After the theatrical minimalism of opening week, with Monica Bill Barnes' comedy of performers' manners and Kate Weare's chamber psychodrama closing tonight in Reynolds Theater, American Dance Festival audiences will likely find their aesthetics recalibrated this week with a vengeance.
While this may be the festival premiere for INBAL PINTO & AVSHALOM POLLAK DANCE COMPANY, Pinto and Pollack are no strangers to ADF audiences. Both of their collaborations with Pilobolus—the comic and poignant folk tale Rushes and the surreal (and somewhat less successful) 2B—debuted here in 2007 and 2009, respectively. The decade before, Pinto's Frieda and Rosa, an atmospheric plunge into an alternate world of absurd Victoriana, was a 1998 season standout in the now-lapsed International Choreographers Commissioning Program. The following year, the pair debuted the work we'll see this week beginning Thursday, June 17.
It's been erroneously reported that Oyster is an adaptation of a short story by film director Tim Burton. Those familiar with "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy," a thin book of eccentrically illustrated tales that first gave the world Stain Boy, the Staring Girl and the Boy with Nails in his Eyes, will search the DPAC stage in vain for the boy with the telltale mollusk head.
Still, by the end, those fans of Burton's most outré characters might feel more or less at home. So would devotees of David Lynch, for that matter. With a dapper, two-headed ringmaster in charge (in a conical, black and white costume on long-term loan, apparently, from the Cabaret Voltaire), an unclean and not particularly well-lit circus unfolds. In its various acts, oddly garbed, possibly malnourished and physically dysfunctional self-styled dancers and gymnasts perform feats—or, sometimes, fits—of balance, terpsichore and legerdemain. A score ranging from scratchy old recordings of Puccini to Yma Sumac is underscored by the sound of a low, desolate wind. Among its aerial and floor-based spins, expect a barbed question or two ultimately directed at the audience: In a freak show of this sort, who constitutes the biggest freaks of all?
By now, MARK DENDY certainly qualifies as another familiar ADF face, with performances that span the past 15 years and commissioned work premiering in both of the last two seasons. What seemed an intricately choreographed companion to the visual conundrums of M.C. Escher, Dendy's Preliminary Study for Depth: The Upper Half of High and Low was an ADF season standout in 2008 before it found a warm reception in New York last fall. His Golden Belt, a site-specific work last summer for the Cotton Room at the East Durham arts-based development, truly caught the sweat of the sweatshop that was once there and conveyed the rawness of these laborers' passions.
The festival debut of his newly formed company, Dendy Dancetheater, features the world premiere of Divine Normal, a "vaguely autobiographical" work, in the choreographer's terms, that harks back to some degree to his breakout hit from 1998, Dream Analysis. That work related the odyssey of a gay child of fundamentalist parents in small-town North Carolina who finds redemption in dance, psychotherapy and potent (and potentially problematic) exemplars, including Martha Graham and Vaslav Nijinsky. The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning termed Dendy's writing, choreography, direction and dancing as "something of a miracle."
But autobiography is a tough taskmaster. After revising the work between different productions in January and August 1998, Dendy reveals that he subsequently wrote stage and film versions of the story before the work we'll see next week—in attempts to "get it right."
"Dream Analysis had a very camp element to it, with a Judy Garland drag queen and another drag queen who was a psychiatrist," Dendy observes. "I wanted to tell it without the camp, as more of a straight theater work, because it's still nonlinear. I want to tell the story more succinctly."
The biggest surprise from the first week of the 2010 American Dance Festival wasn't those uncanny, bending blues notes coming out of an Appalachian banjo as Tim Stambaugh clawed and shook it, rearing back with its neck at one point like a deep-sea fisherman bringing in a blue marlin during the AFRICAN AMERICAN DANCE ENSEMBLE's memorable opening-night performance of an excerpt from BlueGrass/ BrownEarth.
And it certainly wasn't the lusty, spontaneous yips, yelps and shouts of appreciation from the students of the festival's Six Week School, whose unambiguous audience participation—a festival trademark by now—makes ADF shows among the most gratifying in which many dancers will ever perform.
For me, the biggest surprise wasn't even on the stage. Instead, it was the number of choreographers in dance theater who don't particularly think what they're making is dance theater. By the time you read this, our interviews with choreographers KATE WEARE and MONICA BILL BARNES will be up on Artery, the Indy's arts blog. In both interviews, it's interesting to note the reluctance of the choreographers of The Bridge of Sighs and Another Parade—obvious candidates for the genre—to discuss their work in those terms.
One early observation, for them and us, regarding an ADF season in which differing definitions of the genre are likely to emerge each week (and then be supplanted by new insights in the weeks thereafter): If the term theater, by itself, can encompass the works of Spalding Gray and the restoration comedy of Sheridan, the words of Shakespeare, Sondheim, Beckett and Kushner, and the visions of Julie Taymor, Mary Zimmerman and Robert Wilson, how can dance theater possibly be a single degree narrower?