The American Dance Festival's location in Durham benefits the Triangle area in more ways than you might think. In addition to the obvious joys of the six-week summer festival of performances and its accompanying classes and other events, we sometimes get ADF-connected performers here, at Duke, throughout the year. March 23-24 brought nicholasleichterdance of New York City to Reynolds Theater. Leichter has taught and performed at the ADF. Dancer Lauren Basco attended the ADF school on scholarship. Composer/cellist Chris Lancaster has worked with ADF dancers, notably Tatiana Baganova, the Russian choreographer, on her 2003 "Lazy Susan." And the company's managing director Brian McCormick was last year's ADF press rep. This cool young company might have been booked at Duke anyway, but connections like that can't hurt.
"Discretion," choreographed by Leichter (as were all the dances on the program), opened the evening. Danced by Lauren Basco and Jared Kaplan to original music by Jonathan Mele, the 2004 piece served as an introduction to some of Leichter's themes and movement vocabulary. In it, the couple dances through the difficulties and delights of a powerful but contentious relationship that edges on violence. They push and pull, neither subjugating nor submitting, not relenting or committing. In addition to the centripetal force maintaining the axis between them, their moves indicate the centrifugal forces that could pull them apart. Perhaps the most striking image is that of Basco whipping around on one leg, the other extended horizontally like a sword and flashing just over the head of her opposing lover. The work ends with a truce rather than a resolution.
That move appears also in another work from 2004, "Skin Diving," danced by the full company to music by Chris Lancaster and by D'Angelo and Thievery Corporation. This is a much more evolved work – six dancers offer many more possibilities than two. As they play out lines of attraction, distraction, rejection, affection, independence and sweet mutual dependence, they create a splendid kaleideoscoping world where one dowses for love with touch and motion.
Although the dance is packed with gesture and shape, it seems to say that those appearances matter much less than the rhythm and the ceaseless movement. The work also seemed to wave away the tired "issues" of race and ethnicity. The company is so well-mixed that we can skip the wearisome search for subtext when a white man dances with a black woman, or a black man with a white woman. We are all bodies dancing in the dark. This piece made me feel happy and hopeful.
Between "Discretion" and "Skin Diving," Leichter performed a solo from 1997. "Animal" showcases Leichter's gorgeous abilities, his humor, and his club and hip-hop background. It is an amusing piece, clever and self-aggrandizing in an ingenuous way – but it seemed a little immature in comparison to the other dances.
Following intermission came the joyful "Free the Angels," danced by the company to music by Stevie Wonder, including "Always." Nobody ever felt bad listening to Stevie, but the dancers amplified his magic nearly to ecstasy. It was really hard not to jump up and join in – partly because the choreography was deceptively familiar, cloaked in the unpretentious style of folks shaking it all out on the club floor. But beneath that lies a strong structure wherein human spirituality and human carnality reveal themselves as the double helix of dance. The dancers, the recombinant DNA, switch and swap through a delirium of possibility. Having already dispensed with the divisions of race, now they make gender irrelevant. They twist, they hurtle, they invert, recline, bounce and sway. Legs become as gestural as arms, and arms become as stable and sturdy as legs. There are many lifts, but the dance's emphasis – despite the title – is not the ether but the earth. These are live angels, on a mission to love one another right now – and always.