This year’s Past/Forward program, performed by students at the American Dance Festival, presents three reconstructed works from the 1980s, and one whopping world premiere. The whole evening in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater proves to be a treat. Nobody on the stage talks, and the works echo with commonalities, proving harmonious with each other, yet far too varied for tedium.
Mark Dendy, North Carolina native, former NC School of the Arts student, previous ADF participant, and an active choreographer for 25 years, returned at the behest of the ADF to create a commissioned work set on students in the festival’s six-week school. The result is Preliminary Study for Depth: The Upper Half of High and Low. This remarkable dance draws on the imagery, and more importantly, the aesthetic ideas of 20th century Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, and is set to an energetic rolling roar of music by the Finnish cello metal band Apocalyptica with lots of reverb and modulating blues lines. Melody Eggen’s striking costumes for the 22 dancers, many of which have some bifurcated or mirroring element, and David Ferri’s constantly changing lighting are crucial to the impact of the 20-minute dance.
Like Escher’s prints, Dendy’s dance is mathematically precise, a flow of crisp, interlocking lines and images that unexpectedly morph and reverse direction. With the help of Ferri’s lighting, Dendy briefly even manages figure-ground reversal, making the shadows the image and the dancers into shadows. One can glimpse some of Escher’s motifs in the dance’s imagery, but the power comes, in the dance as well as in the prints, from the ever-shifting relationships among the elements. The advanced student dancers were on fire during the first performance — well-controlled and sharp in their delineations; relentless in their advances and retreats through the tight patterns and demanding spins and switchbacks. The work finishes with a variant on Escher’s two-plane studies, with half the dancers rolling in close formation away from the audience, while the others, upright, step over them towards the proscenium. If this exciting dance is a preliminary study, I can hardly wait to see the final version!
The program includes works by two modern dance pioneers — but from the 1980s, late in their careers. Hanya Holm’s (1893-1992) Jocose opens the evening. Set to music by Maurice Ravel, it is playful and charming, full of gentle jokes, and its travelling turns and rolls set us up nicely for those to come in the other dances. The second half begins with Erick Hawkins’ (1909-1994) poetic New Moon, reconstructed by Katherine Duke, who had danced with Hawkins’ company. The lovely music by Lou Harrison is played from the pit by seven musicians on strings, woodwinds and brass while the dancers move through their phases on stage. We glimpse the beautiful lines of their bodies through the billows of their diaphanous sheer costumes, like we see the moon through a floating cloud. There is no irony, no satire, no striving hipness. Instead the dance is imbued with wonder and gratitude. Hawkins’ notes on New Moon quote e.e.cummings: “teach disappearing also me the keen illimitable secret of begin.”
The evening closes with a fantastic recreation — a new beginning — of Laura Dean’s 1980 dance Tympani, set to her own music for two pianos and tympani, played on stage. The reconstruction was done by former Dean dancer Rodger Belman, who has elicited wonderful performances of the tightly-timed whirling patterns. The music, with a strong repetitive rhythm, becomes denser, then more open, then dense again in its textures; it hastens and slows, hastens and slows, so that the sound itself is like a breathing entity. It is the mathematical, mystical music of the spheres, and the dancers spinning on their axes are the orbiting planets tracing their paths through pulsing galaxies. Unlike the season’s earlier example of whirling, Tympani draws the audience into that centering meditative practice. Early on in the piece, I realized that my heartbeat and my breath were matched to the music, and I expect that by its end, every heart in the theater was beating in unison, the audience joyously present in the here and now of the past coming forward.
The program continues July 15 and 16. See our calendar for details.