Providing the steady beat with the polyrhythms of African drumming and the hum of electronic media, American Dance Festival musicians took to the stage at Duke University’s Baldwin Auditorium. An essential part the summer dance festival, the ADF Musicians Concert provides a unique time in the programming for faculty, students and townies to take a break from the regular schedule and listen to the fabulous musicians who provide the soundscape for classes.

Accompanying dancers is a unique and delicate art. Musicians learn that scores are written only in pencil; tempos and dynamics are driven by choreographers, and, without notice, can be changed on a dime. In turn, well-trained artists understand that live musicians provide the lifeblood to dance. No one appreciates them more than the dance teachers. One can only imagine that sound recordings can be treacherous partners.

Fine musicians learn that improvisation over scored music can be ideal for dance classes. A master of this art, Natalie Gilbert provided an example that included melodic material suggested by the audience. “This Land is Your Land” and “Build Me Up Buttercup,” an odd coupling to be sure, were no problem. Gilbert’s work was dramatic, sometimes funny, and as always colorful. She is a fine musician. The audience enthusiastically cheered as she grinned with pleasure.

Two of my favorite pieces were the opening and closing percussion works. Setting the tone for the first half of the show, Terrence Karn‘s “Choo Choo Bundta” featured a band of eight musicians. They banged on and swooshed with bundt pans of various sizes and blew train whistles. As temporary residents of Duke University’s East Campus, ADF participants are quite familiar with, and resigned to the noise of the local trains. And anyone who has attended concerts at Duke (especially in the Nelson Room) understands that the rolling of metal wheels is just part of the music. 

Khalid Saleem and CommUNITY performed his composition, “Melodic Rhythms, Open Hearts,” a powerful closing piece that brought dancers to their feet. It’s a piece that inspires feelings of happiness and good will, offering relief from the pain and burdens of life. This group reflected his connection to art. If you ever wondered about the meaning of ensemble, they’ve got it. 

There was plenty more to fill this evening of music. Jefferson Dalby performed Buck Owen’s “Cryin’ Time.” Dalby’s playing recalled early rock ‘n roll slip-note style. Did I hear a little Floyd Cramer? My neighbor sang along making me smile. Bringing back great memories for those of us who remember, or aficionados who know them, Ken Ray Wilemon, Andy Hasenpflug, and Adam Crawley provided a little film noir music with Burt Bacharach’s “After the Fox” and “Secret Agent Man.”

Hasenpflug’s “Atum,” Crawley’s “Four Chords and a Microphone,” and John Osburn‘s wonderful “Harness” involved electronic sampling and looping. All were inventive and mesmerizing. However, Karn’s acoustic “Raag Shivranjani,” disappointed me. It just didn’t measure up to authentic Indian music.

By and large, the evening was a successful and celebratory occasion, where the music-makers came together and energetic dance students shared the opportunity to listen. (This must be a challenge.) They wiggled and laughed at the inside jokes and they shared memories by posting on social media. Complete with all the joy, this event reminded me of summer music camp.  

Maybe it’s the renovated auditorium, or perhaps the rain, but this year’s concert lacked a bit of the energy and enthusiasm of years past. Yet there were still moments of delight such as the spontaneous dance moves of the students and the infectious spirit of optimism they bring. For a few hours, I escaped the tentacles of everyday life. Thank you, musicians and dancers.  

I would remiss if I omitted Robbie Cook who performed on “Raag Shivranjani.”

The American Dance Festival continues through July. See the ADF website for details.