The strange future of the recent dance past made its debut in Reynolds Theater at the American Dance Festival with the world premiere of Sepia, by Tatiana Baganova. This Russian dancer and choreographer from Yekaterinbug, beyond the Ural Mountains, has been to ADF numerous times, studying, bringing work, or making new work set on ADF’s advanced student dancers, first as part of the International Choreographers Commissioning Program, and now as part of the Past/Forward program. ADF students audition to work with choreographers or reconstructors for Past/Forward, and learn work either new or old to perform at the culmination of their time in the Six Week School.

Those chosen for Sepia must have had one heck of an experience. This hypnotic dance is one of the finest presentations this season. When I say “hypnotic,” I mean trance-inducing, your-mind-taken-over-by-another-power kind of experience. By means of music, light and motion, the artist takes you to a mental place where — if only for the dance’s duration — you understand something profound about the nature of time. The music, by Avet Terteryan, is very powerful, its vibrations getting into your bones immediately. Not pretty, not confined by any known form, it includes long repetitions of steady beats, pierced by long unwavering siren sounds, hot brass and very loud, reverberant notes from low-register tympani. The set consists mainly of seven — two clusters of three, and one alone mid-stage — very large sand-filled hourglasses suspended from the ceiling. They sway gently, aiding hypnosis. Thanks to David Ferri’s mystical lighting, they also read as lamps.

The dance opens with three bare-buttock men, backs to us, standing staunchly beneath one cluster of time-lamps. When the sand has all run down in the isolated hourglass, the men open the bottoms of theirs, and shower in sand. At the same time, a large, flat, brown paper package downstage begins to move; it rustles, and then emits small ripping sounds, as first a hand, then a head, then three women emerge from its cocoon. By this time, I was so completely under the spell of the dance that I could only go with its flow to a place beyond words. Somehow six more dancers appeared; all twelve come and go amid the sands of time, but I could not tell you how. At the end, a band of paper lowers from the rigging, and the dancers step up to it from behind, becoming shadows. Twelve small rips, and we see their faces for a moment, before the light on them goes out and we are left with only their blurred shadows behind the scrim.

After this, Merce Cunningham’s Inlets 2 (1983), for all its charm, seemed tame and rather dry. Reconstructed by former Cunningham dancer Jean Freebury on seven ADF students, it was fine, if not quite at the Cunningham company level of technique. Watching the dance was though, at times, not quite as interesting as watching the four musicians (from Duke’s Music Department) below the stage make John Cage’s music, “Inlets,” mainly by pouring water in and out of large whorled shells.

The program closes with a rousing rendition of Jerome Robbins’ wonderful West Side Story Suite (1995), a condensation of the full musical. The six sections get the story across (but I missed the “Gee, Officer Krupke” part) and the huge student cast does a wonderfully exuberant job with the boisterous choreography. They also sing. Musical director Ariane Reinhart conducts the voices, keeping them in sync with the recorded music (from several different sources). Leonard Bernstein score + Stephen Sondheim lyrics + Jerome Robbins choreography + 31 supercharged ADF dancers on a fine summer night, it’s enough to make you believe that “Everything’s Fine in America.”

Past/Forward continues at ADF July 20-21. ADF closes with Shen Wei at DPAC July 22-24. See our calendar for details.