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The Duke University Dance Program presents two concerts every academic year, and of late these have been of increasing ambition and interest. November Dances 2004 coincided this year with the North Carolina Dance Alliance conference, so Reynolds Theater was unusually full on November 6. In addition to Duke students and faculty, the evening featured several guests, and the sparkling Mel A. Tomlinson, formerly a leading dancer with several companies and now an ordained minister, gave the conference keynote address before the program began. Guest dancers were another dance elder, Jim May, dancer-actor and Artistic Director of Anna Sokolow's Player's Project, and Roxane D'Orleans Juste, from the José Limón Company.
The theme of this year's November Dances was "Dancing the Legacy," which resulted in a very interesting mixed program. Without a doubt, the high point was Roxane D'Orleans Juste dancing José Limón's "Chaconne" (first danced in 1942, and set to the Chaconne from J.S. Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin). Like the music, the dance has an austere clarity of structure and a profound emotional intensity that bring to mind flamenco. Dressed all in black – slim black pants, loose high-necked black shirt, black laced shoes – and moving on a black stage against a black backdrop, Juste made the most of the pale shapes of her face and hands as she stamped and whirled through the increasingly rapid patterns of the music. It was a virtuoso solo, but in relation to the evening's theme, it was particularly interesting to be reminded of how a great choreographer's style is passed on, in and out of particular works. "Chaconne" includes numerous gestures and dance phrases that I associate with Duke Dance faculty member Clay Taliaferro, who was a principal with the José Limón Company for ten years, and who has passed some of that style on to his students. There were moments in this dance when my mind overlaid the image of Taliaferro on the dancer and other moments when I recognized things I've seen the students do over the years. He serves the art by passing on its essence.
As Taliaferro also danced with the Donald McKayle Dance Company, he can and does perform the same service for McKayle's work, as in "Rainbow Etude" (1996), based on the more expansive 1959 "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder." Set to traditional music arranged by McKayle and Alan Terricciano, the piece was passionately danced by Amy Eason, Summer Robins, Elisa Schreiber, and Tonya Taylor with admirable ferocity and plasticity.
Jim May danced solo in "The Dreamer," a short work by modern dance pioneer Anna Sokolow, which exhibited his skill, but otherwise didn't have much to it. I would have loved to see him in an ensemble, because he moves beautifully. His own choreography in "Anna's Themes" showed some similarities to Sokolow's. Although it was well danced by faculty member Barbara Dickinson (always a pleasure to see on the stage) and five female students, the sections of the dance bore so little connection to one another that the whole was rather mystifying.
Dickinson's own choreography was featured in "Fugitive Visions," set to Sergei Prokofiev's Visions Fugitives (Op. 22, nos. 1, 19, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11, 14, 16, and 17), which were played on stage by pianist Randall Love. There were some lovely dances, and the dancing by the nine female students was strong, but unfortunately, those visions were more fugitive than necessary, as they were interrupted by bad poems (by Bruce Bennett) recited by an actor (Kevin Poole) with a less-than-pleasant voice. Every time he'd go offstage, one would relax – but about the time the irritation subsided, here he'd come again. One could see what Dickinson had in mind, but sadly the concept was not satisfyingly realized.
Tyler Walters, the Duke Dance faculty member who was formerly a principal dancer with Chicago's Joffrey Ballet and who is now an active choreographer, had more success at interleaving two forms in his ballet "Studies," danced by a robust troupe of twenty females to music of – alternately – W.A. Mozart and Tortoise. The fluid techno-influenced sounds of the latter were an oddly good fit between the sprightly sections of Mozart, and the choreography of the alternating sections had both continuity and contrast. There were some particularly beautiful passages set to the Tortoise music, as when Walters had the full troupe bouréeing across the stage, backs to us, their arms waving like sea urchins, and some playful bits of almost-collision in the Mozart. Only four or five of these young women had particularly advanced ballet skills, but that didn't really matter. They had heart and gave it everything they had – which was quite a lot – and that sometimes trumps perfect line, absolute control or completely synchronized ensemble work. They were dancing with joy and verve, and watching them was a great pleasure.
The evening ended with another pleasure, "Strength and Beauty," set to traditional West African music by Rhonda E. Harrison, formerly with the African American Dance Ensemble and currently teaching African dance repertory at Duke. Seven musicians on various drums and dejembes fired the dancers through spirited dances which draw on the legacy not of one choreographer but of long traditions in movement. In their "show-off" solos, the dancers, especially the males, performed amazing feats. But the ensemble dances were just as exciting and even more energized, filling the stage with the gorgeous glamour of color and motion for a rousing finish to a well-thought-out program from Duke's strong Department of Dance.