Although it’s starting to sound like a cliché, it’s true that the American Dance Festival‘s most eagerly anticipated program each season continues to be Footprints. There are several reasons: it features the best of the summer season’s students; it allows established choreographers freedom to experiment with large groups; and it provides the thrill of being at the start of new talents and premiering works.

The 2018 edition fulfilled the anticipation grandly in one of the strongest Footprints in a handful of seasons. Although it presented three different choreographers, there were common elements among them, including use of spoken words and sounds, along with great energy and an overall positive atmosphere.

The program opened with Jillian Peña‘s Empire for eleven dancers, set to looping, buzzy music from multiple composers including Wendy Carlos and Dave Grusin. Against a brightly lit white floor, dancers entered two by two in matching pastel, lederhosen-style uniforms. They performed what sometimes looked like ballet-class positions with sweeping arms and legs pointed out, at other times presenting angular, forceful poses as if for a ritual or tribute.

The groups changed in number and locations around the stage but always maintained unemotional expressions and never related to one another. When executing certain emphatic gestures, the dancers emitted whooshing sounds or repeated “ah-ha” and “da-da” rhythmically. At certain points, a dancer would speak a line or two of text, such as “Is this a game” or “Who’s in charge.”

One could imagine that Peña was commenting on people who blindly follow dictates because they are too insular and focused on themselves. Whatever the interpretation, the dancers deserved credit for confidently performing the precise choreography that repeated and returned in different patterns over a 24-minute span.

Dafi Altabeb and co-creator Nini Moshe immediately established a mood with Fight or Flight. It began with thirteen dancers posed in various positions, attired in a range of costumes from floral tops and shorts to long dresses and t-shirts. As Dvořák’s Romance for Piano and Violin, Op. 11 began its sweet, melancholic phrases, the dancers took on individual characterizations, from serene and upbeat to agitated and belligerent. They interacted with each other in confrontations at first but soon were engaged in common efforts to support each other.

The central image was a constantly evolving grouping in which one dancer would fall wearily or defeated, only to be lifted up to help others in turn. This was a mesmerizing morphing of an object comprising pairs, trios or even quintets of dancers, their sudden new formations surprising shocks of beauty.

This section could have easily stood alone but then came an extreme break as a male dancer came forward and told a rambling tale about being frightened in the woods and his problems in a yoga class. That was followed by all the dancers writhing and jumping to the energetic frenzy of “Boys Don’t Cry” by The Cure, an appreciably buoyant finale.

Energy, strength and stamina were the key components of Abby Zbikowski’s Tectonic, a piece bearing out her goals of pushing bodies beyond perceived limits and creating new movements incorporating those from various cultures. Her eleven dancers wore workout clothes in gray and black, including what turned out to be essential items, their knee pads.

Using elements of calisthenics, gymnastics, kickboxing, martial arts and African dance moves, the dancers worked mostly in pairs or by themselves in what seemed a friendly contest to see who could perform the most electric, gravity-defying routines. There was no music most of the time, just the sounds of stomping, slamming and slapping as each dancer spun, flipped, wriggled, and jumped. Addition sounds came from the dancers themselves as they grunted and cried out from their exertions, as well as from the others watching on the sidelines urging on those performing with shouts and cheers. And when they stopped periodically to rest up, their heavy breathing made appropriate “music” of its own.

The non-stop exuberance of all eleven was phenomenal, given that many had likely not performed at such a sustained intensity before. The audience responded with great roars of approval, ending a highly satisfying evening demonstrating the ever-widening boundaries of modern dance.

The season ends with a repeat of this program on July 21. For details, see the sidebar.