The closing event of this 80th season of the American Dance Festival was indeed a special occasion on several levels. The essence of this celebration was the continuum of the art of modern dance: from brilliant innovators and founders of great dance companies to festivals like this, to passing the torch of this great art form to young dancers and choreographers.

The evening began with the presentation of the 2013 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement. This prestigious award was given to Lin Hwai-min, founder of the Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan. Mr. Hwai-min has a long history with the ADF, including attendance at the first ADF festival after it moved to Durham in 1978. He gave a very interesting and at times quite funny acceptance speech, including his announcement that he was donating his $50,000 personal award to his dance company. He also spoke of the influence of Martha Graham on his development including her advice to “…look to your own culture for your art,” which brings us to the first work on the program.

I could not argue with the overheard comment that “that was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen” at the conclusion of dancer Chou Chang-ning’s mesmerizing performance of a solo from Lin Hwai-min’s Moon Water. Steeped in the practice of Buddhism as well as the ancient art of Tai Chi, this astounding six-minute meditation on both movement and stillness had an emotional wallop that is rare in any art form. It is quite fitting that this was danced to the Sarabande from the first cello suite by J.S. Bach, in an equally stunning recording by cellist Mischa Maisky. Even before the music began, Chang-ming seemed to be suspended between motion and rest unlike anything I have ever seen. Although there was eventually a series of complex and virtuosic moves, it was her evocation of slowness that had everyone transfixed. The old showbiz adage to “save the best for last” was not at work here, and, for me, the impression of this transformative performance still resounds.

The rest of the program featured ADF students performing three works — or sections of those — by three of the most influential choreographers of modern dance. Acts of Light is a challenging full-length ballet by Martha Graham and the third section, “Helios” is often performed separately, as it was tonight. Uncharacteristically set to the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, this is both a bleak and celebratory dance to love, rebirth and death. There are often circles of dancers almost reminiscent of Le Sacre du Printemps. The performers seemed a bit tentative as if they were still at the stage of concentrating entirely on technique.

So far, the evening consisted of very heavy themes with an air of great solemnity. That was about to change, big time! Premiered in 1996, Love Re-Defined is Bill T. Jones’ reworking of his 1992 work Love Defined. Of course the music chosen is symbiotic with the choreography, but after experiencing Love-Redefined, it seems that this would be meaningless without the music of Daniel Johnston. Who? I had the same reaction to this very bizarre music often consisting of repetitive songs on a cheap chord organ and a vocal range less than an octave to nonsensical lyrics. Apparently, he is quite a cult hero, and by the way is schizophrenic and manic depressive. This is mentioned because the energy of the dance is quite quirky, herky-jerky and disjointed. Actually, this seemed to play into the strengths of these student dancers as they seemed to revel in the sheer insanity of it all. There were plenty of moments where individuals were given a chance to shine as well as the entire company.    

It’s not often that as a student at an arts festival you get a chance to perform a work written expressly for you by an internationally renowned practitioner of your craft. Such was the case tonight at the world premiere of Treefrog in Stonehenge, choreographed by Twyla Tharp expressly for the ADF students. Set to the music of composer, arranger and record company executive David Kahne, this is basically a vehicle to display all the skills — and some of the deficits — of the dancers. Decidedly athletic and extroverted, as a work of art this went on too long and fell flat. There were sections that would have been more appropriate in the floor routine for women’s gymnastics at the Olympics or in the halftime show at the Super Bowl. Despite that, it was all done in the service of giving a large group (16) of student dancers this unique opportunity to be part of something that literally no one else has ever done and their energy and skill level was admirable.