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Reynolds Industries Theater
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Physicality and a Lot More at ADF’s “5 By 5” Showcase

by Amanda Abrams
June 30, 2016
Reynolds Industries Theater
125 Science Drive
Durham, NC 27708
(919) 684-4444
An observer could be forgiven for viewing the American Dance Festival’s “5 By 5” showcase, that ran June 28-30, 2016 in the Reynolds Industries Theater as a modern dance sampler. Had someone introduced the evening’s performances before the lights went down, they might’ve said, “These pieces illustrate what modern dance is today: beyond just the canvas of the human body, it can use props, text, and deep abstractions, and sometimes lacks typical ‘dance’ movements at all.”

Indeed, the performances—by choreographers who are less known than those in the festival’s evening-length works—ranged across the board; they were funny, commented on contemporary life, and observed timeless relationship dynamics. But despite the variety, the strongest pieces turned out to be the most classic ones: those that utilized nothing but bodies to evoke a message or a mood.

The first piece, “Carne Viva” by Miami-based Rosie Herrera, was composed of a series of abstract vignettes: a man struggling to hold a woman aloft; two women, sisters perhaps, fighting with neat, precise movements; a half-naked woman dancing before a computer screen and a bevy of iphone-bearing observers; and an angst-ridden woman trying to break free of something, while a song about loneliness and lost love plays in the background. The piece evoked a sense of separateness and alienation even in the midst of intimate relationships, but the various sections never quite came together.

Wearing a military officer’s garb and a gas mask, North Carolina native Mark Dendy embodied former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld in the next piece, “Dystopian Distractions!”, as the latter’s voice detailed a Las Vegas meeting with Elvis during the Nixon era. Sometimes superfluous and sometimes spot-on, Dendy’s movements were unfortunately no match for Rumsfeld’s words, which illustrated just how square that longtime policymaker is.

Almost immediately after the stage lights come up on “Never the Less,” Israeli choreographer Dafi Altabeb’s contribution, it becomes obvious that this is something different. The scene isn’t particularly interesting—the set was bare, the sound was simply that of wind, and a woman and man are onstage but apart—and yet the specificity of their movements brings them into instant focus. Initially, the movers appeared to be creatures on a barren plain who gradually discovered one another and performed an unusual mating dance.

But as the piece progressed, it was clear that this was a poem about love and desire, about driving one another crazy and yet still wanting more, even against one’s will. With sudden lifts, unexpected moments of unison, and two dancers who begin to feel like real people, the piece cycled through moments of romance and fighting, sweetness and ambivalence. “It’s never enough, and it’s always too much,” crooned a singer in the background. By the end, viewers themselves were caught up in the relationship, even if they were not sure who or what to root for.

Gabrielle Revlock is an interesting, smart choreographer from Philadelphia. So it was a little disappointing to see her onstage with a hoop (formerly known as a hula hoop) for her piece, “Halo.” Yes, hooping has gotten big over the past few years and yes, it’s pretty amazing what talented hoopers can do with that ring of plastic—Revlock included. She sinuously danced with the hoop as it traveled from her hips to her neck and then, without a single pause, over the top of her head and into her hand as she continued to softly spiral. Is it modern dance? Probably, but the movement got boring after a while: as a stylistic element, the constant undulation overrode other choices, so that eventually it all blurred together.

Revlock obviously knows this, and so she gave the piece a narrative: a story about a woman trying to break free of the hoop’s energy. She’s caught inside it, like the ballerina in red shoes who can’t stop dancing; at one point she even runs to the edge of the stage, considering throwing herself off. But in the end she broke free of the hoop and came to stillness—and then found that her body missed the gentle oscillation that the hoop demanded.

“Torrent,” by Brian Brooks, has all the elements of a showcase’s final number: it was a big group piece featuring stirring music and a lot of flowing, classical dancing. But cliché or not, the New York-based Brooks’ piece was a perfect show closer: it was simply beautiful, filling the theater with grace, lightness, and nonstop movement. The eight dancers, swirled like blowing leaves to Max Richter’s recomposed version of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” moving in and out of complicated unison patterns that were too much to take in at once. To divide various sections, the dancers would suddenly break into light runs and line up on the stage, then disperse once again—a choreographic element that nicely offset the constant dancing that characterized the rest of the piece.

Why was Brooks’ piece so good? In part, because all of its components—the music, movements, staging, and dancers themselves—complemented one another almost perfectly. But he also didn’t overreach: like most dancers and choreographers, his training probably focused largely on movement accompanied by music, and he worked within the bounds of what he knew best to create the piece.

Sometimes, when it’s done well, sheer physicality is all that’s needed to deeply move an audience. It doesn’t have to be thought about, doesn’t have to be “gotten”: the viewer is affected simply by absorbing, almost through their skin, the sensation of bodies hurtling through space.
Gabrielle Revlock

Gabrielle Revlock

Photo © & courtesy of Gabrielle Revlock

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