Marking the midpoint of ADF’s ”Together We Dance” outdoor festival, hosted for the first time outdoors at the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Joseph M. Bryan, Jr., Theater, Molissa Fenley‘s State of Darkness was performed this afternoon by Annique S. Roberts. There will be a second performance at 7:30 by dancer Michael Trusnovec (same choreography, different performer).

The work, originally choreographed in 1988, challenges a single dancer to a punishing 35-minute solo, the only one of its kind to have been scored to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). Stravinsky’s work in its traditionally performed iterations typically features a multitude of dancers participating in primal ritualistic movements. When the work was conceived in 1913, it was highly controversial, and to this day is usually only performed as a concert piece. Fenley’s State of Darkness, too, has only been performed by a select few; ADF’s concert program lists 15 individuals.

I was incredibly lucky to have the afternoon free, so I chose to wander the art museum’s free collections in its West Building. Walking through the contemporary wing, I was struck by the museum’s Interchanges series, which I hadn’t yet seen since its launch in early 2020. It features pairings of artworks from different time periods – sometimes directly inspired by each other – that either enhance an shared idea, or seek to challenge or subvert it. My first experience of this was an Amy Sherald portrait paired with a Van Dyck portrait in the Contemporary Gallery, and it got me thinking about the upcoming performance in a new way. Would Fenley’s choreography seek to enhance, reimagine, or in some way subvert the original piece – and how does the newer work inform and bring awareness of the older? As museum director Valerie Hillings explains the motivation behind Interchanges, “all art is contemporary when made, and all art eventually becomes part of history.”

As dancer and rehearsal director of Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE, A Dance Company, Roberts’ Raleigh performance is her third performance of the work since October 2020 (Joyce Theater). Fenley, in the Q&A after the performance, noted how interesting it is to see how the piece is invariably informed by each new performer, and that the way each performer understands it changes over time. While it is meticulously rehearsed to contain the same movements performed the same way, the performer’s identity is inextricable to the work. Part of that identity was shaped by beginning the study of the piece via Zoom during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic. Roberts noted that this context – and that of initially performing the work to no audience via livestream – was “very strange…but somehow fitting for the work…It’s just you and the music,” as the performance truly is a relationship between dancer and score.

Roberts’ performance, made no less significant by the fact that she is a beautiful Black woman performing a monumental work with the entire stage as her own, was absolutely enthralling. She embodied a myriad of ideas through uniquely varied dance vocabulary, all performed with seemingly boundless stamina and poise. From the beginning, the movements were strong, striking, and confident. She was starkly outlined on the darkened stage in her black leggings, making the motions of her arms, torso, and feet stand out sharply. Fenley’s choreography did not set motion according to the movement of the musical lines; in fact, sometimes the movements were in direct opposition, moving during silence or utilizing stillness during frenetic cacophony. As a musician, I find Stravinsky and his body of work fascinating, but want to focus on the performance itself. That said, I must recognize the recording used to back these performances: Detroit Symphony Orchestra, led by Antal Dorati, conductor, in the arrangement of the work by Jonathan McPhee. Stravinsky himself is said to have approved of Dorati’s interpretation and conducting of his work, and while about five minutes of repetition were removed from this arrangement to streamline content, and the bass parts were a little more emphasized than is typical, the recording is absolutely faithful and reverent of the original work. All its strange fluctuations, jarring striations, and plaintive nuances are reflected, and it was a joy to hear such a lovely rendition.

Different areas of the stage were choreographed to lend special significance to parts of the work; upstage, Roberts’ movement was usually more restrained, showing a slower, receptive energy with more lyrical motion. Downstage, close to the audience, she conveyed power and strength, with more open and vertical movement: wide arms, angled elbows, and raised head and neck. Many of these positions and movements were not classically “pretty;” sometimes her upper body collapsed in on itself and her shoulders became concave, but it all contributed to a story of receiving and producing energy. There were motions that seemed to represent the dancer’s being pulled or pushed by outside forces, but rarely was the outside energy ever combative; it was more a representation of growth, learning, experimentation, hardship, and ultimately triumph.

The entire piece was breathless, hopeful, and layered. Roberts herself spoke of the challenges of performing the work being, first, of course, the stamina required to dance for 35 minutes straight, but second, the nuance: the “beautiful thing about coming back” to the work each time she performs it is the joy of “getting to peel back the layers.” Trusnovec’s performance will undoubtedly be no less layered, yet inherently different. The 90-degree afternoon sun, for one thing, will have dissipated, and his own personification of the piece will certainly bring it an entirely different life.

This performance will repeat tonight at 7:30. See our sidebar for details.