American Dance Festival‘s second-annual Made in NC show premiered five works commissioned by NC choreographers (including one Durham native!) for a highly-attended, conceptual, and gorgeous evening of modern dance. The fifth program in this year’s 90th Anniversary Season, Made in NC is one of twenty-plus showcases, which feature over ninety dancers, choreographers, crew, and technical staff from North Carolina. This level of representation demonstrates not only ADF’s wholly “magnificent community,” as executive director Jodee Nimerichter remarked at the opening of the evening, but Durham’s longstanding history of elevating and expanding upon the love of dance in all its forms.

Kristin Taylor Duncan‘s the light beyond the forest (in collaboration with KT Collective dancers) began the program with four female dancers in flowing earth tones. The dancers crossed the stage separately in linear motion, each performing a repeating motive seemingly unique from the others; however, as the work progressed, the repeated sequences came together in partners or groups to interact seamlessly together, before drifting apart again. The scoring – with music by Christian Anderson, Craft Chase, and Mike Wall – began minimally, with bass tones and chords, but quickly gave way to a more jaunty and percussive feel. As the work progressed, clear sections or episodes emerge, and the dancers seemed to integrate their movement into each other’s space, converging and diverging over and over in implied relationships that alternate between supportive and combative, quick and slow. Dancers Alexandra Burchette, Malanah Hobgood, Jasmine Powell, and Megan Ross moved through shapes that were athletic yet lyrical. From moments with ethereal, glowing lights and a gorgeous flower cascade descending upstage, to an exuberant outburst under intense red light, the result was a beautiful spatial representation of relationships, trust, and emotional connection.

Nicole Vaughan-Diaz performed her work The Space Between Us with dancer Kendall Teague in perhaps a more programmatic, story-driven fashion, but continuing with themes of physical and emotional connection through use of space. The dancers were dressed as if they were on a first date; Vaughan-Diaz wearing a flowing red dress and Teague in a casual suit. The work began with the two seated in chairs, facing each other over a table. In relative silence, they gazed at each other, shyly looked away, and made disjointed, awkward hand and body motions. The music shifted from Bessie Smith’s essential blues recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” to intense, suspenseful chords and dynamic music (by Michael Vignola, Freya Arre and Jens Heuker, Maya Belsitzman, and Matan Ephrat), to silence, and back and forth, including spoken words of Esther Harding (spoken by Rainer Maria Rilke), as the dancers appeared to move through different stages of a relationship. There was tender ballroom dancing, a beautiful lift, then sudden, aggressive grabs that implied violence or conflict. Some moments were tender and trusting, while others seemed fraught. The story represents conflict, most definitely, but more importantly, the journey through conflict to deepen and inform our relationships. As Vaughan-Diaz’s program note informs, the result is a representation of “the effort of staying” and – literally and figuratively – “coming back to the table.” The dancers’ faces were incredibly expressive as the piece told this story, and they utilized micro-movements and very quick, segmented motions to convey several very unsettling moments between each other. They utilized the table and chairs (created by Creatiza Designs LLC) as additional cast members, sometimes using them as furniture as intended, but often sliding or dragging them around, climbing or balancing on them, or simply holding them to create shapes suggestive of walls or barriers.

