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Reynolds Industries Theater
United States
North Carolina
Durham, NC
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Vibrant, Thrilling Dancing from Three Choreographers in ADF’s “Footprints”

by Amanda Abrams
July 27, 2016
Reynolds Industries Theater
125 Science Drive
Durham, NC 27708
(919) 684-4444
As I exited Duke University’s Reynolds Industries Theater on July 27 following the American Dance Festival show “Footprints,” I passed a crew of guys hanging around the lobby. They didn’t look like typical modern dance patrons; honestly, they looked like ex-Marines, or maybe golf aficionados in town for a tournament. But then Dafi Altabeb, an Israeli choreographer whose work had appeared that night, came scurrying across the room and one of the men called out, “I liked your dance,” so I knew they’d been in the audience.

What had they thought? It had been a wonderfully satisfying show: beautifully created, beautifully executed. The dancers were all students in ADF’s Six Week School; most were on their way to becoming professional dancers and were technically advanced, but they were still students, fresh and exuberant, and that gave the pieces a glowing vitality.

But did I “get” any of the dances? Not really. I couldn't tell you what any of them were about, not with any confidence. That used to nag at me, but I finally realized I could enjoy a show without fully understanding it. Did it nag at the men, or did they simply appreciate seeing bodies in joyful motion?

The evening’s first piece, Altabeb’s “It’s Now. It’s Never” didn’t begin particularly joyfully. A group of dancers in bright street clothes stood, their backs to the audience and their pants around their ankles, while one of them plaintively sang Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” and a woman writhed on the ground. Gradually, the rest began to move with clean, almost ironic gestures that didn’t make any sense; one woman got down on all fours, another was lying on the ground, and four dancers stood facing different directions, alienated from one another. It all felt very postmodern.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing some unison movement,” I thought to myself, ruefully knowing that unison movement isn’t a key element of postmodern dance.

But seconds later, the stage went black. When the lights came up again, they were dazzlingly bright and the group was moving fast and in sync, looking almost like a Coca-Cola advertisement. They were alternately sexy, funny, playful, and “So You Think You Can Dance”-sleek, with choreography that was repeatedly unconventional and a little unpredictable. It was thrilling.

That section didn’t last; the ensemble slowed down, broke into smaller groups, and eventually the dancers began wandering aimlessly like sleepwalkers, once again isolated from each other. But later they moved into harmony again, more slowly and expressively this time. The piece ended with the entire group stepping from side to side, faster and faster, then stomping—almost like tapping—as hard as they could on the ground. Suddenly they fell to the ground as one, and the stage went dark. Odd, but wonderful.

If Altabeb’s piece had been mildly baffling, the next one, “Footprints” by American choreographer Beth Gill, was downright bewildering. Accompanied by electronic music, the piece began with a single woman in a purple velour unitard slowly moving with her back to the audience. She was regal, sensual, and deliberate as hell. A man in teal velour joined her and in unison they lifted legs, set them down, raised arms, tilted torsos—all with an unhurried, self-possessed pacing.

Another woman came onstage, doing her own thing, and then the piece became something radically different from what I’d thought it was. For its duration, dancers in a variety of disco-esque costumes found their way onstage, accompanied by radical lighting changes that bathed the stage in red, yellow, and green, then left. I had no idea what was going on, or why. And yet it didn’t matter: I found myself lost in a bizarre, enigmatic world that Gill intentionally created.

The last piece, “Bunker,” was made by Lee Sher and Saar Harari, Israeli choreographers now based in New York. Their piece was a little less obscure than the two preceding ones. In it, twelve dancers moved in and out of formation, like a society that can’t decide if it’s composed of faceless military troops or unique individuals. At times, the dancers were like an army of ants, scuttling together across the stage; at other times, they acted like individuals—comforting one another, or callously ignoring each other. All clad in similar grey bodysuits, the dancers were simultaneously anonymous and yet very human.

But that theme was actually less interesting than the piece’s physical vocabulary. Sher and Harari both teach gaga, the movement language invented by famed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, and it showed. Gaga uses improvisation to help dance artists break out of their patterns; as a result, it often features elements you don’t often see in contemporary dance.

That was immediately apparent in “Bunker”: the dancers sensually moved their hips, arched their backs, and frequently stuck out their butts—definitely uncommon in modern dance, which tends towards asexuality. These dancers were not only athletic but downright corporeal, fully inhabiting their bodies and unashamed of their fleshy materialism.

What did those guys, the atypical dance watchers I spied after the show, think of this piece and the others? I wish I knew. I’d like to think they suspended their confusion over what was going on onstage and simply took in the trippy spectacle of bodies untethered to our normal, quotidian laws of movement.
A scene from Beth Gill's 'Footprints.'

A scene from Beth Gill's "Footprints."

Photo © & courtesy of Grant Halverson

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