Concentrating, Justin Tornow twists in her chair. As she watches four dancers move in a row across the floor of the Carrack Modern Art, she raises her eyebrows, anticipating a change. As if the eyebrows were a cue, all four dancers release from their movement and sprint back to the other end of the room—an athletic and precise reset.
Later, in this same space, Tommy Noonan and Clint Lutes will wrestle and run in circles to the brink of exhaustion. Sometimes, they will seem to be competitors, sometimes teammates, pushing themselves into every inch of available space—including the vertical.
This is what it looks like when a dance scene bears down.
Tornow, a Durham-based dancer and choreographer, is the founder of COMPANY, while Durham's Noonan works under his own name. Tornow is rehearsing her dancers for this weekend's premiere of The Weights in three performances at the Carrack, followed the next weekend by four performances of Noonan's evening-length duet with Lutes, Brother Brother. These are the second and third shows in the debut season from Durham Independent Dance Artists, a new organization serving as a spinal column for a diverse body of self-reliant dancemakers centered in Durham but with ties throughout the Triangle.
Tornow is one of the founders of DIDA, which does not fund but instead helps to consolidate and promote local dance. The organization launched its season in early November with the success of real.live.people.durham's uproarious it's not me it's you, featuring Anna Barker and Leah Wilks, at Motorco Music Hall. Noonan is a co-director of Culture Mill, based in Saxapahaw's Haw River Ballroom. If DIDA promotes work once it reaches the stage, Culture Mill helps it get there. The nonprofit cultivates artist residencies, workshops and informal get-togethers.
Tornow, Noonan and the organizations they represent are part of a surge in a young, restless indie dance scene that is taking its physical ability, conceptual rigor and overall professionalism to the next level.
The dancing in both of these pieces even looks restless. In The Weights, Emily Aiken, Amy Blakely, Samantha Steffen and Ronald West assume and then suddenly spring out of postures of repose. The movement verges on—and sometimes becomes—compulsive, which Tornow cautions her dancers against as rehearsal begins.
"We need to remember to be really slow, because the tendency is to get pumped and go real fast," she says. There are enough moving parts here that dancers are still pausing mid-motion to talk through the choreography. Setting their marks, they frequently use the construction "You do X when I do Y" as they run the piece.
The seats are arranged in a large cross, dividing the gallery into quadrants. Dancers sometimes knock a chair's leg during floor work, and even dart between the chairs at some points. When an audience is seated, these maneuvers will get tricky, which lends a daring edge.
Meanwhile, musicians Lee Weisert (electronics) and Matthew McClure (saxophone) create a lava-like burble—more of a mild, patterned disruption than a score. McClure uses extended techniques, sometimes just fluttering and clicking the keys rather than blowing his horn. Leaning over his laptop, Weisert produces underwater sounds and shortwave radio recordings from WWII-era "numbers stations."
Sections of The Weights seem to disrupt gravity. In one sequence, two dancers end their trajectories in freeze-frame yoga-like positions. One is prone but rigid, with only her buttocks and the back of her head touching the floor. Without changing her pose, she painstakingly rolls onto her side. Her arms and feet stick straight out, like leafless branches. She seems to be falling without moving, entranced.
While Tornow's piece is a premiere, Noonan's was created in 2009 while he was in Germany. It has been staged throughout Europe in alternative spaces such as a coal storage unit and an abandoned cinema. But this is the first time that he and Lutes, who lives in Paris and co-created Brother Brother, have performed it on this side of the Atlantic.
Brother Brother requires open space—a room rather than a stage. The audience sits on the same surface the dancers perform on. Noonan and Lutes follow the room's spare lead with their costuming, wearing only sneakers and briefs. Noonan says with a laugh that the entire show fits in one suitcase.
Noonan is looking forward to setting the work on the Carrack's creaky, black wooden floor, between plaster and brick walls. The gallery's second-floor windows look out on the rooftops across Parrish Street and the sky above them, providing a spacious-feeling backdrop.
"We'll adjust to the fact that there are windows," Noonan says of the unique spatial opportunities the Carrack presents, "climbing on the windows, bringing the feeling and the sound of the glass into play."
For the first half of the 50-minute work, Noonan and Lutes run almost constantly. This piece is not made of moves, lifts and positions. It's made of physical problems and psychological solutions, emotional situations that need to be figured out and dealt with. This is dance as problem-solving.
"It's quite connected to us as people and as friends, our personalities and histories," Noonan says. "Then there's a layering of characters on top of that. I like the idea that on stage, I'm both me and not me, and I think Clint's the same way. We are us, but we're also being playful with other characters within our personalities and our relationship."
You might expect someone feeling out the psychological dynamics of competition and cooperation to take a cynical view. But a pervasive, albeit complex, optimism informs the piece. Even when one dancer is in a painful, convoluted position—wedged into a corner, balanced on his head—he provides the other with a step up to reach higher than a jump could. Noonan and Lutes construct positive architecture from interpersonal conflicts and constraints.
In spite of the athletic rigor of Brother Brother, Noonan's favorite part comes after the running in the opening section stops. "The body settles. The nerves settle. The voice drops in the body," he says. "You have this sense that you can feel everything very clearly. You can feel where the audience is; you can feel where the other person is. It always happens when we finish running." This is what it looks like when a dance scene bears down.
This article appeared in print with the headline "You do X when I do Y ."