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Flash Review 2, 6-12: Inspiration, Perspiration, and Leadership
ADF Celebrates 25 with Promethean New Dances from Taylor and Pilobolus

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2002 Tom Patrick

DURHAM, NC -- Arriving students, faculty, and guests have been greeted by an excited community here, eager to celebrate the near quarter-century that the nation's pre-eminent dance festival has called this warm environment home. Except for brief wartime suspensions, the American Dance Festival has run continuously since 1935, beginning at Vermont's Bennington College, then migrating to Mills College(in Oakland), Connecticut College, and finally here to the grounds of Duke University. I am in no way able to encapsulate the scope of the festival's contribution to the dance world, but I can tell you that the lists of premiered-here gems, distinguished faculty, and talented dancers that the ADF has produced is truly staggering. Just log on to the ADF web site for a trek through Modern Dance history. Literally everybody -- the heavy-hitters and the up-and-comers -- comes through here, focusing the talent, infectious enthusiasm, and deep history of the festival into new and precious dance experiences for all. Wherever it's based, ADF is truly "the home of an American art form."

The ADF opened its twenty-fifth season here this last weekend with heavyweight champion Paul Taylor Dance Company unveiling a Taylor premiere, and an anniversary gala Sunday night before classes begin next week.

Paul Taylor is certainly no neophyte to the festival; witness his accounts of student days and encounters with Martha Graham during the Connecticut College summers (in his witty auto-bio "Private Domain,") and that his dances premiered at ADF stretch back to 1961's "Insects and Heroes," followed the next summer by the evergreen "Aureole." Since those times, the Taylor Company has been a regular visitor (almost every summer that I danced with it, certainly) and many of Mr. Taylor's works have been premiered at and/or commissioned by the festival. For this alone we cannot be too thankful for the committed momentum provided by ADF's leadership and staff. Through recessions, funding cutbacks, and the emergence of piped-in, stay-at-home media, they have consistently assured creative people in dance an ongoing home, and the faithful and curious audiences access to The Real Thing.

Thus it was with great pride and gratitude that co-director Charles Reinhart welcomed us to a packed Page Auditorium Thursday night, as the Taylor dancers waited backstage. (Co-director and spouse Stephanie Reinhart -- also celebrating her twenty-fifth year affiliated with the festival -- was indisposed and could not attend. We wish her well, and congratulations as well!) In a brief front-of-curtain speech, Reinhart expressed thanks for "an extraordinary twenty-five years" at ADF's NC home, and that he's felt quite lucky to be a part of it (modesty, Charles -- much more than a part!). Also, he announced the dedication of this anniversary season to the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, whose support for modern dance he called "unprecedented." Accepting this honor onstage was the foundation's president, Joan Spero, who thanked Charles and Stephanie Reinhart "for their inspiration, perspiration, and leadership."

And on with the show!

I've already covered performances of "Cloven Kingdom" and "The Word" during the PTDC's spring season in New York this March. Here too they were spiritedly performed, and very well received. To note a few cast changes: Orion Duckstein performed mightily in "Cloven" (replacing Andy LeBeau on this tour-stop) plunging through the tough men's quartet with great speed and brio. In "The Word," Takehiro Ueyama replaced Richard Chen See (who's recovering from injury) in a central role and exhibited a dramatic ferocity and thrilling attack in that dance's more violent passages. Though not new to her role, Heather Berest still brought her enviable flexibility and articulation to bear in a strong solo of pathos, exquisitely rendered.

Then the lights dimmed to usher in the evening's climax: the premiere of Taylor's "Promethean Fire," set to three musical pieces by J.S. Bach. I did a cursory bit of preparation for this one last week, looking up Prometheus in a "Dictionary of Gods," and discovering him described as him the heroic opponent to Zeus. Prometheus (whose name means "forethought") stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind as a boon that separates us from other living creatures. Legend gives Prometheus credit for acting as mankind's protector, against whom Zeus created Pandora and her box of woes as a countermeasure. It was Prometheus (not enough forethought in this case!) whom Zeus chained to a great rock, inviting an eagle to feast upon his liver, until the prisoner was rescued by Herakles. So...were we, the first audience for this dance, to be treated to a mythic tale, or was this to be occasion for another sort of piece -- as my Oxford dictionary also defines "Promethean"(adj) as "daring or inventive"? Lord knows, from Mr. Taylor, it could have meant anything, as his works are often elusive, and even his titles are sometimes red herrings or obliquely personal in meaning. The program notes simply include a Shakespeare quote: "...fire that can thy light relume...," from what specific work I do not know ("Othello" perhaps?).

