As a fellow in the 2010 NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism, I saw three weeks worth of performances at the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., in June and July 2010, including pieces by Martha Clarke, Eiko and Koma, Mark Dendy, Pinto-Pollak and RUBBERBANDance Group. Here are my reviews and other writings:

Let’s do the time warp again

DURHAM, N.C. – The careful trajectories of Eiko & Koma’s spectral bodies seem to bend time. Fused with magical light and nature’s own props and sounds, their singular approach to movement – commonly described as “slow,” “inching,” “glacial” – is so elemental, it evokes the struggle of all living things to survive.

The first piece performed by the longtime collaborators during their 17th visit to the American Dance Festival, a new work inspired by an old one, lasted 25 minutes but felt over in a flash. And it’s not just because Raven was visually and allegorically arresting. By moving so deliberately, it was as if they altered the scale on which time operates.

You might think that such gradual movement would make it easier to catch how each fresh position came about. But that was not always the case, especially when first viewed Monday night. They had a way of pulling you so deeply into their living sculptures that the evolution of microscopic changes went unseen. Suddenly – not a word you might associate with Eiko & Koma – there they were, somewhere else.

Similar effects grew out of their other creations on the program at the Reynolds Industries Theater, especially Night Tide (1984), and to a lesser extent, White Dance (1976), their first choreographic effort.

The couple’s appearance in Durham was part of a three-year retrospective of their almost 40-year-long career. They are touring many of their works, adapting some pieces to fit spaces in museums and other non-traditional performance venues. The set, with slight changes for each work, consisted of a scorched and black-inked cloth hung at the back of the stage, and another on the floor – where the pair spent a lot of their time – black feathers and wheat-colored twigs scattered about. In each piece, they started separately, came together and broke apart again.

Raven opened in typical Eiko & Koma fashion, the pair lying face down, naked from the waist up – separated piles of human flesh you could mistake for part of a tree or a dead animal, save for a glimpse of their pointed-downward feet.

The cognitive dissonance was aided by matching powdered bodies with soft lighting designed by David Ferri. Over time, the couple morphed into life forms repeatedly fighting to get to their feet, failing and trying again. Their bodies were often bent in curved configurations that gave them an otherworldly feel, while the look on their faces spoke of a concentration fueled by sadness and fear. Gentle bird squawks, and later chanting voices and tribal rhythms, completed the picture of a natural setting.

In an interview with The New York Times, Eiko (pronounced a-ko), a political science major during college in the 1960s, suggested that the landscape was a metaphor for postwar Japan.

Night Tide, which followed, found Eiko & Koma again separate, faces burrowed into the floor, but this time with their bare butts stuck in the air. Much of the piece was a dance of their backsides, lit to appear ghostly. At certain angles, they looked like mountains, fallen tree limbs, or trunks lying on their sides. But in perhaps the most compelling pure imagery of the night, their bodies appeared to be in reverse of the reality, their curved lower backs looking like the curve of shoulders.

Closing the evening, White Dance had a more direct narrative and some actual “dancing.” Hunger was the theme. Koma slapped Eiko on the back a couple of times – a startlingly different moment from any other – and at the end dumped dusty potatoes from a bag. Its inclusion on the bill was a lesson in how Eiko & Koma have pared back their style since this early work.

It’s not the Butoh that informed their early training, or even dance. And it’s not theater or performance art. It’s Eiko & Koma.

Local boy makes goo

 DURHAM, N.C. – If all art is autobiographical, Mark Dendy makes his explicit.

Divine Normal – the choreographer’s new narrative piece about leaving a small town in North Carolina for Manhattan, dreaming of becoming a dancer – tells the story literally, alternating direct addresses to the audience, and exchanges between the characters, with a range of movement strategies: frighteningly intense, exuberantly playful, outright funny. The most humorous scenes are deconstructions of Nijinsky and Ruth St. Denis.

Dendy, a Weaverville native, studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts and at the American Dance Festival, where he has become a fixture and where Dendy Dancetheater premiered Divine Normal Monday at the Reynolds Industries Theater at Duke University.

His stand-in Eric (Lonnie Poupard Jr.), a Martha Graham obsessive, spars with his mother (Colette Krogol, with a wobbly Southern accent), describing her in an early monologue as “a fundamentalist Christian, cigarette in one hand, Bible in the other.” “I watched her video,” mom says of Graham. “She moves her hips.”

His high-school girlfriend Peggy (Catherine Miller) figures out he’s gay before he does, and a fellow New York dancer (Alex Dean Speedie) is always trying to seduce him. Corny in its obviousness, this material is too gentle to have much dramatic impact, Eric the near-flawless hero except perhaps for a misplaced innocence. Even when the unenlightened hurl slurs at him, it feels superficially episodic, a recurring issue in Divine Normal.

