Toward the end of the American Dance Festival each year, there is a program of dances set on students in the ADF School. Usually, this is the International Choreographers Commissioning Program. Because those works are new and raw, like sketches, the less-than-fully-developed skills of the performers rarely seem an issue, and the program is always exciting and popular. This year the slot is filled by Past/Forward, an ambitious three-dance concert featuring works from 1937, 1982 and 2007 by very different choreographers.
The program opened with "How Long Brethren?" which was created in 1937 by modern dance pioneer Helen Tamiris while she was with the dance division of the federal Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. It is a surprising admixture of pure early modern dance, in terms of style and type of movement and posture, and an outspoken social realism. Its seven episodes are danced to a series of work songs by "southern Negro laborers" that had been collected by Lawrence Gellert in the 1920s, and whose lyrics cover various aspects of murderous white/black relations. The large cast of student dancers makes a valiant and laudable effort (especially considering how short a time they had to prepare), but they just can't give this complex work the scathing quality, the sizzle, and the sorrow that it deserves all the way through. The performance was uneven, and oddly, that unevenness was emphasized by the music. Most of the episodes were led off by two fine singers, Mavis Kashanda Poole and Ariane Reinhart, whose rich voices played off each other as they sang with feeling and clarity a few lines or a refrain from the songs. Then they would step offstage and the dancers would come on, to the scratchy recorded songs, whose faraway sound made the dancers seem distant, too. This work demands an inescapable immediacy.
Although disappointing in its execution to the viewers, who have in the past five weeks just seen a great many first-class professional dancers at peak power, the re-creation of "How Long Brethren?" was a worthy and important task. The reconstruction was first done by dancer and choreographer Dianne McIntyre in 1991, and she came to ADF to teach the work to the students. There is no other good way for dances and dance history to be saved but to pass it on, body to body, and these reconstructed dances emphasize that the ADF's role is not merely to nurture the new and present a fantastic series of performances but to guard and preserve the dance culture that has led to today's avant-garde.
The evening's second reconstruction was much more successful, partly because the work, while rich in subtleties, is not as complicated as Tamiris'. The glowing Laura Dean dance from 1982, "Skylight," was reconstructed by former Laura Dean dancer Rodger Belman (who now teaches at ECU), and he, assisted by percussionists Jason Cirker and Matt Spataro, got a very nice performance from the six students in radiant saffron yellow. All danced well (the style of movement is not so old that it would have seemed strange or old-fashioned); Andrew Chaplin was particularly graceful in the jumps, and Domingo Estrada, Jr., excelled in the spinning. There were one or two stumbles, but the spirit was all there, the ecstatic spirit.
While not nearly as complex in content or structure as the Tamiris piece, "Skylight" is no less worthy of being passed on to this generation of dancers — and it certainly was a gift to the audience to see some actual dancing after the "Forward" part of the program, Rudy Perez' "I Like a View but I Like to Sit With My Back to It." I found this piece a deplorable mishmash of over-used postmodern bits tossed with snippets of the formerly avant-garde. There wasn't much of a view, and it was difficult to sit through, whether facing it or not. In addition to being a pretentious mess, it had the added problem of having two dancers noticeably stronger than the rest — the tall, strong and shapely Nicolas Patry, who exhibited remarkable calm and control, and Anastasia Kadrulyova, who had performed earlier in the season to ravishing effect as a member of Iguan Dance Theater. Again, we were watching something that had more value for dance and the ADF-participant dancers than it could have for the audience.
The annual Faculty Concert, which took place in Page Auditorium on July 15, always has that "value" issue. Among the lengthy roster of pieces performed (14 this year) there will always be some in-jokes and some boring, "transgressive" acting-out. The audience tends to cheer loudly for all performers, no matter what, which gets tiring. But there is no better way than this concert to understand the array of current dance approaches that are being conveyed to the students and young professionals who fill the ADF school.
Rodger Belman, Thomas F. DeFrantz, and Sarah Skaggs all performed interesting works of their own. These three demonstrated a strain of current interest that has the movement — if not actively working against the music — and the music a little bit out of synch. Skaggs, for instance, does not follow the swooping drama of Jimmy Swaggart's preaching in her soundtrack but sets up a frenetic counterpart to it. DeFrantz seems to be getting into the spaces between the sound in his tapping meditation on Thelonious Monk, and Belman and his partner wandered the marshy shore rather than riding the great current of fado sung by Amalia Rodrigues.
Daniel Clifton took the cake for sheer gorgeous movement in his solo to music by Sparklehorse. I don't know if "Slathering at the Mouth" is about anything, but it is full of visual delights, as Clifton contrasts angularity of posture and sinuosity of motion.
The highlight of this year's concert (besides the hilarious send-up of all the visiting dance troupes by the ADF production crew) was Lisa Race's concise and eloquent "Second Life," danced to Diana Krall singing Tom Waits' "Temptation." Race danced to the music and to the lyrics, reducing her beautiful, powerful moves to constrained hobbling as she demonstrated with perfect clarity how we bind and weight ourselves with greed and the desire that blinds us to what we have.