As the old saw goes, there are not that many plots in the theater of life. That, however, does not mean that the infinite number of stories that can be hung on them must be boring. On the contrary, it is the variety in the detail that keeps us endlessly fascinated with the types. In the hands of skilled actors, even the most banal situations can fill with passion and insight, arousing empathy and enlightenment. The same is true with skilled dancers performing intelligent choreography. As the American Dance Festival 2010 begins its second week exploring the melding of dance and theater, we see that the skills of one do not automatically accrue to the other.
The four dancers — excuse me, they are called performers — in Dendy Dancetheater's are not skilled actors. Neither do they or Mark Dendy, choreographer and company artistic director, who together created Divine Normal (2010) based on Dendy's life story, have a firm grasp on what makes a story dramatic or compelling to the viewer. The basic plot is one of the great ones: talented, misunderstood, non-conforming young person struggles against family and societal restrictions in the hinterlands before heading to the big city to realize outsized dreams and ambitions. If only they had shut up and danced the story, it might have hung together. But the fantastic dancing is continually interrupted by verbal explanations that are almost unbearably jejune. The jocose humor which will best be appreciated by dance students and struggling young dancers, is sophomoric and flat, with a bitter tang.
NC native Mark Dendy grew up in Weaverville, son of a rigid Christian fundamentalist mother who did everything she could to suppress Dendy's lifelong love of dancing. It would seem that, even though she is now dead, Dendy has not come to any internal reconciliation with her, and even if you despise Bible thumpers who profess to know God's will, you might find the sketchy characterization of her cruel. Dendy's own character (performed by Lonnie Poupard, Jr. as Eric) comes across as flat as cardboard — which hardly coincides with reality.
The details of this particular story of a young man's adventures on his single-minded search for his artistic and sexual identity should have been captivating. The young Eric/Dendy took as his guides some of dance history's greatest: Vaslav Nijinsky and Martha Graham. The portrayal of Graham is catty, if lovingly so; Nijinsky is his real hero, and the modern replication of Nijinsky's famous costumes from Le Spectre de la Rose and L'Apres Midi d'un Faune are brilliant. But during fraught moments, Eric/Dendy takes up Nijinsky's autobiography and reads from it. The stuff ought to be fascinating, but delivered without dramatic elocutionary skills, is it instead stultifying. How could I be yawning while hearing how the incredible Nijinsky had to sleep with producer Sergei Diaghilev to get the parts? Real theater doesn't make you yawn, and dance theater shouldn't either.
When he can quit talking about it, Dendy makes wonderful dances. Some of the segments here are a little too self-consciously arty to be great, and seemed to be geared to the comprehension level of the very young and inexperienced. But others are gorgeous, filling the stage with vital, effervescing joy. Dendy, like many other dancers and choreographers, knows things about how bodies move through space (or bounce off walls) that scientists are only now figuring out. Just last week a Duke professor of mechanical engineering published an article in the American Journal of Physics about how nature, not humans, invented the wheel, and it is within us and all other creatures. Well, duh. If you need a demonstration, look at Dendy's dancers. At their best, the compositions give us dancers wheeling through space like whirling cosmic bodies, their arms and legs the spokes, their cartwheels and handsprings and somersaults embellishments on the great spiraling gyre. From here rises true drama, and the passion missing from the talky-talk swells in your heart as the Faunes of past and present prance together, their mirroring moves amplifying the magical power of dance, and projecting it into the future, to be caught by some other dreaming boy with great legs.
The program, which repeats June 23 in Duke University's Reynolds Theater, also includes a brief work by Catherine Miller, of the company. See our calendar for details.