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Alyssa Schoeneman
Jones Hall at Meredith College
United States
North Carolina
Raleigh, NC

North Carolina Dance Festival 2012

by Alyssa Schoeneman
September 7, 2012
Jones Hall at Meredith College
E. Campus Drive

Raleigh, NC 27607
Jones Hall
E. Campus Drive
Meredith College

Promo trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-LnP1OlHaoQ
For a critic used to seeing well-attended dance concerts, the crowd – or lack thereof – at the North Carolina Dance Festival's opening night performance was discouraging. But as the concert progressed, I began to understand why so few patrons were in the audience.

The festival, which tours the state during the fall and winter, showcases North Carolina's best choreography – at least in theory. But, some 22 years after its inception, the primary lineup this year – with two works excepted – suggested that the state still has a way to go in developing unique, groundbreaking choreography. As a dance professional in the Triangle area, I know that's not the case.

The program began powerfully with Blind Date, a quirky, concise duet by Gary Taylor, artistic director of the Winston-Salem Festival Ballet. In costumes that respectively channeled Billie Joe Armstrong and Judy Jetson, Taylor and dancer Elizabeth Fowle examined the chemistry between two would-be lovers from the future. Staccato movements coupled with bent knees and flexed feet in lifts, jumps and everyday gestures gave balletic vocabulary a modern twist. This movement quality, when combined with the performers' exaggerated facial expressions, cleverly mocked the romantic emotional drama characteristic of 21st century romance. After being knocked on the ground at one point by Taylor, Fowle woke up and threw a temper tantrum, jumping angrily and poking at Taylor's chest. Laughter in the audience and strong applause confirmed this work's role as the favorite of the evening.

Unfortunately, the night's performances went downhill from there.

Meredith Spears, affiliate artist at Meredith College, choreographed How I Learned To Be a Bird. This work had an intriguing concept and choreography but never fulfilled its true potential. After a solo by Sheryl Scott set to a recording of her own spoken words, dancers moved like nascent chicks, flitting and whistling with birdlike agitation. But despite a convincing initial section, this flock never achieved full flight; risk-taking was absent in large lifts and jumps. In one instance, dancers and the audience both were left hanging in an elongated and inadequately supported series of lifts. After their partner built high expectations with her eager outstretched arms, dancers rose mere inches instead of launching into what would have been their inspirational flights offstage.

Dancers re-entered in a ripple, squatting and performing unpredictable arm gestures as they waddled across the stage. Unfortunately, this interesting moment was brief; How I Learned To Be a Bird quickly lost its renewed momentum and left the audience without narrative or emotional resolution.

Gaspard Louis's duet, Magical Cusp, displayed more advanced partnering techniques, highlighting Louis's past training with Pilobolus Dance Theater and vocabulary from the Brazilian martial art form, capoeira. With seamless transitions, Louis and dancer Amanda Beaty executed sequences of rolling floorwork, unison phrases and weight-sharing techniques that allowed the dancers to work as puzzle pieces, connecting at a point of physical contact and creating larger, more eye-catching shapes. In one memorable moment, the dancers linked their arms around one another's waists and bent at the knees, one dancer becoming a chair and the other sitting upon it.

But a lack of chemistry proved to be the work's undoing. Louis' choreography implied physical intimacy but Beaty's body language suggested otherwise. In one moment, Louis caressed Beaty from behind but she held her gaze forward, distant and over-calculated. Had Beaty and Louis fostered a true emotional connection, this piece could have resonated as deeply as the Kronos Quartet string music to which it was performed.

A piece with standout musical accompaniment, Autumn Mist Belk's 2010, Julep, was intriguing right out of the gate. This slow-burning critical portrait of Southern high society began with dancers from Belk's company, Code f.a.d., in Kentucky Derby dress, leaning on a section of iron fence centerstage. These dancers drank cocktails and gazed overhead at projected images of horse hooves and whiskey, all to the country twang of Stephen Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home".

