- Photo by Christopher Duggan
- Camille A. Brown
Over the past few years, I've found myself at a number of shows that are what I like to call post-post-postmodern dance: performances that might feature text and props, perhaps nudity and/or technology, but often precious little actual dance. It's an uber-contemporary genre that's often eerily ungrounded, surprisingly untethered to the human body and disconnected from historical context. And yet it frequently seems to be where modern dance lives now, and where it's continuing to go.
All of which makes the ADF show Wondrous Women seem, at first, oddly out of place in a modern dance festival celebrating the state of the art. At the Carolina Theatre in July, the show will feature five female dancers performing solos they've choreographed for themselves. ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter says the objective is to echo a 2014 ADF performance that featured four mature male choreographers performing solos. Those men—Ronald K. Brown, Doug Varone, Shen Wei, and Steven Petronio—were all fully vested representatives of (and big names in) modern dance.
Not so with this female version of the show, featuring Camille A. Brown, Michelle Dorrance, Rhapsody James, Aparna Ramaswamy, and Yabin Wang. None of them are as established as their male counterparts, and each is grounded in or inspired by a style that is distinctly not modern dance. Those styles all have deep historical meanings and contexts that make them anything but ungrounded. It's a shift from the normal fare on offer at ADF, but a refreshing one, reminding us that no matter how modern (or post-post-postmodern) it's gotten, dance today still owes its existence to a long history that drew on a wide range of styles and influences, as Nimerichter acknowledges.
"The festival, while always dedicated to and rooted in modern dance, has a history of occasionally featuring traditional dance forms, because so many pioneers and continuing dance choreographers fuse and use some of those traditional dance forms in their choreography," she says.
Take Aparna Ramaswamy, one of the performers in Wondrous Women. Her group, the Minneapolis-based Ragamala Dance Company, has shown work at the Joyce Theater in New York—a vaunted modern dance site—and is said to fuse Western and Eastern sensibilities. But her style is thoroughly grounded in classical Indian dance forms, particularly Bharatanatyam, which came out of South India around 500 CE. It's traditionally a solo form performed by women, featuring detailed hand, arm, and facial gestures that all have meanings.
Ramaswamy says she used Indian literature from several different eras in the subcontinent's history as inspiration for this piece. And given that India's history reaches back millennia, there's a lot to draw on.
"My sources go back into an era of Tamil poetry, Sangam poetry, that was created between 300 BC and 300 AD," says Ramaswamy. She also incorporated the Mahabharata, the great Sanskrit epic, and the work of an eighth-century mystic poet. "I wove all of those together into a narrative, then created [a piece]," she explains. It's not strictly traditional, though; Ramaswamy tips her hat to modern dance sensibilities by allowing the audience members to develop their own interpretations rather than explaining the piece's meaning.
Another performer is tap dancer Michelle Dorrance, a Chapel Hill native who's won multiple awards for her work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, but still has never been featured at ADF. She, too, is keenly aware of the historical legacy she represents. In conversation, she casually discusses the backgrounds and collaborations of tappers she knows of who have performed at ADF. Tap's history is more linear than that of modern dance; it can be traced back to black minstrel and vaudeville performers at the end of the nineteenth century, and its practitioners seem to have detailed knowledge of the alliances and mentorships in the field.
Like jazz, tap is deeply grounded in improvisation. "I haven't choreographed a solo for myself and successfully performed it without improvising it in my entire life," says Dorrance. About this solo, she says, "I'll allow moments of improv freedom within it; it could be very much a skeleton which I fill in with what's more improvisational in nature."
Wondrous Women will be rounded out by Camille A. Brown, who will be performing a solo from ink, the last part of a trilogy exploring the rituals and traditions ingrained in the African diaspora, examining elements of black culture that are often erased or silenced.
Rhapsody James will show work highlighting her style of "street jazz," which is strongly influenced by hip-hop. And Yabin Wang, China's superstar modern choreographer and a highly trained Chinese classical dancer, will show a piece based on quantum physics and elements of uncertainty.
Wang has a history with ADF—she was selected as one of the festival's resident international choreographers in 2010—and neither hip-hop nor tap nor stories of the African-American experience are strangers to the festival. Still, with its acknowledgment of the many roads that led to what modern dance is today, Wondrous Women marks a departure. In this era, when issues of identity and cultural appropriation are paramount, it's a welcome one.
AMANDA ABRAMS'S TOP FIVE ADF SHOWS
Anne Plamondon (Rubenstein Arts Center,Jun. 30 & Jul. 1)
With slippery, luscious, original movements, ADF newcomer Anne Plamondon's solo expresses the private torment of mental illness.
L-E-V, Sharon Eyal,and Gai Behar (DPAC, Jul. 3)
Israeli companies thrive on intriguing, intelligent dance, and L-E-V Dance Company—combining controlled, sinuous movement with inscrutability and a dash of homoeroticism—is no exception.
Dana Ruttenberg Dance Group (NCMA, Jul. 14–17)
Experience the museum in a radically new way, as the backdrop for a dance performance set to a soundtrack—thanks to individual audio guides—of your choosing.
Kyle Abraham's A.I.M (The Rubenstein Arts Center,Jul. 17–19)
Kyle Abraham is that rare thing: a smart, physical choreographer who doesn't shy away from vulnerability, and yet does it free of cliché.
Footprints (Reynolds Industries Theater,Jul. 20–21)
Season closer Footprints, a program of ADF-commissioned premieres, is always an energetic treat, especially this year: Don't miss the smooth, tight movement of Israeli choreographer Dafi Altabeb.