After the first biography-establishing sequence on a bare stage, the four dancer-actors line up across the back wall and jump on and around it to the folk-country standard “Sixteen Tons.” Flexing biceps, they conspire with the song to reinforce the idea that we’re still in Kansas, or at least some redneck backwater.

This back and forth between direct storytelling and evidential dance continues schematically throughout Divine Normal. After we find out Eric and Peggy are romantically involved (sort of), they perform an almost-mating ritual to “Embraceable You,” including mounting each other momentarily. Then when Peggy’s injured in a car accident, Dendy’s choreography turns scary, Miller bent forward at the waist, repeatedly jerking her head back to front – like a hair-flinging grunge-rocker on meth – before crashing to her knees powerless. Later, after Eric goes to work as a stripper, we watch him move erotically to the sensual ’70s hit, “Rock On.”

Yet somehow his tale is irresistible – Dendy is a born entertainer – especially when he adds a third element: subverted quotations of historical masters, which layer in a less literal texture. His takes on the goofy Orientalism of The Incense by modern-dance pioneer St. Denis (played by Miller in a loose, light-blue wrap-gown) and the floppy-fanning hands of early 20th century Russian danseur Vaslav Nijinsky (Speedie) are satire on steroids, down to the now-dated, dated-even-back-then costumes.

The night opened with associate artistic director Miller’s new Juliet Looks to the West, which began and closed with the choreographer and Poupard lying on their sides, nearly spooning (though she sat up at the very end to stare into a sunset, the floor beneath them lit to resemble a multi-paned window). As the simple, even lighting switched intermittently between dim and bright, the duo moved through lifts, rolls, swing-dance-type turns, backward crawls on all fours that looked animalistic, and spins like kids going for a head rush – all told, a kind of Modern Dance 101.

Driving Miss Clarke: A work-in-progress musing on Angel Reapers and the Shakers

Imagine Driving Miss Daisy playwright Alfred Uhry approaching the hard-to-categorize Martha Clarke about collaborating with him on a project based on the Shakers, a Protestant sect started in England in 1747 by a Quaker named Ann Lee who through visions of God had come to believe in complete celibacy, constant confession, and isolation from the world as the path to human perfection.

Originally called the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance – Lee’s  – they became known as the Shakers for their ecstatic dancing. They also wrote thousands of songs and fled to the American colonies to escape persecution. Clarke must have flipped. “Yes! I can make grand theatrical spectacle out of that!”

Clarke is a conceptually minded choreographer and director best known for The Garden of Earthly Delights, her lyrical interpretation of the famous Bosch triptych that brought to life the painter’s vision of heaven, hell and Earth in all its innocence and twisted vulgarity. Clarke’s theatrical experiences are a total vision, skillfully creating narrative out of an integration of dance, music and text.

Like Earthly Delights, Angel Reapers, a work-in-progress that had its world premiere Monday at the American Dance Festival, is concerned with the tension between sexual desire and the oppression of it that plays out at the extremes of philosophical thinking about human existence. But while Earthly Delights was dark and gooey, this production is dark and dry, an austere spectacle that gains its power and beauty from hemmed-in rhythmic patterns that from time to time burst. It’s entrancing, not unlike the fugue state that the practices of the Shakers put them in.

Lee, a wife and mother of four, decided that sexual intercourse was a sin (is this where Andrea Dworkin got the idea?), setting up her group for extinction from the start. Besides signing up converts, the sect grew to 6,000 members in settlements from Kentucky to Maine by adopting orphans before states outlawed the practice. By the end of last year, they were down to three members on one farm. Toward the end of her life, Lee had a vision that the Shakers would blossom again after they reached less than five members. As they used to say on Saturday Night Live, how convenient.

Can such oppression be liberating? Dance must be orderly, at least to some degree, and Lee’s beliefs and Clarke’s approach to The Shakers share restraint as an ideal. The 70-minute dance-theater-call-it-what-you-will-piece opens like this:

In facing rows of spare ladder-back chairs, quaintly dressed women sit on one side, men on the other. The women begin laughing. The men soon join in. The laughter builds to near hysteria before gradually receding. One woman breaks into song. The others join in. “It’s a gift to be simple. It’s a gift to be free.” Rhythmic foot stamping grows more intricate. A woman stands and begins preaching. “All those who sleep in the same room must go to bed at the same time.”

