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The atmosphere of Page Auditorium last night was different than my prior performances during this year's American Dance Festival season. The air was electric. The ADF students mixed with millennials, mixed with grey-haired friends, and all shared the same giddiness for the curtain to open on Footprints with Martha Graham's "Dark Meadow" Suite (1946), Merce Cunningham's "How To Pass, Kick, Fall, And Run" (1965), and Paul Taylor's "Esplanade" (1975).
I do not feel qualified to critique the works of such dance greats as Graham, Cunningham, and Taylor. Simply because I was there, I am qualified to speak to the beauty and effortlessness the ADF students executed as they performed the works of these groundbreaking and iconic dance legends. It doesn't take a professional to tell you that they did far more than just pull off these historic works. The ADF Summer Intensive program is five weeks long, which means dancers who auditioned for and received a spot to perform in Footprints had roughly four weeks (or less) to learn and present this night! That's while accomplishing a full class schedule, late night jam sessions, discussions, and the professional company performances in the evenings. The majority if not all these dancers had little or no experience with classical pieces until now. As we discovered in the post-performance discussion, the students learned specific techniques for the first time (like Martha Graham's contraction, which is nearly indescribable) while simultaneously incorporating them into new choreography for the first time. These are things most dancers have years to develop before performing them.
Dancer Brian Lee ("Dark Meadow Suite") reiterated something I've spoken to in all of my reviews: learning about Martha Graham changed him in both body and spirit. He said performances don't have to be constructed perfectly or spoken clearly. They should be a comforting and inviting conversation that can be passed to the audience for them to interpret as their own. These dancers allowed the movements of each piece to settle into their own bodies, styles, and artistic expressions, filling each breath with as much or as little space as they themselves desired while maintaining the impact of the group conversation.
This was most beautifully illustrated in the reiteration of Paul Taylor's "Esplanade." The entire piece, based on pedestrian movement, is demonstrated by natural actions like standing, walking, running, and falling that are slightly amplified in dance form. Toward the end of the piece, set to Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E, all the dancers hustle through continuous sequences of sliding to the floor, getting right back up again, running on and off stage, leaping into each other's arms, and walking atop one another. It was like the smoothly rolling wheels of a bicycle on a casual Sunday afternoon ride through town. They made it seem as if the Page Auditorium stage were made of moss, rather than a sturdy, wooden dance floor. They made it look un-demanding, and I know it's not.
In Cunningham's "How To Pass, Kick, Fall, And Run," the stage is set with what appear to be two radio announcers at a table with a speakeasy vibe. The readers pop a bottle of champagne and turn to watch the dancers beside them but seem unaffected by it all. As the dancers hectically and athletically move about the stage with a continuous bustling busyness, seemingly random stories are spoken by the two side-stage readers. The exhaustive combination of the stories (written by John Cage) and dance movement weave in and out of one another with no musical accompaniment. The piece finally comes together only at the very end when reader Glen Rumsey recites something about "sometimes it's the dance, and sometimes it's the words." Here we see Cunningham's signature removal of the connection between music and dance. This piece was primarily rehearsed without music or words, and the readers came in to prepare only on the day of the performance, creating a delightful sense of authenticity.
The beauty and elegance of Martha Graham's "Dark Meadow" Suite highlights parts of her larger work, Dark Meadow. The piece begins with the female dancers circling to no music with audible breaths and foot stomping narrations. A single violin melody slowly creeps in to emphasize the warm, orange light that resembles the golden hour of a sunset. I wondered if the meadow is dark because it's just reached the peak of twilight. Soon, the male dancers are introduced and resemble regale warriors. As the men and women begin to pair up, the combination of unison dancing and partner dancing speak of equality in their roles: the men protect the women, the women, the men, in manners devoid of expected gender roles. Instead, all represent strength and weakness, power and vulnerability, and empathy and boldness through uniform and fluid transitions of their roles. The dancers were absolutely gorgeous, matching the beauty of their costuming with their intrepid, yet graceful expressions.
I got teary-eyed more than a few times throughout the dances and video presentation. The cheers for every single choreographer and dancer highlighted in the video gave me chills. The warm acknowledgement of those who've paved the way and dedicated their lives to pushing social, artistic, and spiritual boundaries reminds and compels us that this one life we have is to be celebrated in rich relationship to the earth, to each other, to the spiritual realm, and to our creative souls. So create, experience, tear down, create again, and celebrate! As Twyla Tharp once said, "Modern dance is not less, modern dance is more. It's everything that came before it, plus." Thanks to the American Dance Festival's dancers, production crews, professional companies, teachers, students, donors, fans, the critics, and all involved in this creative community.
Here's to another 86 years, plus!
This program repeats July 20 in the same venue. See the sidebar for details.