But as things progressed, dancers Gerren Mobley, Brooks Owens and Christina Serafino danced as if increasingly inebriated, stumbling and slurring movements together. Music by G. Todd Buker (Proxy) added a slow, circular beat and the plucky twang of a banjo. Julep ended with a still-life of drunk dancers in high society poses, which allowed audience members to laugh at the demure façades used by wealthy folk to mask debauchery.

Carol Kyles Finley's Three Downfalls continued in a similar vein. Its movements, "Avalanche" (2012), "Funny: Night After Night" (2000) and "Canned" (2009, rev.2012) explored soloists' emotional and physical breakdowns in response to varying hardships.

Dancer Sheryl Scott took an unusual partner in "Avalanche" – a microphone stand that often acted as a pivot point or controlling force. Dressed in a punk-rock getup, it would have been easy to say that Scott was a rocker plagued by the rock-and-roll lifestyle, but her emotional turmoil transcended a single life situation. The dancer threw her body to either side of the stand, tossing its weight and creating a distinct clinking noise with every catch. Scott's movement progressed down a physically and emotionally exhausting path, suggesting that the microphone stand symbolized an addiction or vice. In her solo's final moments, Scott ended on the floor, succumbing to the pain and exhaustion of her dependency.

But seemingly benign addictions can take a toll, too. Take performing, for example. Funny: Night After Night highlighted the frustration and jadedness of Ashley Spears's character with endless reiterations of the same performance. In this work, Spears exaggerated an outdated dance routine in silent-film comedy garb to no avail. At least, that's how she reacted.

But Spears's meta-audience and her live audience were very different. Because the live audience rewarded her with applause after the third repetition of her act, the choreography's lack of emotional pliability made the performance experience seem less genuine. The integrity of Spears's physical performance was also questionable; this dancer equally over-anticipated the desperate energy of her final toe touches and heel clicks, in addition to her sagging energy in less showy choreography. The calculated energy swells and contractions implied that Spears was never truly living in the moment.

The trilogy's final work, "Canned", featured Maney Murad dancing with a wastebasket, its choreography a clear illustration of how unemployment can leave someone down in the dumps. Murad began with one foot in the trashcan, dragging the weight of her lost job with her. But eventually she began to cope, often stepping in and out of the wastebasket, and even using it as a pillow at one point.

The flaw in this work came when Murad's choreography morphed into a literal interpretation of the musical accompaniment, Ben Folds' "Fred Jones Part 2." While Folds sang about a man losing his job at a newspaper, Murad, seated at her garbage can desk, was handed a cardboard box filled with her personal belongings by a woman in a business suit. Though "Canned's" inherent symbolism was obvious throughout, Finley's final choreographic choice was insultingly straightforward. From a choreographic perspective, the final scene's redundancy sacrificed Finley's opportunity to make a poignant cultural statement about life in a nation that is rife with unemployment.

In what could have been the fourth part of Finley's failure saga, Jan Van Dyke's Time told the story of a girl unable to overcome a personal struggle. But Time lacked innovation in structure, movement vocabulary and major thematic content. In it, five women performed choreography in an A-B-A structure to a score by Philip Glass, and a soloist – whose costume bore an unintentional resemblance to Disney's Prince Eric – was featured in grief-stricken solo breakout moments. The corps members performed repetitive grapevine choreography throughout, defining the space but mostly distracting from the soloist. Van Dyke's intended narrative and emotional landscape were ultimately muddled by overdramatic facial expressions onstage and choreographic phrases with vague intention.

If the North Carolina Dance Festival means to best represent the statewide dance community – a community that produces a wealth of well-constructed, engaging dance works – perhaps the curators should scout dance performances that do just that. By creating more value within the festival, curators will create more value for viewers, too. That would be something to dance about.
Julep Dancers: Brooks Owens, Christina Serafino and Gerren Mobley

Dancers: Brooks Owens, Christina Serafino and Gerren Mobley

Photo © & courtesy of Amelia Bailey

Julep NCSU Dance Company

NCSU Dance Company

Photo © & courtesy of The Right Image Photography

Julep NCSU Dance Company

NCSU Dance Company

Photo © & courtesy of The Right Image Photography

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