Surprises, before an empty room | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Surprises, before an empty room

A Pilobolus concert that doesn't look like one starts ADF--before the lights go out ...


It's in the job description: Modern dance must always have the capacity to surprise. So it's entirely fitting that the surprises started early this year at the American Dance Festival, in an opening weekend program by

Pilobolus .

Yes, you read right: Pilobolus, those perennial crowd-pleasers whose recent works have far too frequently come as anything but a surprise to knowledgeable dance-goers, actually tried something new before an opening night audience, Thursday night at Page Auditorium.

Jonathan Wolken's Megawatt and a yet-untitled world premiere by Michael Tracy presented the company's first works in years that didn't seem wholly preoccupied with flashy displays of ain't-it-cool weight-sharing maneuvers and acrobatic tricks. A work in progress by Alison Chase explored a storyline far removed from recent, easily digested, consumer-friendly narratives. And if slapstick comedy and affiliated gimmicks weren't entirely absent from the proceedings, they had been arguably pruned back to supporting roles.

The largely desirable result: the first Pilobolus concert in years that didn't look like a Pilobolus concert. Surprise.

Granted, what we saw may not yet add up to a sea change for this group. Chase still seemed in search of a technical deus ex machina on opening night, while Wolken continued to plateau too long in physical comedy. Even after Tracy's untitled new duet set an admirable benchmark for Pilobolean subtlety--not an oxymoron, for once--he retreated back to company aesthetics, contrasting his couple's opening relationship only with its far-too-obvious inverse.

So recent difficulties still remained to varying degrees on display, and new problems joined them at times as artists struggled to avoid the old ones. Even so, the group appeared to have received a most important message. Yes, any tool can become a crutch when an artist relies too heavily upon it. And Pilobolus' self-made Swiss Army knife of alternative dance techniques had arguably turned in recent years into the company's greatest limitation, increasingly supplanting much of the group's creativity.

The company's response, it appears, was to begin reinventing Pilobolus.

Let 2004 be remembered as the year Wolken discovered trance, that techno music sub-genre favored in raves across the planet. Its incessant rhythms in works by Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher powered Megawatt, a work seemingly intent on proving the old adage, "If you give anything enough voltage, it'll dance."

At its open, what appeared to be six hypercaffeinated punks convulsed their way across a padded day room floor. After experimental locomotion on their backs, sides and stomachs came Renée Jaworski and Jennifer Macavinta's trippy, slow-mo interactions with male dancers vibrating in lotus position on the floor. With such distinctive opening and middle sections, it was disappointing when the choreographer fell back on the physical comedy of faux-impromptu electroshock hi-jinks. After Wolken's current jokes, both group and choreography disintegrated into individuals undergoing simultaneous seizures in random parts of the stage.

Chase's new work followed. While untitled here, it will reportedly premiere under the name Night of the Dark Moon when the group begins its New York season at the Joyce Theater on June 21.

What was described in the program as a trio had morphed into a sextet by curtain time, as three men in old military garb maneuvered a rope-and-pully system to bring forth a woman dressed in red--with a face masked in sheer black hose--from a suspended black-lit sling. This enigmatic figure interacted with Macavinta and Andrew Herro's couple dressed in simple garb.

Aerial choreography paired with ground-based work of increasing subtlety in a work that, for better and worse, had the feel of an extended dream. Its allusive and elusive elliptic logic featured striking images and characters who always seemed on the verge of making full, coherent sense--but never did. As in dreams, things drifted considerably, but only when passages lost focus or purpose were we concerned.

Instead of billboarding Pilobolean weight-sharing techniques in his world premiere, Michael Tracy quietly incorporated them into Macavinta and Manelich Minniefee's precarious stone-step journey through a darkened world.

As things developed, each one became in turn a stone the other stepped on to proceed. Then Macavinta's character froze and did not change back. After a striking passage in which Minniefee lifted Macavinta's statue-like form, the characters devolved into a disappointing inverse of the relationship until then, a far-too-pat retreat into more predictable company aesthetics. Even so, the terra nova we'd just visited was subtle and intriguing. To some, it hadn't been entirely clear that Pilobolus was still capable of getting there.

This is normally where we'd talk about the first concert of the festival's second week, in which a younger, emergent modern dance company traditionally occupies a Tuesday-Wednesday slot at Reynolds Theater. But for the first time since the ADF moved to Durham in 1978, there's a gap this week in festival programming. No mainstage performance has been scheduled for June 15-16.