Closing the first act of this hefty program – ringing in at about two and a half hours in total – was Caroline Calouche and Co.‘s Pushing through the Glass, another work suffused with narrative. Over the course of this piece, each of four dancers reveal or transform into their authentic selves, each taking a different route to express themselves in their own dance language. Calouche, Molly Graves, Michelle Mazzarella, and Jaala McCall worked both collaboratively and in striking solo scenes choreographed collaboratively. In an intense group section under strobing lights, the dancers entered in oppressive black sweat suits over hip-hop-inspired music heavy with trap bass in a language that evoked the start of a rap battle. One dancer began to break free, shedding her black cap to reveal flowing blond hair, and removing her sweats to reveal a sparkly, circus-y leotard. After a solo piece that depicted her beginning to dance more and more daringly in a large hoop, two other dancers had their own solos, overlaid with voiceovers. The first was an inner monologue of a ballerina at rehearsal, expressing her insecurities and negative self-talk as she moved through a routine. She gradually incorporated a more confident, modern style as her instincts and self-love took over. The next section featured an aerial rope dancer, overlaid by a voiceover telling the story of a young tomboy who was discouraged from sweating or showing her strength. Now she has decided to become the role model she never had; she has learned that “strong is also feminine.” The last dancer returned to the opening motive, strong and intense but essentially just a black shape in darkness, and the others gradually pulled her hat off and convinced her to be her true self. The music evolved to reflect each dancer’s style, providing a dynamic and evolving backdrop that informed the characters we got to know. The music was composed by Donna Grantis, Garth Stevenson, The Vegetable Orchestra, and WYR GEMI. Although I wasn’t able to identify which dancer performed which scene, each performer showed off unique technical skills with verve and flair that expressed her own style, and the piece seemed to be an audience favorite. Longtime ADF fans and the current and past dancers in the audience were buzzing with awe all through intermission!

The Dwelling Place by Renay Aumiller uses novelty in its staging to create a dramatic work, in which all the performers contributed to the choreography. The six performers, Anna Martz, Dylan Parton, Izzy Piccirilli, Sarah Quinn, Maya Simmons, and Kayla Spalding, were united in a wardrobe consisting of varying combinations of green and white. A large, white box – perhaps a small room, an empty gallery, with rectangular holes and empty shelves along the walls – seemed to hold a single dancer in captivity while the others watched quietly from a darkened downstage. Although it was a large setpiece compared to the stage, the room immediately seemed small from the bright, interior lighting. When the dancer faltered from the confines of the space, another dancer entered to support her. Within a few minutes, all six climb inside the box and it felt even more cramped. However, an amazing thing began to happen – the dancers coordinated and supported each other in dramatic weight-sharing movements, beautiful uses of levels, and a palpably authentic trust. Aumiller’s work integrates principles of Adrienne Maree Brown‘s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, portraying an intersectional effort to create a sense of belonging and community. As dramatic and moving as the piece was, it’s important to note the discomfort of the scoring. The music, designed and performed by Clay Stevenson, was dynamic and contemplative throughout, but conveyed occasional moments of conflict with loud buzzing and trilling sounds. As an autistic person, I found many of these sounds especially distressing – some were very suddenly loud, while some were obstinately repetitive in their clashing. The resulting disquietude was incredibly effective, but kept me from being able to focus on the dancing.

Closing the program was Michelle Pearson‘s Thirst, a high-concept depiction of love, life, and grief. At first, the company used darkness and black, draping clothing to create an anxious atmosphere. Anxious, uncomfortable shapes with trembling and repetitive rocking over an eerie, discordant rumbling gradually softened, with gauzy, white sheets emerging from upstage. The dances grew more lyrical, with dancers forming partnerships and unison groups that moved in complementary motion in different areas. After the addition of rich, flowing silk skirts to all the dancers, the company engaged in beautiful lifts, conveying both sorrow and cautious optimism. The music, composed of work by Ryoji Ikeda, Wax Tailor, Felix Laband, and Nadine Shah, alternated from rhythmic backbeats to sonorous piano, incorporating selections from Donna Ashworth’s “You Don’t Just Lose Someone Once.” The atmosphere shifted throughout the erratic and nonlinear journey through grief. Audible gasping and labored breathing deepened the emotional gravity, and when the dancers all collapsed to the ground, one remained upright, physically and audibly sobbing until a devastating fade out. The company worked together beautifully, depicting variations on the idea of “thirst,” using fluid levels and shapes to convey longing, grieving, striving, and clinging to one another.

The work was incredibly moving (and quite heavy to set as the last piece!) but completely engrossing, as were all of the works performed tonight. I was struck by the emotional intensity of almost every moment – it was challenging but utterly compelling to empathize with these evocative themes. While not an entry-level dance presentation, Made in NC was intensely impactful, even to a layperson, as long as she is willing to open her heart and be a little vulnerable.

ADF continues to bring America’s best contemporary dance to the Triangle through the end of July. Check our calendar for details of more upcoming performances.