The American Dance Festival’s On Their Bodies features four new solos (three of them world premieres) by four of the top modern dance choreographers working today. Ronald K. Brown, Stephen Petronio, Doug Varone, and Shen Wei — all of whom have their own companies — stepped back into the role of dancer for this special program, presented for two nights, July 22nd and 23rd, at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
Shen Wei’s Variations, set to Arvo Part’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka, opened the program. The diminutive, white-clad dancer was revealed center stage, facing into the wings. His initial movements were small and focused: the articulation of a shoulder here, a hip there, the gentle placement of a foot changing his body position from parallel first facing side to ballet fifth facing front. The rotation of a wrist created sculpture. His movements were liquid silk, an imaginary wind rippling through his body gently here, more forcefully there. This solo was the only one of the four that had no apparent story; it was merely the physical expression of Part’s meditative solo piano music. It was like watching a flower open, its sheer simplicity lovely and perfect.
Doug Varone’s The Fabulist followed. Like many of his works, Varone’s solo told a story, though not a literal one. A fabulist is defined as “one who composes or tells fables” but also as “a liar, especially a person who invents elaborate, dishonest tales.” So, the title is apt; and we could see Varone spinning his tale, if only in his mind, and telling his tale, if only to himself. In contrast to Shen Wei’s lightness, the feeling here was heavier, more internal, though not brooding. Beginning center stage in the shadows of an overhead spot, Varone remained mostly in shadow throughout the piece, staying primarily within designer Ben Stanton’s small pools of light, never venturing far from his original position. Clothed in Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung’s loose shirt, vest, and pants, Varone reached and rolled and turned, his movements weighty and insistent, yet peppered with gestures quick and fluttery — a thought arising and vanishing, an impulse grasped then discarded. Kneeling, he wrote in imaginary sand, then wiped it away. The solo female voice singing David Lang’s Death Speaks provided a spare and lonely landscape for Varone’s inner journey.
Big Daddy is Stephen Petronio’s tribute to his father, who passed away a year ago. Wearing a suit and tie and mixing movement with text from his recently published memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict (which he alternately recited as he moved or read while standing at a podium stage left), Petronio wove the tale of a larger-than-life Italian patriarch who relished the freedom that driving a truck for a dry cleaner gave him and who responded to his son’s change in major from pre-med to dance by responding, “You can’t put a price on happiness.” Petronio’s deep affection for his father shines through; however, I found this to be the least successful of the four solos, but only because it needs more rehearsal and polishing. Petronio admitted in the post-performance discussion that he had intended to memorize all of the text but simply didn’t have the time, and I found his reading of the text at the podium distracting at times, although I rather liked him letting each page fall to the floor after he was finished with it. Petronio also wore a face mic, which created static during the more active sections of choreography. I think if the sound bugs can be worked out, and if Petronio can get a better handle on the text so that it flows seamlessly within the piece, Big Daddy has the potential to be a very powerful work.
Ronald K. Brown’s Through Time and Culture closed the evening. Brown, dressed in a white Nehru-collared knee-length tunic and pants (by Keiko Voltaire), began the solo in the upstage left corner of the stage, crossing slowly to stage right, accompanied by Spanish guitar and drums, his body curving and opening, turning, reaching. Reaching stage right, he turned and traveled downstage, a journey implied. Gradually, Brown moved beyond the linear path initially proscribed, embracing and inhabiting the space with an economy of movement that spoke of passion refined by time and experience, a gentle dignity adding gravitas to steps as light as cat’s paws. Brown ended the piece as he began it: upstage left, turning and reaching to acknowledge the directions of the compass before kneeling and touching the ground in thanks.
The performer/choreographers of On Their Bodies range in age from 46 to 58, a period of life when most dancers have long since stopped performing. During the post-performance discussion, all four spoke of the difficulty of making the shift from setting movement on and directing others to setting it on themselves, of having to remember what they created instead of having dancers or rehearsal assistants to do so. Even Shen Wei, the youngest of the four, admitted that when he has performed in recent years, his dancing has been improvisational. All four said that what they have learned from this brief experience of resuming the role of dancer would definitely inform their work going forward.
On Their Bodies was the American Dance Festival performance that I most eagerly anticipated this summer, partially because of the artists involved and partially because some of the most memorable performances that I have viewed featured older dancers. Early in my career as a dance writer, I remember quite vividly a 70-something Merce Cunningham making a brief appearance in one of his pieces. His feet were gnarled and arthritic, he moved with slow and measured steps — and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Around the same time, a 50-something Dudley Williams moved me to the point of speechlessness with his performance of Love Songs, a solo created for him some 20 years earlier by Alvin Ailey.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward.” At 40- or 50-something, leg extensions might not be what they used to be, and big leaps and jumps may be a thing of the past; but these are replaced by depth and substance, by a richness born of experience and life lived, by a settling into one’s integrity as both a person and an artist — all of which make a an older dancer utterly compelling to watch. These four men, recognized in their youth as brilliant performing artists and in later years as gifted choreographers, have come full circle, this time using their bodies to show us their souls, which are, indeed, beautiful.
SECOND OPINION: July 23rd Durham, NC Five Points Star review by Kate Dobbs Ariail: http://thefivepointsstar.com/2014/07/23/adf-4-choreographers-dance-on-their-bodies/
The American Dance Festival presents ON THEIR BODIES, solos by Ronald K. Brown, Stephen Petronio, Doug Varone, and Shen Wei at 8 p.m. July 23 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.
TICKETS: $33.48-$62.79 (including fees).
DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787), firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.dpacnc.com/events/how_to_buy_tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/American-Dance-Festival-tickets/artist/1326857/.
SHOW: http://americandancefestival.org/performance/adf-dpac/on-their-bodies/, http://www.dpacnc.com/events/detail/on-their-bodies, and https://www.facebook.com/events/586482161466972/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2AeoHyXgno.
2014 SEASON ANNOUNCEMENT: http://www.americandancefestival.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Season-Release-for-Web.pdf.
PRESENTER: http://www.americandancefestival.org/, https://www.facebook.com/AmerDanceFest, https://twitter.com/AmerDanceFest, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Dance_Festival.
VENUE: http://www.dpacnc.com/, https://www.facebook.com/DPACNC, https://twitter.com/DPAC, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Performing_Arts_Center.
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s Triangle Review reviews, click here. To read more of her CVNC reviews, click here.