This structure of alternating and blending singing, talking and dancing/foot-stamping becomes meditative:

Laugh. Sing. Stamp your feet. Announce the rules. Sing. Walk forward. Walk backward. Clap. Kick your leg forward. Kick your leg backward. Slap your side. Turn. Flail your arms. Profess your faith. Announce the rules. Dissent. Walk away. Roll on the floor. Toss. Sing. Line up. Stamp your feet. Speak in tongues. Fall down. Speak in tongues. Sing. Dance. Sing. Clap. Stamp your feet. Drop to your knees. Twist. Fall. Vibrate. Preach. Tumble. Stamp your feet. Circle. Raise your partner. Embrace. Turn. Spit…

Subjects for further research and description/analysis: The Shakers work ethic and legacy, including the many buildings and objects they made and left behind for us to study. Their belief in gender equality and separation (separate but equal, a notion that we’ve decided doesn’t work): God has male and female aspects, and Lee represented the female side to Christ’s male. Ken Burns’ documentary on the Shakers. How Clarke depicts their spiritual occupation through movement. How Clarke interprets their practices to make strangely beautiful dance sequences, particularly when standing dancers manipulate lying dancers with their feet.

Inbal Pinto & Avashalom Pollak Dance Company

DURHAM, N.C. – This year’s American Dance Festival poses the question, “What is dance theater?” Last week at the Durham Performing Arts Center, the Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company answered with mimes.

Re-imagining a surreal, Felliniesque circus vividly set in the silent-film era, with its vaudevillian slapstick and dark undertones, the Tel Aviv-based group performed the strikingly designed if routinely danced work during a three-night run that ended Saturday.

The 1999 piece is called Oyster, based on a short story by film director Tim Burton. But while mini-narratives emerged during a series of skit-like acts, no cohesive narrative thread was apparent. Instead, sporting electroshock hair, heavy whiteface makeup and artfully degraded formal wear, the dancers engaged in broad physical shtick to an array of un-credited calliope and other early 20th-century popular music.

In one scene, a tuxedoed gentleman led two dancers around the stage on a leash. In another, a pair of performers played seesaw on pulley wires. The punch line was delivered when one dancer who had been walking down the back of another was left hanging. Her supporter had moved out of the way. Ba-dum-chh!

There was some actual dancing, too, or more precisely the mimicking of dancing through exaggeration, much of it in unison as in a Broadway musical. Clever if not particularly fresh, it could’ve been choreographed by Susan Stroman or Bob Fosse. The hammy performers flailed, jerked and tumbled. The most arresting sequence had a small group of dancers acting as their own marionettes – pulling their legs off the ground with taut ribbons attached to their hands.

What jumped out in place of consistently compelling choreography were the impeccably rendered design elements by artistic directors Pinto and Pollak, also responsible for the costumes and wigs as well as the movement. They built the staging around frames within frames. Among them were lights strung in the center of the proscenium to form the outline of a tent, and a square cutout in the back wall used to parade performers during transitions.

Oyster celebrates a theatrical tradition, but it’s not a dancing one.

RUBBERBANDance Group: Blinding music

Like Suzanne, I often have trouble focusing on the music at a dance concert. For one thing, they’re usually no live players to grab my attention. But the opposite happened during the second half of RUBBERBANDance Group’s show Thursday at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

I became so riveted by what I was hearing over the loudspeakers that I almost couldn’t see the stage anymore. That’s probably not what RUBBERBANDance choreographer Victor Quijada had in mind when he set Punto Ciego – ironically, Spanish for “blind spot” – to mixes by Jasper Gahunia a.k.a. DJ Lil Jaz.

The music for Punto Ciego Abreviado – an excerpt – started innocently enough with repetitive pops, the sound of a phonograph needle stuck at the end of a record. Since Quijada’s style juxtaposes breakdancing with ballet and modern, old-school vinyl was a sympathetic reference. Soon, though, Gahunia’s soundtrack grew into a complex mash-up, and I was suddenly lost and excited at the same time. What was this guy up to? Why haven’t I heard this before? I wonder if I can buy it on iTunes?

My notes say, “oddball scratching,” “scratchy DJ club music,” “dropouts” (a term associated with worn-out albums or tapes), and then, “hip-hop-izing classical music.” It was the last thing I wrote down that night, after realizing he was sampling the canon, scratching over or around or next to what I later found out included a Beethoven symphony (thanks, Deborah). I also heard a pop song I recognized but couldn’t identify.

Whatever Gahunia was trying to get away with, I was in. And it was time to stop processing and just listen to these subversive sounds. The collapse between high and low culture is one of my greatest joys. In my view, a lot of television is better than most theater, and Pop art has spawned dozens of lowbrow artists showing in little galleries back home whose work I’d rather consider for an hour than that of a Renaissance master at the museum.

Maybe it has something to do with democratization, a political stance that revels in the so-called greats getting knocked down a notch to make room for the new and streetwise. There are contradictions in my argument, of course, some I haven’t thought of yet. If visual art before Impressionism generally bores me to tears, why would turntable-classical turn me on? I guess I could argue that mixing dead white men with hip-hop idioms is a kind of equalizer. Or it might be that I’m a dabbler – an occupational hazard for journalists – who often enjoys what I haven’t heard or seen before. Having written for years about pop music, TV, film and theater, dance and classical music are a kind of last frontier. Maybe it’s just something visceral, or (blissful) ignorance.