After a few moments of Bach's "Toccata & Fugue in D minor," the curtain rises, and we see the PTDC's full complement of 16 dancers (a company first, as some are always kept in reserve as understudies -- in this case, Mr. Chen See's place was taken by Taylor 2 dancer John Byrne). They simply stand and face us, until front-and-center couple Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola circle each other and interlock arms in a pose. From this point onward, the stage is filled with motion, in huge group dancing. The performers' precision is admirable, and once again one must concede that Taylor is the master of making the space vibrate with movement and relentless surges of motion as the dancers course through intricate weavings and patterns, always covering lots of ground. Their costuming -- by longtime collaborator Santo Loquasto -- is all black: attractive velvet unitards, wrapped in slick bias stripes, a flattering halter-style for the women, and with a bib-overall line for the men. The background is black, the floor is black, the lighting is low, and so the picture that emerges is largely that of bare feet, arms and faces.

Nevertheless, the excellent Taylor troops course around the stage at a breakneck speed, weaving through a doubly-interlocking circle effect, whizzing perilously close and through many crisp canons. Though I admired the speed and immense craft of it all, the "vocabulary" mystified me. It looked largely made up from fragments of other dances, strung-together, rather arranged or composed (in this viewer's humble opinion). At hand were snippets of "Airs," quotes from "Images," references to "Musical Offering," and "Runes" (even The Back Exercise!) and I was reminded how likely it is that bits of current repertory or teaching find their way into the newest work-in-progress, as solutions at stuck places or as suggestions from well-intentioned dancers. In this case, however, I was struck by such swiftly shifting thematic material or "ideas," that none seemed to take root --surprising here after PT's many enduring works to Bach (witness "Esplanade," "Brandenburgs," and "Musical Offering") which expand upon that composer's fertile mind for theme-and-variation at a level that would undoubtedly make Bach proud. This time, though, I found at times the treatment of the music to seem rather perfunctory, more marked off by the yard than treated as a shaped and influential entity.

The denser tapestry of Taylor's newest is also backdrop for some delicious -- if fleeting -- work for pairs, trios, and quartets. In particular I loved Mr. Duckstein and Amy Young in an epic adagio passage, gripped in a see-saw battle, very intense. Beautifully-carved passages too, for the jubilant Silvia Nevjinsky, Annmaria Mazzini, Andy LeBeau, and Takehiro Ueyama, and a gorgeous trio later of Ms. Mazzini, Mr. Ueyama, and the luminous Maureen Mansfield. In time, the masses reign again, and all sixteen of the cast are drawn into a tight pile, all but two bleeding away from the stage.

In contrast to the fullness of this opening, I felt that the relative emptiness of stage-space for the second section -- strictly a pas de deux for principals Ms. Viola and Mr.Corbin -- was bit of a shock. Far from relief of saturation, it seemed immediately a lonely place, as these two accomplished dancers were put through some tough paces in a dance of largely classical elements. (Personally I found much of it on the "busy" side -- steppy, while hearing Bach's "Prelude in E flat" pulse gently along.) The couple's time together here begins formally, and on turning a little more sour they are bathed in saturated red lighting, an invocation here perhaps of the "fire": the temperature growing unbearable in a platonic relationship or maybe a fall-from-bliss, Pandora's box having opened....

"Promethean Fire" continues with a shortish final section, large in scale again and full of fleet, sweeping crosses. Very nice stuff here, but while I love the gallantry of a piece like "Arden Court" or "Airs" and the soaring dance material therein, I felt here a little continuation of a cringe at seeing the Taylor women subjugated to a less-robust role -- predominantly as the comforted, protected, and escorted. (Equally surprising here because the men and women are costumed so similarly and the dance is of a largely abstract appearance.) I've always felt that the women of the PTDC were of such stuff that they could take a punch, fall down stairs, and come up dancing perfectly, really a strong breed, and I guess some moments of "Promethean Fire" bothered me a little in that role-regard. Regardless, everyone danced gloriously, of course, very much so -- only a group like this can do dances like this, providing the catalyst for PT's alchemy every time.

In spite of its odd bits I wouldn't hesitate to call this Taylor/Bach piece "monumental" in a way. I do like many of its abstract elements -- I think of Gaudi's cathedral in Barcelona, the unconventional paths of that building's lines. And hey --not to drop things to too low a level here, but I love the way that music is treated in Disney's "Fantasia," and I enjoyed a sense of that here while those strong bare feet, backs, arms, and faces sparkled through those large-scale sections of "Promethean Fire." It has a great directional flow and rhythmic clarity about it, like good big architecture does, and likewise big music.

So, don't let my nitpicking spoil anybody's fun. I realize I cannot "lightly" scrutinize Mr. Taylor's work, and I have my own blind spots too that leave me to miss things. I suggest you see "Promethean Fire" for yourself, and as with all of Paul Taylor's rich repertoire, see what it evokes in you. I'll bet that's what Paul has in mind.

