Yes, students of the dance get a lot of information from national gatherings like the American College Dance Festival. There's feedback--and the possibility of recognition and reward--for their works. Beyond that, though, such a festival provides a real-time demonstration in what constitutes the state of the art. By its acts, it says a lot about what our time recognizes as exemplary choreography, and how it's properly treated by the community of practice. Such a gathering also unavoidably sets a benchmark for current professional standards in the public presentation of the art form.
Which makes all the more troubling what we witnessed last week at this year's American College Dance Festival and Dance/USA's parallel National College Choreography Initiative performances, both at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Last Monday, Duke Dance brought the reconstruction of Antony Tudor's The Planets we reported on in March to the Kennedy's Millennium Stage with the NCCI. Two nights later, N.C. State dancers Megan Marvel, Katie Ryan, Elizabeth Sall and Katie Siomacco performed Moonlight from Robin Harris' 30 and 73 at the 2002 ACDF.
While it's good that the ACTF has expanded in recent years, at this point it has clearly outgrown the 475-seat Terrace. As a result, few outsiders had the chance to see Harris' pensive choreography. While its triumphs were considerable, the 2002 festival still represented a lost opportunity to bring the country's best university-based dance art to a much larger and prestigious constituency. But the Dance/USA Millennium Stage performances raised much graver concerns.
Over the past year, Dance/USA's NCCI commissioned the reconstruction of a number of classic dance works (including Duke's Planets) and the creation of new choreography throughout all 50 states. During the Festival, Dance/USA and the Kennedy Center showed 12 of them during three afternoons: historic works spanning the history of modern dance, from Isadora Duncan, Charles Weidman, José Limón, Paul Taylor and many more. Yet they presented these on a stage that was clearly too small for a number of the dances. As a result, movement and spatial relationships had to be significantly readjusted in a number of works. The structures, forms and movements in large ensemble pieces devolved on more than one occasion into herd-like rush-hour negotiations.
These occurred on a stage with no curtain. On a stage wedged into one corner of the enormous, sunny public Grand Foyer at the back of the Kennedy Center--and a stage, therefore, where no architectural amenities like doors, walls or acoustic sound baffling were present to keep out unwanted light or noise like overhead aircraft and hallway traffic. Nothing close to a blackout could ever be achieved on this stage, and no sets were hung or placed upon it. We saw dancers walk out, walk off, break scene and set up different sections out of character, in relationship to sets that were not there, on a stage where many had to take care not to crash into one another. In short, these were not the dances as their creators ever hoped we'd see them.
What should a critic call this, I wonder. A nice try? A half-loaf we should nonetheless be grateful for?
Try a slap in the face to the founders of modern dance and its historic innovators. The Kennedy Center is a world-class institution charged with the professional preservation and presentation of our most perishable art forms. Dance/USA bills itself as a national service organization for not-for-profit professional dance. That both of them would willingly put the masterworks of the last century in a venue this inappropriate speaks to an appalling lapse in judgment and professional practice. And letting such lapses be presented and go unchallenged at the ACDF is a disturbing object lesson all its own--to the students, dancers and other observers--in what the professional community of practice somehow finds excusable when it comes to the public display of some of its rarest jewels.
One does not expect to say of works at the Kennedy Center, "at least they had good intentions."
The NCCI Millenium Stage presentations were a slapped-together afterthought by two entities who clearly knew better, and should have done likewise. If Duncan, Weidman and Tudor's work were regularly available we could perhaps afford to be as cavalier as Kennedy Center and Dance/USA were in this instance. But their rarity now, and their brilliance, calls for more respect than I saw paid in Washington last week.
God save them and us from all such good intentions: If these producers genuinely lack the resources or the commitment to present the masters with any more integrity than they did here, they should stand down.
Contact Byron Woods at byron@indy week.com.