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In a state that already boasts the annual American Dance Festival in Durham, the North Carolina Dance Festival is comparatively small, low-budget, itinerant, subdued, and communal. The 24th edition of the festival was spread out over five months, delivering five performances in four cities before the 2014-15 tour concluded in Charlotte after stops in Raleigh, Boone, and Greensboro. Managed by the Greensboro-based Dance Project, Inc., the festival has a mission of teaching, talking, and dancing at each of the sites it visits. For the 2014-15 edition, these sites were all college campuses, including UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, Appalachian State University in Boone, and Meredith College in Raleigh, where the festival began on September 20. Although programs varied from city to city, particularly in Greensboro, where performances were spread over two consecutive evenings (October 24-25), the core participants remained the same. These were Diego Carrasco Dance, Gaspard&Dancers, Kristen Jeppsen Groves (in collaboration with Defero Dance Collective), Sara Ruth Tourek, and Leah Wilks’s VECTOR.
The Charlotte program was staged at the Anne R. Belk Theater in Robinson Hall, a near-perfect venue for theater, music performance, and dance – large enough to deliver a sense of occasion yet small enough to maintain a close connection between the audience and the performing artists. Starting off the program, “Rubix” by Gaspard&Dancers presented a different set of balances in a piece set by Gaspard Louis to music by Paul Leary. Costumes by Jakki Kalogridis tended to unify the three dancers, including G. Alex Smith, Jessi Knight Walker, and the choreographer. While the geometry of the outfits suggested Mondrian – and the iconic Rubik’s Cube – there were curves and squiggles in the prints and no colors livening the black and white. Dancers remained more tightly connected than we usually see as they emerged from their opening tableau, echoing the fluid and geometrical mix of the costumes with movements that were alternately lyrical and mechanical.
There was no mistaking the personal, emotional thrust of Sara Ruth Tourek’s choreography – and costume design – in her “as we were,” a pas de deux that began and ended on a park bench, the zenith of set design for the NC Dance Festival. The dancers, Chauncey Pauley and William Commander, sketching the ups and downs of relationships, were also at or near the festival zenith as performers, particularly Pauley, who was personable, graceful, musical, and precise enough to land a spot with a major troupe. The deep-turquoise costumes were loose and flowing, romantic without being regal or effete, and the movements included plentiful floor work with the partners together and apart, never crossing over into eroticism. Kim Jones’s “Shedding,” set to an aria by Handel from his Rinaldo, was a richer entrée because, in addition to two pairs of fine dancers performing in the center stage spotlights, there were four musicians performing the music near the wings, including the smooth and expressive countertenor, Reginald Mobley, making it hard at times to look at the dancers as he poured forth his beautiful plaintive tones. Inspired by the works of Martha Graham and José Limón, “Shedding” actually moved in an opposite direction at the outset as Whitney V. Hunter, Pauline Sylvaine Legras, Daniel Fetecua Soto, and the choreographer – individualized by costumes that were gray, gold, maroon, and turquoise – gradually transitioned from simultaneous solo movements to variously permutated pairs. They eventually connected but only impersonally, so their eventual separation was unburdened by any emotional dimension.
Bringing us to intermission, “A Place Apart” from Diego Carrasco Dance was the edgiest and most protean piece in the festival. Both of the dancers, choreographer Diego Carrasco Schoch and Commander, started their movements out in the audience to a Schoch sound design that could not have been presented at any of the previous festival dates. Culled from a series of newscasts, the anchor people referenced significant recent events like the attack on Charlie Hebdo and President Obama’s State of the Union Address, alongside such ephemera as the NFL’s “Deflategate.” After Schoch and Commander came onstage, it was awhile before they danced to the predetermined score, the familiar Adagio sostenuto from Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Even then, there were moments that may have been improvised, for while Schoch was sure-footed throughout, Commander wasn’t as sure and solid as he had been in “as we were,” looking lost or indecisive in a couple of spots. Of course, with two men performing in tandem, it was more interesting to watch the intimacy developing between them as the dark recording played, but each of them also carved out some private space. By the time the Beethoven began, I had forgotten that it was coming, and when it finished, I had nearly forgotten the worldly preamble.
Overall tone lightened noticeably after intermission, and there was even a touch of humor as the second half began with Alison Bory’s “just beneath the surface of my skin.” I hardly needed to hear the introductory measures to know we were being transported back to 1959 and the musical prime of Frankie Avalon. The journey may have been too far toward ‘50s innocence when Sarah Lanners and Olivia-Grace Morrison danced to Avalon’s final hit of 1959, “Why (Because I Love You),” and its lackadaisical beat. Yet even though both were barefoot, Lanners and Morrison had an endearingly arch take on an earlier 1959 hit, Avalon’s “Bobby Sox to Stockings,” punctuated with plucky arm gestures on loan from Little Orphan Annie. I just had to smile at the dancers’ cheerfully jejune naïveté.
Costuming seemed to be a forgotten facet of the dances after intermission, but the laxity was most appropriate for the finale, Kristen Jeppsen Groves’s “As We Are,” set to music by René Aubry and Gustavo Santaolalla, performed by the Raleigh-based Defero Dance Collective. The look of the piece was extremely casual, replicating a studio practice/rehearsal environment with lighting equipment exposed in the wings. While Groves spoke eloquently in the post-performance discussion about the challenge of stripping away the performing personas of the dancers to achieve the right authenticity for this choreography, I felt that I’d seen too many similar pieces in recent years to find this one at all fresh or unique. With A Chorus Line due to celebrate its 40th anniversary later this year, it might be good to admit that the concept has outlived its revolutionary phase and to observe a moratorium on rehearsal-as-performance enterprises.
Prior to the finale, we had the simplest and perhaps most satisfying work of the evening, a solo conceived and performed by Leah Wilks, “Mess.” Indeed, from a feminine point of view, Wilks was the antithesis of glamor when she first appeared as a dimly lit androgynous lump in a yoga-like pose as the minimalist score by Michael Wall began. She may have been even more dressed-down than Demi Moore was in the most intimate moments of Ghost, but somehow the mood sustained by Wilks reminded of the dark loneliness of that movie as she continued to move slowly and hypnotically in her circumscribed circle of light. The piece seemed to fascinate the audience as well, for when facilitator Takiyah Nur Amir turned the questioning over to the house at the end of the post-performance talkback, Wilks drew the largest share of the questions. Paralleling Groves’s piece, Wilks had also moved from private exploration to public performance, but the process had been less structured and calculated, so the results were more organic, personal, and rewarding.