I’m not ready to review or even fully describe what I heard. Still digesting. For now, I’ll say Gahunia turned strings into blips and other futuristic sounds (and I did read in my limited research that Star Trek also is in there somewhere). The press notes call him “inadvertently…a pioneer in a new genre of music,” which may be overstating it a bit. Part of the exhilaration came because I wasn’t sure where he was going next. Gahunia reminded me that DJ artistry has near-infinite possibilities. Dance does, too, but at D-PAC it seemed like choreographer Quijada was still figuring out how to make his mash-up as “interesting” as the musical accompaniment. Or maybe he was in my blind spot.

Upon further investigation: Quijada approached the Toronto-based Gahunia, a battle-winning turntablist for more than a decade, with the idea of putting classical music through his process for Punto Ciego, according to the DJ. On his website, Gahunia – now also going by eljayii – says he used only two turntables and a drum machine to create the tracks. Be sure to click through to the artist’s statement. The music is gathered on his 2010 album, Taking Notes: Music From Punto Ciego and Other Lost Thoughts, available only in a numbered, limited edition of 500 at Three cuts can be heard here. He’s also on Facebook, where I learned he’s a fan of Malcolm Gladwell and Mad Men.

2010 ADF Preview, published by The Dallas Morning News, June 2010

DURHAM, N.C. – This year’s American Dance Festival, one of the country’s premiere modern-dance gatherings, running through July 24, poses the question, “What is dance theater?” The Tel Aviv-based Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company answered with surreal mimes performing silent-film-era slapstick, like characters in a Fellini film.

Mark Dendy, artistic director of Dendy Dancetheater, told a humorous version of his autobiography with direct addresses to the audience and satirical movement quotations from the work of historical giants. Montreal’s RUBBERBANDance Group, the creation of former hip-hop b-boy Victor Quijada, brought his mash-ups of ballet, contemporary choreography and breakdancing onto the concert stage.

And the six-week-long festival at Duke University – presenting 13 dance companies, eight commissioned world premieres, and re-creations of pieces by Jerome Robbins and Merce Cunningham – is only at the halfway point.

Still to come at the Durham Performing Arts Center and the Reynolds Industries Theater: the inching movement of Eiko & Koma, in a career retrospective; Pilobolus, in collaborations with graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and children’s rocker Dan Zanes; Paul Taylor Dance Company, celebrating his 80th birthday; Martha Clarke, with a new piece about the Shakers; Brenda Angiel Aerial Dance Company from Argentina; Miami’s Rosie Herrera; and China’s Shen Wei Dance Arts, which got its start at the 2000 festival.

With so much variety, dance theater may be as much a shorthand marketing tool as a sign of where the organizers believe modern dance is at or headed.

The theme grew out of discussions with choreographers who happened to be interested in making work that was about more than movement for movement’s sake, according to co-director Jodee Nimerichter “Some people may have a preconceived notion of what dance theater is,” she says. “We really wanted to open up a conversation and talk about that.”

Surrounded in her Duke office by photos of past festival honorees – Martha Graham to Twyla Tharp – Nimerichter traces the roots of dance theater to ancient cultures in Africa and Asia, where the two disciplines were not separate concepts, an idea that doesn’t hold in the compartmentalized West. But she’s game to play devil’s advocate.

“Every dance performance is a theatrical experience,” Nimerichter says. “However, sometimes there is more text, a narrative. Costumes, sets, imagery can all add to this idea of what dance theater is… It’s complicated, and I’m not sure every dance performance is not a dance-theater work. Why do we have to label what any of these things are?”

Theater has come to mean narrative-driven plays and musicals with actors portraying characters, though experimental work often subverts storytelling. Dance is, well, dance, less easily pinned down because the term is used to describe everything from old-fashioned story ballets to performers endlessly walking in circles without hardly lifting a leg.

If Mark Dendy’s company members narrate his life, utter dialogue as his mother and teachers, and perform choreography that illustrates his biography and influences, what should we call it? As Nimerichter suggests, does it matter?

Dendy is a native of small-town North Carolina, a local boy made good who’s become a well-received festival fixture in recent years. But the audience’s enthusiastic reception to the premiere of his Divine Normal could just as easily be attributed to its straightforward approach. Non-narrative dance finds itself in a tougher position because a culture reared on film, theater and opera wants a story. (Somehow music escapes this conundrum, maybe because it enters through the ears.)

When modern dance’s early leading lights – Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Hanya Holm – started making pieces at Bennington College in the mid-1930s, they probably had no idea that three quarters of a century later, what they started would have evolved into a festival where these kinds of debates would still be taking place.


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