson meet cute and then disrobe -- just before he gets jettisoned for dancer Ryuji Yamaguchi. After athletic conflict, our heroine trades him inas well for a solo with other select encumbrances, which she tears off just in time to "really" come out swinging at the end.

"Groove" -- Sweet Briar College
"Perfiction" -- Mills College

Amy Mullin's self-choreographed solo is a comic achievement in characterization and choreography: a prim, witty left-handed tribute to Verdi's "La Traviata", one calculated down to the individual note. Lesley Braithwaite's work, just as strong as Mullins but unnominated for national award, provided hilarious counterpoint and commentary to two texts: Nina Hagen's "Fisch Im Wasser" and the Kama Sutra. Superior.

"Many Feet Bring Houses" -- Lindenwood University

"Ye gods." Rob Scoggins' raucous, jaw-dropping, flyapart celebration of anarchy and rude human rituals satirized dance form and conventions without abandoning same altogether. The largest number of people on stage having the best time simultaneously while clothed, and actually dancing in a quite impressive manner -= that's the award this piece would have won in a walk.

"Gumboots" -- Bowling Green State University

Given the misery in African gold mines that the gumboot dance tradition originally springs from, I confess I found an all-white college student gumboot crew here an unsettling sight. The rhythmic complexity of Marc Woten's trickster-leader turn struck what should have been close to an appropriately subversive note, playing the audience and playing with the audience. I'm just not certain that the dancers -- or most of the audience -- fully knew just how expensive those steps were in their original development.

"pOrtal" -- University of California at Berkeley
"At Third Glance" -- James Madison University

At times the quartet in Benjamin Levy's intricate fugue of dysfunction takes on the appearance of a precision drill team given the task of collapsing, repeatedly, over an extended period of time. Levy's learned well from John Jasperse and David Grenke that human joints -- and relationships -- have the potential of fractal dominos: destabilizing any of a large number of single points leads in turn to a different set of systemic failures. The audience gasped more than once to Christopher Hojin Lee and Pearl Wang's precarious aerial balance work. But where Levy convincingly synthesized - and extended -- his impressive teachers' influences into an intriguing new statement, Casey Blake came off more like the Milton Berle of modern dance in "At Third Glance," which read in places like a series of quotes lifted more or less verbatim from a number of professional and student works (including Tatiana Baganova, Mark Haim) presented during recent years at the American Dance Festival. "At Third Glance" -- an all too appropriate a name for an amalgam of gestures and phrases we had clearly seen somewhere before.

"Perpetuum" -- Connecticut College

In Filip Condeescu's dance theatre piece, a male outsider meets a not terribly friendly group, gets chewed up and spat out by its women and befriended by its only man, discovers he's attracted to him, attempts to negotiate what appears to be his first gay relationship, only to be betrayed when the man chooses the group over him. Though it flirted with melodrama at times, these dances of attraction and repulsion -- simultaneously at times -- were propelled the work to music by Gobran Bregovic and Iggy Pop. The work won the ACDFA/Dance Magazine Award for best choreography.

"Tari Kandagan" -- University of Hawaii at Manoa

Ben Arcangel won the ACDFA/Dance Magazine Award for best performance in this cross-gendered interpretation of the female princess Anjasmara from the Javanese folk-myth of Damarwulan. He offered precise and frequently minimal head, neck, body and hand gestures, in a work which became quite repetitive before its end.

"Dance with Two Army Blankets" -- University of Florida

They looked like a bunch of guys, not dancers -- until they started Shapiro and Smith's 1993 exhaustive exploration of what five people can do with two very sturdy army blankets on stage. Fully committed, robust and one of the more impressive performances in the festival.

Did I agree with the final results? To some degree, yes. But where the official judges were limited in their assessments by prior regional nominations, no such restrictions hampered my unofficial considerations. From all I saw, the advanced performances in "pOrtal" were challenged only by those in "Table of Content" and "Captive Swans." The choreography in "Perpetuum" was closely challenged by "pOrtal," followed by "Perfiction," "Stripped," and "Subconscious Faults."

Traditionally, this is where one usually concludes with a comforting bromide, like "but the participants were all winners, in a larger sense."

But the uncertain times at ACDFA do not lend themselves to such at present. The organization is growing and healthy -- and now it must make significant decisions to adequately support and continue that growth.

There should be a yearly festival for collegiate dance in the United States. It should be in a venue where the public can actually come and see it. It should be widely and effectively promoted as one of the principal case-makers for dance in the United States. It should associate only with partners as equally committed to the highest production values in dance presentation. Its judges should be free to reward whomever they see fit as exemplary choreographers and performers. And given the festival's national scope, there obviously should be more than one award for each.

When the ACDFA sees to each of these essential items, I'll feel a lot more comfortable declaring all of us as winners. Not before.

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