The American Dance Festival closed its 75th anniversary survey of the state of the art in Duke University’s Reynolds Theater with a foursome of Japanese dance theater works. After the darker Butoh meal in the first half of the Japanese mini-fest, this program was like a dessert of cunningly-designed marzipan candies.

Dance Theatre LUDENS opened the program with Against Newton 2, created by the 3-woman company. This witty work set to music by Newton’s contemporaries J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel, interspersed with periods of silence, examines various aspects of Newtonian physics through kinetic sequences that sometimes bloom into dance. Resistance; transfer of force; the motions of waves and particles; inertia; and, especially, gravity, all come in for humorous treatment by the three athletic performers. The section on “a body at rest tends to remain at rest” was wonderfully silly. Claudia La Rocco, writing in the New York Times, found this dance “interminable,” but I was charmed by its intelligence and the wry tone of its antics.

Two contrasting solo works followed. Teruko Fujisato presented her Shinju Ten No Amijima, based on an old story about a woman’s emotional struggles with her husband’s infidelity. Fujisato moves with great elegance in her Martha Graham-style gown, and the piece has many Graham echoes, but it doesn’t grab the heart and twist. The emotion is at a remove, but the beauty of each motion fully fills the minutes.

Kei Takei and her Woman Washing Rice were very different. Deliberately un-beautiful, and without plot, the seated dance takes as its subject the ever-repeating activities of a peasant woman’s daily life. The same short sequence, varying somewhat in scale and in emotional tone, repeats again and again, until the woman takes up her stool and staggers away briefly from tasks that will never be completed. Woman Washing Rice proclaims the value of perseverance. It would have been interesting to see this piece on the same program with Maguy Marin’s repetitious Umwelt, which seemed, in part, to be about endurance.

The evening closed with Natural Dance Theatre’s Circus. A kind of mosaic of circus and its meanings, the piece could be read as a sly analogue of this unusual season at the ADF, which has proffered a survey of the many meanings, metaphors, concerns and techniques under the big top of Dance. Circus initially seemed a slight entertainment, so that one was disarmed when the melancholic and the nostalgic and the hopeful slipped under the tent flaps. I found myself ambushed again and again by deep feeling evoked by some of the images, and it was fascinating to glimpse references to various kinds of circus acts and their comedic theatrical kin. There was a bit of eastern European style, some French mime, the crass and over-scaled American spectacle and Chinese acrobats, all stirred together. There were the classic circus characters: the tumblers, the sad clown, the animal act, the contortionist, the ringmaster.

In the circus, as in dance, you see something that is patently not reality, yet, when it is done well, it is more real than reality even while declaiming its artifice. Both circus and dance are artificial, but neither can be virtualized and retain their power. They depend upon live bodies taking physical risks in real time in actual space, and upon the audience witnessing them then and there. It’s a tremendous undertaking, to put on a circus, or a dance festival.

The American Dance Festival has put on its circus at Duke University for 30 years now, and that setting has given the event certain comfortable characteristics. The ADF will continue to take place partly at Duke, but next year may bring a change of venue for the larger performances. Although no official announcement has yet been made, ADF director Charles L. Reinhart said in a prepared statement that “ADF plans to perform at the Durham Performing Arts Center next summer instead of Page and will continue to use Reynolds.”

The ADF is one of very few extensive, internationally important dance festivals in the world (in the U.S., only Jacob’s Pillow, one year older and far better funded at its rural campus in the Berkshires, surpasses it), yet the audience rarely fills the halls. The glitzy new Durham Performing Arts Center, now under construction, is more than twice the size of Page Auditorium, and that is a mighty big new tent. They are building it; will the dance fans come? Will 2009 be the year when the world realizes that the best circus of dance art in an urban setting is presented annually here and only here in Durham? You’ll have to be there yourself to find out.