Seasoned dance-goers will recall when the abrupt closure of the Martha Graham Dance Company robbed the festival of its opening weekend in 2000.

Still, this week's darkness is different: it was programmed in.

Pilobolus, whose week-long runs had been a yearly festival staple since 1991, left ADF after their weekend performance closed June 12. The mainstage series resumes with Paul Taylor Dance Company, Thursday through Saturday, June 17-19.

Though ADF officials declined to be interviewed for this story, terming the gap through a spokesperson as "a scheduling quirk," Pilobolus company manager Susan Mandler indicated that their company had been available for the empty dates. The opening weekend slot "was our invitation," she said.

Whatever its reason, an empty performance slot in a six-and-a-half week modern dance festival raises the question why.

For dance audiences it represents a lost opportunity. For 270 students in the ADF six-week school, it represents a gap in their teaching.

Visiting professional companies form a substantial part of an ADF education. They expose advanced students and emerging professionals to what should be the broadest range of modern dance forms in a very limited time.

There are so few performance slots to start with. When one is left unfilled a learning moment has been sacrificed, and part of the dance world remains unrepresented. An artist somewhere, whose work should be seen, finds doors locked and stages empty at one of their craft's few sanctuaries.

What's potentially more alarming? That empty slot was taken from the Reynolds Theater series, which usually showcases this generation's rising choreographers.

ADF has given modern dance's more established companies the majority of its attention in recent years. Under the circumstances, losing another chance to recognize younger, current choreographers was particularly not to be desired.

But instead of seeing someone from that generation--or any other, for that matter--dance students and regional dance-goers are taking the night off Tuesday and Wednesday this week.

Who knows what they might have learned if they hadn't had to.

Who would you have liked to see on festival stages on those dark nights? E-mail me this week at, and I'll pass them along.

As mentioned above,

Paul Taylor spans just under 50 years over three nights, Thursday through Saturday, June 17-19. Thursday's highlights: the lyrical Aureole, and a Piazzolla Caldera that reportedly sizzles once again with Annmaria Mazzini in the lead. Friday, the mystery of Runes presages the blissful closer, Mercuric Tidings. And if the critics have been divided on Saturday's Le Grand Puppetier, they're all but unanimous on Taylor's moving post-September 11 meditation, Promethean Fire.

For those looking for wicked humor, sharp social observations and amazing technique,

Keigwin + Company gives the Tuesday through Wednesday younger generation series a belated start at Reynolds Theater, June 22-23.


onald K. Brown has been spending increasing amounts of time in the area in recent years. After sneaking in a preview of his Nina Simone tribute, Come Ye, at the closing bell for last year's students at ADF, he presented the full work at Hayti Heritage Center last fall.

In the winter and spring, in an unprecedented effort linking dancers from Duke University with those at N.C. Central and UNC, Brown conducted two week-long intensives to create a compelling new work at Duke this spring.

His community-building work continues the week of June 21. Monday through Friday of that week, he'll be teaching school children enrolled in programs at the

Walltown Children's Theatre . Thursday, June 24, he hosts a


concert after-party at the Hayti Heritage Center.

A $50 donation buys a package including a 7 p.m. wine-and-cheese pre-show discussion of Brown's work with Ava Vinesett in the Rare Books Room of Perkins Library and a ticket to the evening's show. A concert after-party follows with full buffet and music at the Hayti Heritage Center. Donors may deduct $20 of the package from their taxes. We'll have more on Brown in next week's issue.

A $250 donation secures two evening packages plus two tickets to the Bull Durham Blues Festival. A $500 donation secures six evening packages plus two tickets to the blues festival.

For reservations, call 683-1709.

Speaking of the home team,

Acts to Follow , ADF's free concerts devoted to North Carolina choreographers, bows Saturday, June 19, at 6:30 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke's East Campus.

Jan Van Dyke Dance Group from Greensboro starts us off with a repertory work, Night Between Two Days. A live Celtic band called The Dole will accompany

Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Heather Maloy's Le Suil Go ... (In the hope that...).

Those who enjoyed Harper Piver's work at Cary Academy's May dance invitational will see a different work, in pursuit of happiness (playing normal for work) before

Cornelia Kip Lee returns from a recent Kennedy Center date to show two works, one on disability, the other on evolution. See you there. EndBlock

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