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“Empty moves” at ADF Is Abstract Choreography — Pure Movement, Without Context or Narrative


The American Dance Festival (ADF), thanks to the generosity of Samuel H. Scripps, has presented the Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement since 1981. The award — which has been presented to, among others, Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp — comes with a prize of $50,000. This year’s Scripps Award honoree is French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, founder and artistic director of Ballet Preljocaj, which is in performance this weekend at the festival.

The company’s Friday, July 11th, performance at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) was preceded by a brief awards ceremony during which M. Preljocaj thoroughly charmed the audience with his limited English and heartfelt gratitude for receiving the award. The company performed Empty moves (parts I, II & III) — three separate works created over 10 years. The ADF performance marked both the U.S. premiere of Empty moves (part III) and also the first time that the three pieces have been performed together. Empty moves (part I) debuted in 2004, Empty moves (parts I & II) in 2007.

As the stage lights came up, four dancers (Virginie Caussin, Yurié Tsugawa, Fabrizio Clemente, and Baptiste Coissieu) entered the stage, two from the right, two from the left. Clad in brightly colored T-shirts and dance shorts, the dancers took places facing one another in the upstage left quadrant of the empty stage.

As the voice of John Cage — reading his work, Empty Words, at a live performance in Milan — filled the auditorium, the dancers began what would be a nearly two-hour performance of abstract choreography — pure movement, without context or narrative (at least in the conventional sense of those words).

As a dancer, I find this sort of movement for movement’s sake fascinating. I love seeing the infinite ways the body can move and create visual images, and I can happily sit in a studio for hours watching rehearsal or dance class. In fact, much of the movement in Empty moves (parts I, II & III) reminded me of the many contact improvisation classes that I took as a young dance major. The four technically gifted dancers manipulated each other’s bodies, took turns supporting each other’s weight, and executed unusual lifts and group sculptures (some of them a bit Pilobolus-esque). In other sections, Preljocaj threw in assorted ballet steps — changements, assemblés, chassés, arabesques, attitudes. The juxtapositions of body parts often resulted in oddly humorous groupings and shapes; movements divorced from their usual context became quirky and funny.

Performed without intermission or pause, the three sections of Empty moves (parts I, II & III) defied (at least on first viewing) any attempts to distinguish one from the other. Twice, a dancer left the stage and returned with a water bottle, which the dancers passed around as they danced and was then taken offstage again. The second time this happened, it occurred to me that the appearance of the water bottle marked the separation between the sections of the dance.

Throughout the work, movement phrases were repeated — sometimes exactly, sometimes parsed, spread out spatially or performed in a different sequence or with the dancers facing in a different direction — but the overall effect mirrored (and was indeed cited as being inspired by) Cage’s recitation of odd, seemingly unrelated snippets of words and syllables.

Described in the program notes as a “random string of phenomes,” Empty Words is most simply defined as Cage’s attempt to deconstruct language. Using Henry David Thoreau’s writings as his base material, Cage employed chance methods to rearrange the text, resulting in a collection of odd phrases, syllables, and even single letters, which he reads in a calm, sonorous voice — sometimes with a normal intonation, other times drawing out vowels and making consonants hiss and sputter.

This in itself is not so unusual, at least not for Cage, who famously (or infamously) composed scores using chance methods (usually the I Ching). One of his most well-known works is 4’33”, a composition that contains no actual music or sound and is intended to consist of whatever sounds occur in the space where the piece is “performed” during the proscribed four minutes and 33 seconds.

What is perhaps more important is the effect of Cage’s work, both on the audience at the live reading in Milan and also on the audience members at the July 11th performance. In the live recording, as Cage continues to read his letters and syllables and words, the Milan audience becomes increasingly restless, complaining verbally. As the piece progresses, the audience begins jeering, clapping disruptively, stomping their feet, and making noise with unidentified objects. Near the end, an audience member apparently takes control of a microphone and begins to verbally abuse Cage, who continues to read, unperturbed. As I listened, I kept thinking, “Cage probably is loving this. The audience members don’t realize that they’ve become part of Cage’s process, that they’ve become the ‘chance’ part of Cage’s score.

Let me pause here to note (for those not familiar with Cage or Merce Cunningham) that John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham were artistic collaborators and life partners for more than 50 years. Cage created numerous scores for Cunningham, who also used chance methods to create his works. Cage’s dance scores often consisted of sound collages — random collections of blaring sirens, dripping water, etc. — that were typically played at quite loud volumes in performance. Whether due to Cunningham’s abstract choreography or Cage’s score (or both), it was not uncommon for audience members to leave performances in frustration or irritation before the end of a piece.

Empty moves (parts I, II & III) engendered similar responses at the DPAC. I saw approximately 10 patrons leave the theater prior to the end of the performance, and these were only the ones in my field of vision. This didn’t surprise me, but my own reactions to the Cage score did. At first, the challenge was that Cage’s random words and syllables sounded just enough like normal language that my brain began to work overtime to make sense of them, often to the point of focusing more on the sounds than on the dancers onstage.

As time went on, the sounds receded into the background, becoming simply an aural landscape for the performers. Later, however, as the Milan audience became angrier and more intense in their vocalizations against Cage, I found myself becoming increasingly tense, making it difficult to concentrate on the dancers and the choreography. This, combined with the length of the piece, made watching the last 15 or 20 minutes of Empty moves a challenge.

Angelin Preljocaj was a student of Merce Cunningham and Cunningham dancer Viola Farber, and this is evident in Empty moves (parts I, II & III). In fact, this week at ADF has been a bit like a Merce tribute week, with John Jasperse Projects and Ballet Preljocaj both presenting works that were clearly influenced by the work of the avant-garde choreographer. Even if you’ve never seen Cunningham’s company perform, if you were at ADF this week, you had a pretty good taste of his approach to choreography and also saw the reach of his legacy in the works of two contemporary choreographers from opposite sides of the Atlantic.

SECOND OPINION: July 12th Durham, NC CVNC preview by Kate Dobbs Ariail:; and July 5th Raleigh, NC News & Observer article by Roy C. Dicks:

The American Dance Festival presents BALLET PRELJOCAJ at 8 p.m. July 12 at the Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham, North Carolina 27701, in the American Tobacco Historic District.

TICKETS: $35.05-$67.42 (including fees). For Student Rush Tickets and other discounts, click here


DPAC Box Office: 919-680-ARTS (2787),, or

Ticketmaster: 800-982-2787 or

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Ballet Preljocaj (French contemporary dance company) (official website) and (YouTube channel).

Angelin_Preljocaj (French dancer and choreographer): (Ballet Preljocaj bio) and (Wikipedia).


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.

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Categorised in: A&E Dance Reviews, Dance, Lead Story, Reviews