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On June 23 and 24, the American Dance Festival presented two companies that demonstrated exactly why ADF is such a great event. You can hate it one night and nearly swoon with pleasure the next - and be challenged on both.
Keigwin + Company, founded by Larry Keigwin, a former ADF student and former artistic director of Dendy Dance, gave the second of its two performances in Reynolds Theater on the 23rd. Keigwin led the six-member troupe through several dances that indicated that his, and their, dancing skills are considerably more advanced than his choreography.
The first work was the seven-part Mattress Suite , danced to music varying from Cecilia Bartoli singing Scarlatti to Etta James. That would have been fine, except there was minimal, if any, connection between the music and the dances, let alone the dances' narrative theme. It struck me as the most irritating kind of post-post-modern conceit, full of cute (not acute) irony. The exception was the suite's central work, Sunshine , danced by Keigwin to Bill Withers' wonderful song, "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone." Here Keigwin actually danced to the music, and danced beautifully. The suite was structured very cleverly, its single prop a mattress used in different ways - an untested bridal bed, a field of battle, a barrier, an experimental playground, etc. I suppose if I were more interested in neurotic sexual ambivalence, I would have thought more of the piece, but between its relentless topicality and its choppy, self-limiting vocabulary (come here, I want you - get away!), I found it very difficult to appreciate its flashes of brilliance.
That was bad enough, but then the audience was dragged out to crowd into the lobby for "Intermission Solo," a completely stupid and self-indulgent little nothing involving a cell-phone and a lot of cussing with some weak breakdance/martial arts moves in the "choreography."
Fortunately, things improved a little after that with Female Portraits , three dances each featuring one of the company's three women. Ying-Ying Shiau, in particular, is very impressive. But again, the dancing was better than the choreography. There just wasn't enough to look at, even for the length of a popular song, and the dancers, although good, didn't have the charismatic stage presence that helped Keigwin's "Sunshine" solo to work.
The evening's final work, the "big" piece, was Natural Selection , choreographed by Keigwin and the dancers, and set to music by Michael Gordon. This is a far more evolved work (pardon the pun), much more ambitious and complex, than the earlier pieces. It could have used some editing, and it had, like some of the earlier pieces, a bleak tone and a mean streak, but at its best it activated the entire space behind the proscenium in an electrifying way. Keigwin is young as an artist, but what he showed at Reynolds gave reason to watch him as he grows.
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, who opened a three-night run in Page Auditorium on June 24, were a different matter entirely. Here is a choreographer who has already moved from wunderkind to mature artist and whose work is far, far from the self-obsessed individuality of Keigwin. Ron Brown and his dancers are not sweating the small stuff. They go for the big themes, and they do it in the most joyous, life-affirming ways. The titles of the pieces assert the scale on which he works: For You , Grace , Come Ye , Redemption . The themes are gratitude, blessing, community, ceremony, forgiveness, grace, pride, and joy. These dances are not situational but spiritual and inspirational in the finest sense.
The first evening opened with Brown's moving tribute to the late Stephanie Reinhart, for many years the co-director of ADF, who was hugely supportive of many dancers, including Brown. For You is danced by Brown alone to Donny Hathaway's well-known song ("...remember when we were alone together, and I was singin' this song for you..."), and it was a solo lacking nothing. Brown has a way with natural movements and here combines them with more dancerly actions in such a way as to highlight the poetry of both. It was humble and glorious, a eulogy in motion, but without excess. I could have watched him dance this song all night.
Or so I felt until the company entered the stage through a portal in the scrim for Grace . This 1999 composition (originally set on the Alvin Ailey company) is danced to music by Duke Ellington, Roy Davis, Jr. and Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with Jennifer Holiday closing it out on vocals with "Come Sunday." Replete with processional and ceremonial elements, Grace also allows plenty of room for individual praisesongs by the red- or white-robed dancers among its amazing unison passages. After Keigwin + Company's dissociation from their music, it was particularly satisfying to see dancing that could not be separated from the sounds. It was as if the music pulled these specific movements out of the bodies and as if, without the dancers, we could not have heard the music.
Come Ye (2003) was even more powerful, setting most of the audience in motion and eliciting repeated shouts and bursts of rhythmic clapping in response to the dancers' gorgeous work to music by Nina Simone and Fela Kuti. Some critics feel that Brown is not innovative or specific enough in his movement vocabulary, but to me one of his strengths is the apparently simple, undesigned look of his choreography. Its patterns are big and loose, rather than precise and intricate, and the dancing mixes traditional West African steps and styles with forms from the modern canon and moves that would have been at home at dances in my high school gym. The result is so seemingly natural that the audience is drawn effortlessly into the message. At bottom, this message is "to dance is to live" and its converse, "to live is to dance," and (despite Brown's ravishing solo) that dance, like life, is something best done in community.
Come Ye was the high point of the evening, for Brown's newest work Redemption , which premiered that night, still has some things to be worked out. The dancing, if anything, was even more fabulous and the choreography, even more fully sublimated to the dancing. But the work was impeded by some of the theatrical structure. First a guest drummer, Mamadouba Camara, appeared on stage and did a solo, getting everyone worked up. Then all that energy was allowed to dissipate when the author of the poem "Redemption," on which this dance is based, walked on stage to read her poem. Cheryl Boyce Taylor's poem is wonderful, but she did not have the stage presence needed to rivet our attention. Only after the poem was read (not recited) did the dancers come on. I think it would have worked a lot better to have had Taylor on one side of the stage and drummer Camara on the other, and to have more fully integrated the text, percussion, and dancing. Despite its lack of complete artistic unity, however, Redemption lives up to its name, and it was a blessed and beaming audience that reluctantly allowed Ronald K. Brown/Evidence to leave the stage.