AND THEN, as if the ADF and larger Durham community hadn't seen enough good dancing this weekend, a special anniversary gala took place Sunday night, and it was a marvelous sampler. The evening was also a benefit for the ADF School's scholarship fund -- this helps this year's 319 students from 47 states and nineteen nations, and those next year and beyond get to the sultry South and train with the best. After cordial welcomings from Mr. Reinhart and the president of Duke University, Dr. Nannerl Keohane, thanking the many benevolent contributors and the evening's dancers, the capacity Page Auditorium crowd settled in for a special evening.

Asadata Dafora's "Awassa Astrige/Ostrich," which premiered in 1932, has been in the repertory of Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC) since 1997, one of many esteemed classics in this fine troupe's trove. The crowd at Page quieted immediately upon hearing the drums begin, and we were all held enrapt while G. D. Harris hypnotically became a warrior interpreting the king of the birds. A long and sinewy man, with amazing control and fluidity, Harris showed exquisite poise in long plies -- real regality. It was captivating, of a subtler sort of virtuosity, and brought the audience to screams at last. Mr. Harris bowed once, in character, though the house was reluctant to let him go.

Like DCDC, Pilobolus will be in season here later this summer, and the troupe gave us Sunday the premiere of "The Four Humours." Through the minds'-eyes of its creators, Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken (in collaboration with the cast) this quartet was taken on rides of imbalance. Coursing through those four humours of medical lore -- the sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic -- the performers truly defy gravity and bend physics in their various and blood-spotted rehabilitative gear. They are Mark Fucik, Renee Jaworski, Matt Kent, and Jennifer Macavinta, excellent all, by turns clouds and comics and rolling octopeds. They executed effortless[looking!] launches into subtle sculptures and hilarious shtick to Richard Peaslee's energetic score, but were part of a larger world, and it was these spillings, changes of balance and proportion that made this such a Pilobolean piece a propos! It's said that timing is everything, and in the case of Pilobolus that of the performers' bodies working together is a real language and poetry, arising from the unseen difficulty of looking like nothing's stressed. The cast deftly ran the cycles of primacy and settled, in the end, for a sweet moment of balance.

Last summer, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence premiered "Walking Out the Dark" and the ADF, and subsequently Mr. Brown visited Cuba to study indigenous and interconnected dance styles. "Walking Out the Dark - Part II" is Brown's further exploration of the Cuban and African traditions, and is quite a mesmerizing quartet. Diedre Dawkins, Daryl Spiers, Keon Thoulouis, and Mr. Brown used the stage space openly and simply, regarding one another throughout, and it then became not a stage but a bright open place. The music (Asikan Bata, Cutumba Ballet Folklorico) employed an infectious series of parallel rhythms, and the dancers were amazingly articulate, all rippling and pulsing. "Walking... II" seemed a deeply shared experience for them, a celebration in golden light. It was that sort of light that reflects from performers' contact with each other, and the obvious joy and focus that it entails. Again, well-deserved cheers and screams filled the air.

Paul Taylor Dance Company reappeared, bringing the evening to a thundering close with a rocking performance of Taylor's 1997 "Piazzolla Caldera," which also gave its premiere at the American Dance Festival. In Santo Loquasto's hot-weather setting of smeary red backdrop, hanging lamps and sexy wardrobe, the dozen dancers struggle and relent in a dreamscape of a dance, all to the luscious sounds of Gidon Kremer's violin in Astor Piazzolla's compositions. It's a wonderful dance, evoking a side of love that's feverishly sought, quickly forgotten, or ever-elusive. From the sizing-up of the opening male-female contingents through the impassioned grappling of Lisa Viola and Patrick Corbin's duet, all eyes in the house were locked on them, and silence reigned as Annmaria Mazzini seared in a solo of longing, alone among so many.

The dance's softer second section (the "Celos" quartet) brings on vertigo with its swinging lights and the drunken clutches of Andy LeBeau and Rob Kleinendorst, who weave and lean, drawn to the contact and strength of each other, tumbling and grasping. My favorite section of choreography, however, is the next duet, for smoothie Michael Trusnovec and a serpentine Silvia Nevjinsky. Trusnovec and Nevjinsky are smooth, light-footed partners through an intense push-pull of weight and trust, spiraling and surging as the violin wails into a heady stratosphere. LeBeau and Kleinendorst are pulled in, too, and they all collapse into a steamy embrace. A passionate finale of stalking, fleeing, grasping and physical shouting from all ensues, an absolute burst of power as the music and dancers coalesced into a brighter and brighter center. They brought us all to our feet.

It was an appropriate way to conclude a celebratory evening, benefiting for -- and from -- many summers of great dance at the American Dance Festival, all those students, artists, teachers and their work.

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