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The American Dance Festival continues its series of so-far stellar curated programs with a somewhat less successful mix of three very different companies this week in Duke University's Reynolds Theater. The apparent link among them is the artists’ dedication to collaborative process in developing their works.
Eiko and Koma, who have been performing at ADF since 1983, collaborate primarily with each other, although you could throw the wonderful lighting designer David Ferri into the mix for the single piece, Rust, that the duo is performing this year. Rust premiered in Reynolds in 1989, and it is no less amazing today — perhaps even more so, as the bodies performing it are 19 years older. Beneath the white make-up, those bodies are even more beautiful, in a sculptural sense, with a purity of line that can make a viewer weep.
In Rust, the lights come up on the two pale figures poised upside down against two overlapping sections of chain-link fence, vertical and taut mid-stage. Accompanied only by the amplified clicking of the fence in response to their touch, for 17 minutes the dancers move with their delicious slowness, remaining inverted the entire time — even while exchanging positions. Perhaps the work is about oxidation, or the changes wrought by time on materials and people. The fence makes you think of other things, horrible things — internments, captivity, concentration camps — and when the dancers’ faces turn towards the audience, they show dreadful grimaces. But the beauty of the forms! The exquisite lines! As Eiko ever-so-slowly edges her extended leg towards Koma’s, under the equally-slowly-changing lighting, there is a moment of such grace it takes your breath. Between two pale curving banks of legs the chain-link runs like a glittering river — then the banks touch and are legs again. Abstraction evaporates; humanity manifests itself from deep consciousness.
Blasting away any newly attained spiritual equilibrium, the John Jasperse Company’s world premiere of a newly commissioned work set a very different tone, assaulting the audience both visually and aurally (earplugs suggested for the first song). Every year the ADF has at least one work that’s pretentious and self-absorbed, a sop for the hip dance world insiders. Every year the students duly laugh and clap at the puerile jokes. While this piece is not as bad as some, it did include quite a number of clichés from the worst of post-modern performance. (Oh Lord, why do they give these people microphones?) I think there may have been some topical stuff about the war, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the decadent bling “culture” that ignores such harsh reality, but it was so obscured and interrupted that I can’t be certain. There were a number of black-clad and hooded figures who slimed across the floor, then lay there like dead seals, before becoming “shadows” of the upright dancers. The shadowing thing was effective, but certainly not fresh, or susceptible to clear interpretation. The only thing certain about Pure was that it was purely boring.
The program redeems itself after intermission with Zvi Dance’s thrilling version of Les Noces, set to the fantastic Stravinsky music, with its complex percussive rhythms and unstoppable flowing force. The Zvi work (from 2006) is not art about art so much as it is art that has fed on art and grown to greater glory. Les Noces (roughly translated, The Wedding) has a fascinating history. Serge Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes commissioned the score from Stravinsky, and it took him nearly 10 years to complete. Diaghilev had intended for the dancer Nijinsky to choreograph the work, but it ultimately fell to his sister Bronislava Nijinska. Music and dance premiered in 1923, and remain in ballet repertory today. (For a comprehensive history of Nijinska’s Les Noces, click here.)
Choreographer Zvi Gotheiner, in collaboration with his ten whole-hearted dancers, has drawn on Nijinska’s work, with its folk-motifs and circle dances, while jettisoning the Russian village wedding story in favor of a contemporary exploration of courting, mating, fighting and loving. But he has also drawn on other choreographers’ work to the propulsive score. Jerome Robbins premiered his version in 1965, and his influence is clear in this work. I think there may even be direct quotes. It appears that Gotheiner may also have picked up something from French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who used benches in his 1989 version, and a sequence in which the dancers leap from the benches to fall and roll — very like the Zvi Dance version. These quotations, far from being plagiaristic, exemplify the goals of learning from history — and make a very suitable addition to the ADF’s summer-long history survey.
The dancing in this version of Les Noces is magnificent. I think you’d have to be dead for this music not to charge your every blood cell with explosive energy, but behind the physicality of it is Stravinsky’s implacable intellect, and that must be danced, too. These consummately musical dancers are right there with the score in all its demanding glory, and their style — open-chested, arm-flinging, leg-kicking, loose-waisted, high-headed, and deeply attentive — comes as an immense relief after the prissy carryings-on of the previous work. And in the unceasing flow of movement, Les Noces brings us circling back to Rust. Eiko and Koma move so slowly you can hardly see it happening, but they are always moving. The Zvi dancers move much faster, but in this piece, like Eiko and Koma, they eschew any posed positions or tableaux for motion as continuous as the flow of breath. You could truncate this program to include only Rust and Les Noces, and feel you’d gotten full value for your ticket.
The program continues on the 17th and 18th. See our calendar for details.