DURHAM, NC – It’s that time of year again when Durham residents emerge with the sun, droving in flocks to the American Dance Festival. Founded in 1934, 2024 marks the 91st season of the festival. Its impact on Durham, and the overall state of North Carolina, cannot be understated – according to the 2023 annual report, last year the festival hosted 40 dance performances and reached over 16,000 audience members. This year, audiences are just as eager to return to Duke University‘s performing arts stages to witness the artistry of dance companies from around the world.

Man in black with red background

Hung Dance

For the second performance of the 40+ performance schedule, Taiwanese contemporary dance company Hung Dance invigorated audiences and shocked them with their program Birdy. The company was founded in 2017 by choreographer Lai Hung-Chung and this performance marked their ADF debut, as well as their U.S. debut. The stakes were high for both the company and ADF, as this was likely the first time that audience members were seeing the company perform.

As stated by the company, the word “hung” means “soaring freedom.” I was curious to see how these themes would play out throughout the 1-hour piece (there was no intermission). The piece was performed in The Reynolds Industries Theater, with hardly any open seats, and while last year’s festival-goers became frustrated due to parking, this year everything seemed to sail a lot smoother, enhancing the experience of the performance itself.

Updated parking details may be read here.

For a majority of the work, all ten dancers were present onstage, however, there were a few moments of duets including a very impressive Tai chi-inspired piece, which seemed to be a favorite amongst audience members. Throughout the performance, the unspoken theme of duality became more and more present. Reflecting back, I was able to see the following dualities throughout the performance:

• Restriction vs. Freedom
• War vs. Peace
• Sharpness vs. Fluidity
• Dark vs. Light

Restriction vs. Freedom and War vs. Peace
The dancers told a story of what it takes, physically and mentally, to find freedom. Sometimes it was obvious, as when they were dancing with long stick-like props and creating different shapes that resembled a prison or fence. Other times, it was seen through their movements – wide and open arms flailing through the air but then moments later bodies on bodies constricting each other.

Contrary to many other people, I am a major fan of art that makes me scared, intimidated, or uncomfortable. Perhaps that is because I grew up around and in the performing arts world, and simplistic art tends to feel weightless to me. I tend to look for something that makes me uncomfortable in every show I see. Even though the themes of war, injury, and destruction that the dancers presented were dark and heavy at times, I felt a sense of peace and comfort sitting in the theater chair. It’s odd how the art we see can somehow make us feel the complete opposite.

Sharpness vs. Fluidity and Dark vs. Light
The ability to choreograph movements that have both sharp and fluid textures is quite difficult, and to be able to dance them seamlessly is even more of a feat. They blended so smoothly that it was hard to tell the difference. The dancers’ technique was impressive and had me locked in from the first moment of movement.

The lighting crew carried the show through to its end with perfectly curated lighting choices. I was most drawn in during moments of deep red, which for me symbolized bloodshed. There was one moment that truly took my breath away – a short duet in which one of the dancers “sliced” the neck of another with a long feathered prop. When the feather left the neck, the tip of it glowed red. This choice seems rather simple, but it really drew me into the story they were aiming to tell. Additionally, the use of smoke and hazing made many of the transitions into each section of the program seamless, helping to move the performance along. However, there were a handful of transitions that were moments of black stillness that felt sudden and odd, which took me out of the piece.

Overall, Hung Dance was a delightful surprise and definitely a company I would go out of my way to see again in the future. Every year I am grateful that ADF director Jodie Nimerichter goes out of her way to secure thought-provoking companies to grace Durham’s stages year after year. There is always at least one company that makes the audience jump out of their seats a little, and thus far in the season, Hung Dance takes that trophy.

The dancers received a standing ovation, which was more than deserved. There are a few truly wonderful and unexpected moments throughout the performance, and I don’t wish to spoil any of them for readers, so this is where I will stop.

The American Dance Festival runs until July 28 and the full schedule of performances in the 2024 season can be found here.