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The Duke University Dance Program's "Dancing with Old and New Masters: ChoreoLab 2004," presented in Reynolds Theater on March 27, had the kind of trajectory one hopes for in a series of performances. That is, the pieces got better as the program went along, and the last dance left indelible images in the mind's eye.
The evening opened with "...almost a tango," choreographed by long-time Duke dance professor M'Liss Dorrance to a medley of tango music. (All the music for the program was recorded.) Unfortunately, the title said it all, with the key word being "almost." There were some attractive combinations of tango steps with balletic moves, but overall the choreography was flaccid. It lacked the pull and snap essential for a tango's erotic sizzle, and only one of the (all female) troupe seemed to know anything about sultry movement. While the dancers executed their steps with reasonable skill (if not particular verve), they were not very well synchronized and were unable to maintain their spacing on the stage, blurring the patterns. To sum up, this dance lacked everything that makes tango such a compelling form.
"Common Ground" was another matter. This is new choreography by contemporary modern dance master Ronald K. Brown, and it was set on the dozen students who danced it as part of the Ronald K. Brown Choreographic Project, funded by various entities at Duke and the National College Choreography Initiative of the NEA. Moving to the hypnotic beat and susurrating burr of Sweet Honey in the Rock's "Wodaabe Nights," the eleven women and one man were mesmerizing. In style the dance was Afro-Modern, and all the dancers, even the white ones, wore their hair in many braids that swung and leapt about in concert with the bodies' movements. The work, as the title implied, was very grounded, with no jumps or fleet motions. There was lots of stamping and pounding and twirling and processioning, with some sharp scissoring motions. The overall effect was vehemently mystical and ceremonial, with an edge of danger and a hint of inexplicable violence. I was wowed by this work and by the level of intensity and skill exhibited by the dancers - but then it was over too soon. I was surprised when the dancers came out for a bow - I'd thought there would be at least one more section to the piece. As it was, it seemed like a sketch or study for a larger work.
The excitement was sustained as the program continued with Tyler Walters' "Element: Unknown," danced to the strange sounds of Morton Subotnick's "The Key to Songs." Many of the same dancers from the first work were in this piece, and here they appeared to much greater advantage - graceful and lively, or graceful and robotic, as the piece required. Perhaps they had simply not been fully warmed up for "...almost a tango." Here they exhibited considerably more technique and elan, and the choreography was hardly undemanding. Tanner Martin and Amanda Parker stood out in particular.
I have no idea what this piece was "about," but I'd gladly watch it again and again. For one thing, it had great costumes. Three women appeared in skirted lycra bodysuits - but the skirts were held out by rings encased in the hems, so they seemed to be wearing lampshades. But then it was more like they were dancing in hula-hoops, with a little anti-gravity support. When they inverted, so that their heads were hidden and their legs waved in the air, they became like pale sea anemones or strange saprophytic sprouts. When these three were pulled about by the larger troupe, it was a perfect metaphor for the plasticity of both dancer and dance.
Choreographer Tyler Walters, former principal with the Joffrey Ballet and currently teaching in the Duke Dance program (he also works with the Carolina Ballet), appeared in the second and third sections of "Element: Unknown," adding a sorely needed element of male power and grace to the evening. The third section, in which Walters partnered Sara Wilkinson through a series of slow-motion lifts and turns, was particularly satisfying. I hope to see this work again in another Duke Dance program, or perhaps at the Carolina Ballet.
The evening closed with the beautiful Suite from "A Choreographic Offering," set to J.S. Bach's Musical Offering , S.1079. In addition to the dozen students who never put a foot wrong through the kaleidoscope of massing and spreading images, the dancers included Tyler Walters and another Duke faculty member, Keval Kaur Khalsa - whom local dance fans may remember as Carol Childs, one half of Two Near the Edge. It was great to see her again, moving just as lightly as the lithe young students, but with decades more poise and power.
After the marvelous Balanchine tribute programs this winter at Carolina Ballet, it was intriguing to see something in the same vein, but in the modern dance idiom. "A Choreographic Offering" is by the great dancer and choreographer José Limón, who made it in memory of his mentor Doris Humphrey. Limón based the piece on her movement style and quotes from many of her dances. At Reynolds, it was staged and directed by Duke faculty member Clay Taliaferro, who himself was principal dancer for many years with the José Limón Company. Even in the age of video, this is how dance is passed on - from body to body.
Duke takes seriously its role in preserving and passing on the knowledge of generations of dancers, and it is clear from this program that Duke Dance intends to be a leader in this type of kinesthetic education. Dance audiences may wish to pay more attention to this department's programming. They'll discover that ADF's not the only thing shaking at Duke.