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Rite of Wei

Chinese-born choreographer Shen Wei helps usher in the American Dance Festival with a new interpretation of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring"

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Call the American Dance Festival a monument to change. It's a fitting paradox by which to summarize the festival's first 69 years of activity, and its last 25 in North Carolina. In its first years, Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman were in pursuit of the radically new, not only in aesthetics and movement, but in music and visual art as well. Within its first decade at Bennington College in Vermont, Graham was choreographing works to a set made up of mobiles by Alexander Calder, and John Cage was already being invited to experiment with musical form. In subsequent decades it moved to Connecticut College, began to commission new works, and trained many of the students who would grow to lead modern dance in the decades to come.

All the while, modern dance was changing. Meredith Monk's 1970 Needle-Brain Lloyd & the Systems Kid, a work for motorcycle gang, horses and dancers, could never be confused with the crystal tectonics of José Limón's 1964 Choreographic Offering, or the dark psychology of Graham's Errand into the Maze in 1947.

In the 1970s, the festival crossed genres and international boundaries, hosting a series of avant-garde theater companies and directors including Robert Wilson, Mabou Mines, Richard Foreman and Charles Ludlam, the playwright who gave the world The Mystery of Irma Vep. In the 1980s, ADF got into imports and exports, bringing international choreographers to America, and ultimately sending miniature festivals to India, Russia, China, Korea and Japan. In the 1990s, the festival turned increasingly toward conservation, establishing an archive of classic dance work documentation and making it available to the public.

In short, there have been a series of significant reinventions along the way, fundamental changes in venue, scope and mission that have attempted to reflect and serve changes in the dance.

But change is not always felicitous, voluntary or well-planned. And the festival's sense of balance between the sometimes conflicting goals of conservation, presentation, education and new exploration has increasingly come into question in recent years.

At first glance, this season's programming appears to add to those questions. For all but one of the 14 choreographers, performers and companies in the 2002 season, this year's performance marks their second ADF mainstage appearance in the last five seasons.

While modern dance is a relatively small community, it's not that small. And where 40 percent of this season's performers at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts got their professional start in the 1990s or later, only two at this year's ADF are less than 10 years old. How do these facts relate to the pursuit of new artists? Has the ADF's programming retreated in some ways into the comforts of the known? If so, why?

One of those two new artists, it must be noted, is Ariane Reinhart, the daughter of ADF co-directors Charles and Stephanie Reinhart. On July 9 and 10, Ariane will repeat her January New York debut program, originally performed at the Joyce Soho, interpreting the works of Mark Haim, Martha Clarke, John Jasperse and Doug Varone. While this highly controversial programming gambit has already been attacked in some circles as rank nepotism (including by some who have not seen it), for an impartial critic, its only possible justification lies in the quality of the work itself. Since I have not seen this work, the question will necessarily remain open for the moment.

Certainly the ADF's regard for modern dance traditions is valuable. Populist artists like Paul Taylor and Pilobolus fill houses, help fund seasons and still produce work that should be seen. Their artistic achievements, and their limitations, both provide important lessons to the students who come to Durham each summer from around the world.

But it bears noting that the cutting edge, the avant-garde, doesn't stay in one place. It's a given: Dance changes. But a festival too preoccupied with the conservatorship of classic companies is one at risk of losing sight of the new. If there is limited room at best for a new generation at ADF, that generation may find other venues, or it may not. In either case, it seems, we lose.

One thing's clear: In modern dance, change is coming. Always. The main question is to what degree we will prepare to welcome it.

WEEK ONE: If every week were like this, almost all our questions about balance would effectively be banished. Permanent guest Paul Taylor, whose company turns 50 years old next year, ushers in the 2002 season alongside brilliant Asian wünderkind Shen Wei.

Though Shen took ADF by storm two years ago with Near the Terrace, his exquisitely timeless, atmospheric tribute to surrealist Paul Delvaux, last year's full-length expansion proved a case where more added less to the work. Still, we're banking that he learned much from that experience, and we're most intrigued about his new obsession. Perhaps you've heard of it: Stravinsky's Rite of Spring?

By now every dance student knows the story. Nijinsky's choreography for the Ballet Russe provoked a full-scale riot in the streets of Paris in 1913. What has Shen's 12 dancers found in an old four-hand piano score of the controversial classic? Are red skies in store for Durham? We find out Monday through Wednesday of next week.

Before that, Mr. Taylor displays his recent wares twice, first in his company's scheduled performances Thursday through Saturday night in Page Auditorium, and again Sunday night at the festival's 25th Anniversary Gala benefit. A $100 donation--with all proceeds to support the ADF School--nets patrons an invitation to a sumptuous dinner party on Friday night or late Sunday afternoon and a concert Sunday night in Page.

That concert itself is a choice collection of greatest hits, plus the world premiere of a new work by Pilobolus Dance Theater. Taylor's unforgettably steamy tribute to the master of the modern tango, Piazzolla Caldera, is joined by an excerpt from Ron K. Brown's stark meditation on estrangement, last year's Walking Out the Dark. The evening begins on a historic note with Awassa Atrige (Ostrich Dance). Though Sierra Leone native Asadata Dafora arrived in New York at the dawn of the Depression and the dawn of modern dance, his successful African dance troupe performed this West African solo in venues including Madison Square Garden in the mid-1930s. Historic, indeed.

Correction (July 19, 2010): Near the Terrace is a tribute to surrealist Paul Delvaux.

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