Durham's rich independent dance scene is experimental in the truest sense: rather than just putting strange things in easily legible contexts, its artists frequently reinvent context with each performance, experimenting with the tacit contract between audiences and performers, not just with the work itself. In a city keenly aware of its own rapid gentrification, whose landscape is defined as much by construction projects as by established places, these experiments are focused in site-specific ways: If I put dance here, what happens to the dance? And what happens to the city?
Of course, experimentation, by definition, doesn't always get results. But last Third Friday, something magical happened when a rather perfect night somehow coalesced from the weird alchemy of the shape of the city, the mood of its people, and the events arrayed in its arteries. Performances by Stephanie Leathers, Anna Barker, ShaLeigh Dance Works, and Ginger Wagg—not to mention, over at the Pinhook, Yes to Nothing, a theater work with similar context-focused values—combined to model the Durham dance experiment at its best, at once accessible and challenging, entrancing and cerebral, socially mobile and artistically stable, and meaningfully intervening in a city in flux.
As I climbed down beneath the street and into Arcana, everything seemed copacetic—except for the woman lying on the floor, almost motionless, in what appeared to be a giant clump of rotted nautical rigging.
This was dancer and choreographer Stephanie Leathers, who would spend the next four hours deliberately working through the possibilities of the ropes in this particular physical and social space, as Tom Rau sat with keyboards and consoles, filling the dim room with percolating, songful ambience.
Leathers's ongoing Sunday SITES project, which usually pops up in transient urban spaces on Sundays, makes the rapid pace of development its explicit context, asking, "How do we illuminate tensions between the human body and the civic landscape we're so rapidly revising?" But bringing the project to a destination like Arcana instead of a construction site or an empty storefront incisively altered the question, substituting the social landscape for the civic.
I had sought this out, but most people were there in search of nothing more than a warm-up drink early on a Friday night, and their reactions formed a large portion of the art. Many visitors seemed to shift easily between watching Leathers, taking pictures, and returning to their conversations. Still, charged interactions inevitably occurred.
Leathers tied her rigging to a chair inhabited by a man who was deep in a group conversation, her movements gently tugging it. For a while, he seemed to grapple with whether to anchor the chair for her or move over a seat. When he eventually did, the chair tipping over felt like the climax of a drama, before it was gradually subsumed in Leathers's implacable, almost oblivious performance.
Later, when she had dragged the rigging around an obstacle near the bar, a newcomer walked up to her with an expression of friendly concern. "Are you stuck, ma'am?" she asked, and began untangling the ropes. Leathers didn't react, but stood stock still, her hair covering her face like a ghost in a Japanese horror movie. The good Samaritan soon went back to the bar with a puzzled laugh.
As I ascended back to Main Street and rode my skateboard along the new currents Leathers had unleashed into the night, toward Empower Dance Studio, I imagined how those unexpected interactions, those little gifts from the city, might shape the experiences of their recipients later, making them look anew, if only for an evening, at everything they see. —Brian Howe
Beneath the hulking shell of Corcoran-Parrish Street construction, Empower Dance Studio is holding it down—"it" being downtown's cultural vitality amid big infrastructural changes. Empower offers movement classes that emphasize self-confidence and positive images of dancers from all backgrounds. It's also increasingly prominent as a dance venue, one of a scarce few downtown.
Empower has a compelling new presentational partner in Proxemic Media, which inaugurated its Third Friday Dance Series there last Friday. (The event was postponed from last month, following Third Friday's cancellation because of a rumored white supremacist rally.) Proxemic asks and answers a question I've long had about Third Friday's predominantly visual-arts focus: Why not include dance and performance?
I arrived between the 8:30 and 9:30 sets, just in time to catch the tail end of the first program: a snippet of Ginger Wagg & Wild Actions' Frivolous Artist, which will premiere next spring in DIDA's fourth season. In a utilitarian blue jumpsuit, Wagg shuffled around the ground-floor studio, dramatically lined with mirrors and lit by footlights. She rattled a toolbox in sonic conversation with Wild Actions' warped industrial sounds as Blakeney Bullock, completely cloaked in dark fabric, slithered to and fro. In one electrifying moment, Wagg attempted to hook a knob from her toolbox between Bullock's exposed toes. Just beyond, a young boy surveyed them, his eyes gleaming.
This short performance looked completely different from real.live.people.durham's "what about this?" and other false starts, Anna Barker's exploration of self-critique and the solo creative process, and an excerpt from ShaLeigh Dance Works' rousing group work I Promise, also slated for the DIDA season. It was a smartly curated evening that balanced the urgency and attentiveness demanded by live performance with Third Friday's low-stakes attitude (Proxemic ran a crowdfunding campaign to pay performers and keep the shows—and even the wine—free).
The event felt like a generous artistic haven amid Durham's broader buzz, and a simple but effective model for future dance presentations in its dual affirmation: acknowledging the labor of local dance artists and demonstrating to audiences that we can expect to engage with this work in on a more regular basis, in a centralized location. —Michaela Dwyer