How do you keep doing it?
At the 2015 American Dance Festival, which drew to a close at the end of July, the question was addressed explicitly in Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host, where Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass depicted two dancers performing the same material, night after night, on tour.
In that circumstance, you're trying to make moves you've rehearsed for months seem fresh, vital and spontaneous. How do you keep the work—and yourself—in the present tense?
As Three Acts drew to a close, the issue got a bit personal for Ira Glass, who can usually rely on sound files stored on servers to reiterate his signature narratives on This American Life.
"I know people who work on stage as actors," he confessed, "and I never understood that job until now. You have to be there! Every night!"
Dance is an art form in which the medium, the human body, degrades much faster than digital audio. Dancers know their professional careers will be relatively brief, subject to injury and age. At ADF, this gives the question of how to stay in the present a keener edge.
The question kept coming up in different forms during the festival. Three Acts faced it in its content, mostly lifted from This American Life episodes dating back to 1998 and from Barnes' repertoire over the last eight years. Somehow, the juxtaposition of old dance against even older tales of showbiz and relationships gave both new life, turning the Durham Performing Arts Center into a postmodern campfire of sorts, where we shared stories in the dark.
In recent years, the 44-year-old company Pilobolus has tried to stave off creative erosion through a series of increasingly outré collaborations with the likes of illusionists Penn and Teller and a robotics lab at MIT. Thresh|Hold, its joint venture with Javier de Frutos, the new bad boy of contemporary dance, proved to be Pilobolus' most successful collaboration since 2011's All Is Not Lost with OK Go. In this dark psychodrama, designer Neil Patel's arresting deus ex machina—a strange doorway lifted from a The Twilight Zone intro—was a portal that catapulted the characters into different areas of their relationship. Thresh|Hold's stakes, velocity and technique renewed the intrepid qualities most valued in Pilobolus.
Choreographer Doug Varone addressed the question directly in The Fabulist, a pensive and revealing solo from 2014 that marked his return to the stage after a hip replacement in 2006. Strongly abetted by designer Ben Stanton's stark, mobile spotlights, Varone's aging character assessed the light and surrounding darkness as he took an unsparing inventory of his remaining abilities. Accompanied by composer David Lang's eerie love song, Death Speaks, Varone gave great dignity to a meditation on human mortality and the close of an artist's career.
Exposure is nothing new to Eiko Otake, whose glacial, time-bending work with husband Koma has long been championed at ADF. But in A Body in Places, she had to rethink of herself as a soloist in a present moment when Koma's continuing physical problems have closed old doors for now. In an industrial space at Cordoba Center for the Arts, the absence of a partner made her ghostly, butoh-inspired character even more vulnerable, in a moving work that touched on homelessness and urban displacement.
Festival opener Shen Wei employed one of an artist's riskier strategies for embracing the present: rejecting core principles on which earlier works were built. Based on his recent turbulent oil paintings in black, gray and white, which evoke the moody landscapes of the Romantics, Untitled No. 12-2 could hardly be expected to reflect the serenity and order in his painted sets for Folding or The Rite of Spring. Instead, Untitled was frayed, ragged and roiling, as dancers in shades of gray established and transgressed lines on stage.
This was the first year when none of Shen Wei's original company (formed at ADF in 2000) were on stage to perform his dances. Once, we could safely say that Shen's performers and works looked like nothing else in contemporary dance. That is no longer the case. The spare surrealism of Near the Terrace, the chill, meticulous precision of the Re- trilogy and the articulated arcs of energy that animated bodies in Connect Transfer and Rite seemed muddied or missing. We are not certain this group is capable of performing them.
That should concern anyone who has valued some of the most distinctive contemporary dance of the 21st century. Yet an artist must have the freedom to forge new directions—as Shen did 15 years ago—even if the preliminary results are inconclusive at best.
Wynn Fricke's Slow Thaw, part of the Footprints showcase of new works, came closest to constructing an otherworld comparable to Shen's prior glories. Peter O'Gorman's glass, metal and amplified human percussion gave haunting, literal resonance to the dark transactions.
And, ironically, where many artists struggled to remain timely in new choreography, the timeless mélange of ancient Cuban dance forms from Ballet Folklórico Cutumba provided some of the freshest works of the season.
Narrative was primary in a number of works this summer, ranging from the epic (Soledad Barrio and Noche Flamenca's Antigona) and communal (the mating rituals of Barak Marshall's And at midnight, the green bride floated through the village square... in BODYTRAFFIC) to the individual. In Karola Lüttringhaus' ...dann von Deiner Hand, Claire Porter and Sara Juli's Small Stories, Larry Keigwin and Rosie Herrera's Something Wonderful and portions of Three Acts, a couple's interactions had an impact on everyone in the room.
That was also clearly the case with Dora Amelan's Holocaust narrative in Bill T. Jones' Analogy/Dora: Tramontane. But her tale was so gripping—and the accompanying choreography, at times, so abstract—that we sometimes focused on the words rather than the dancers.
In graver miscalculations, Chris Yon and Taryn Griggs embodied the banality they mocked in their lengthy recital dance send-up, Conspicuous Birds. A long, empty buildup exhausted our patience before the humane and true last moments of Mark Haim and Jesse Zaritt's Golden Age. And where Ponydance's satires transcended their subjects in 2013, Awkward Magic's attempts at humor were a wallow by comparison.
We were also far more thrilled with the moves of Company Wang Ramirez than with the stalker-ish choreography that creepily underlined the agency of Sébastien Ramirez while repeatedly denying that of his partner, Honji Wang.
But it's energy that finally characterized the 2015 American Dance Festival: the endless flood of it in Varone's Lux and Recomposed; the collective buzz of Marshall's bride; the cinematic electricity of Heidi Latsky's Soliloquy; the dry wit and syncopated charge of Richard Siegal's O2Joy; the grounded, primal hum of Cutumba's powerhouse and Gregory Maqoma's Dry Well.
And whatever form it takes, energy is always present tense.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Occupied movement."