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Abandoning Abandonment?

ACDF headliner Sarah Skaggs prepares to bring years of hyperkinetic dance to a halt literally in Dances for Airports



It's the kind of course title that catches your eye: Precise Abandonment, 8--9:30 a.m. A one-liner of an introduction follows, describing a technique that "works with high energy, ecstatic moments, extreme precision and utter abandonment." So you look around for the teacher's name, until you find it: Sarah Skaggs.

Mystery solved. The intriguing course description, included in this year's Mid-Atlantic session of the American College Dance Festival, also serves as something of a capsule review for much of Skaggs' work over the past 12 years.

High-energy pieces like Higher Ground, a signature work from the early '90s, crossed the boundaries between proscenium and club dance, incorporating the audience into the performance. Get Out of the House, her most recent work, was set to music by the Chemical Brothers and initially performed on outdoor basketball courts across New York City. It sold out houses last summer at Jacob's Pillow, where the Village Voice's Debra Cash noted, "Nothing is extraneous; every move is full-throttle."

Skaggs isn't only teaching this week at N.C. State University, at the regional edition of the ACDF. She headlines it with tonight's performance of Solo Salon at Stewart Theater.

Her concert kicks off five days of dance on the N.C. State campus, as over 500 participants from over 30 colleges and universities bring their latest original dance works to be seen and evaluated by their peers, and by a panel of professional choreographers. The festival's most promising performances will be featured in a showcase "Gala concert" Saturday night at Stewart Theater.

A promoter without the funds to present Skaggs' whole company provided the initial impetus for the choreographer to review the solo works she'd created since 1990. "They said just bring the solos," she recalled in a conversation last week. "So I did a chronological order first and it was just too top-heavy. It just seemed like a rock 'n' roll show." That got Skaggs to rearrange the pieces, in a process she compared to making a compilation CD.

The comparison may be more than usually apt, given the broad variety of music and audio sources Skaggs uses in her work.

In "Prelude to Salome," she ultimately moves at breakneck speed to the modified documentary recording of a hellfire-and-brimstone preacher. "Snake" is performed to PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me," while "The Women's Dance" is set to Patti Smith and a recording of women in a church, speaking in tongues. "Mother," a pensive work Skaggs made after the death of her own mother in 1997, is accompanied by the austere strings of the Balanescu Quartet.

Looking back at her work gave Skaggs a new perspective. "What I saw was how much range I have and how each year I keep challenging myself in terms of sculpting space with my body," Skaggs said. "I also saw how interests that were kind of literal 12 years ago have become more clear, without the literal-ness."

The retrospective also gave her a chance to find new life in old works. "In doing dances I've done for years and years, I've got to continually--I change them, I make them fresh. I try to say, 'Now what were you really trying to say 12 years ago? Where is the articulation? How can you dig deeper into this?'"

When Skaggs tries to characterize her aesthetic, the term "itchy dance" comes up. "I don't want to make it sound like a medical condition," she says. "It's just always trying to get to that place in dance where you just react. It's not impulsivity. It's just that fantastic thing we have as human beings, just to jump, move, step out before we get all intellectual. It's just trying to stay really close to the bone."

"Prelude for Salome," which opens Solo Salon, remains as enigmatic as it was in 1990. As a preacher passionately rails against a church besieged by modernity and a lack of faith, the dancer's moves steadily increase in velocity. By the end of the brief movement, the centrifugal, kinetic energy threatens to overwhelm both the dancer and the audience. It's a fitting "prelude" indeed, to the alluded dance which apparently follows thereafter--the one, legend has it, that cost John the Baptist his head.

Skaggs has no shortage of subjects for upcoming works. Indeed, she'll be showing a section of one during Wednesday's concert. "I have tons of narratives in my head about dances," she notes. "I want to make a dance for Ground Zero. I've been closely following the architectural designs, because I've done a lot of work in public spaces." Skaggs laughs before admitting she already has "a fantastic dance ready for the [Daniel] Liebeskin space."

More immediate for Skaggs is Dances for Airports, a work based on Brian Eno's ambient 1978 masterpiece, Music for Airports. "It's the precursor to so much that happened in DJ culture. People know that music; when you hear it it's so much like a part of you."

When asked if she'd been listening to it for years herself, her answer's surprising.

"No. I really shied away from music like that, because my work is known for a lot of high energy. Just last year, one of my dancers said, 'Sarah, Bang on a Can has just recreated Music for Airports on live instruments, and you've got to hear it.'"

When she did, Skaggs was astonished. "When they touch the piano, there is such a breath to the actual way it's touched," she said. "I'm trying to match that in my movement. It's very spare, and it's not as dense as my other pieces."

"It's just like I'm trying to capture and hold the air in my dancing from movement to movement," Skaggs says, "actually a kinetic response to the way they're plucking the instruments. It's such a challenge."

A true statement, particularly given Skaggs' frequently hyperkinetic background. As such, Dances for Airports marks a major change for the choreographer.

"I'm actually going back to 'Composition 101,'" Skaggs notes--and she's not joking. These days she finds inspiration in the Dogme '95 group of Danish filmmakers, whose manifesto eschewed much of the artifice in contemporary cinema. And Skaggs is also looking to the choreographers and movement researchers affiliated with the Judson Church, in the 1960s and beyond. "I'm kind of going back to all of that," she says, "to let me figure out what it means to me."

Why this sea change, and why now? "I'm getting to this place where I think there's too much music, too many video images. Then there's the Internet and all," Skaggs says. "I have a theory about the future of theater: It's going to be a sanctuary. A place where there's very little going on. It'll be a place for us to clear our heads. And we're going to need it."

Audiences can see the first three minutes of the future, Wednesday night in Raleigh. EndBlock

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