REVIEW: ‘On Their Bodies’ a highlight of ADF season

Jul. 24, 2014 @ 05:40 PM

The “On Their Bodies” program of solos definitely ranks as a highlight of the American Dance Festival’s 81st season. In these solos, performed Tuesday and Wednesday at Durham Performing Arts Center, Shen Wei, Doug Varone, Stephen Petronio and Ronald K. Brown offer evocative performances full of power, grace, heart and wisdom.
Even the order of this program works to showcase these solos. The first and last performances feature Shen and Brown, both dressed all in white. In their inimitable styles, both bring a deep, spiritual aspect to their work. In the two “middle” performances, Varone and Petronio, both tall, physically impressive dancers, use their physicality for dramatic effect, but also demonstrate their ability to express vulnerability. 
Shen’s “Variations,” to Arvo Part’s “Variations for the Healing of Arinushka,” draws us into a place of calm, peace and beauty. That’s because Shen centers himself in that place and from there, performs a meditative, seamless flow of supple moves.
He slowly twists and turns, his head leaning way back as though providing a counter-weight. The air seems to support him; sometimes his arms appear to float. He makes everything look easy. Even, when he kicks one leg high to the side, this seems effortless and doesn’t interrupt the flow. He embodies a timelessness in which he appears ageless.
In “The Fabulist,” Varone expresses both the confidence of youth and the vulnerability of getting older. He makes huge gestures, arms wide and high, hands spread. He also makes his body look small by bending over, head tucked in as though he has no neck, vulnerable and bracing for the next calamity. There’s a sense of loss and mortality, enhanced by an excerpt from David Lang’s haunting, beautiful “Death Speaks,” sung by Shara Worden. Varone places his hand on his heart then moves his hand down his chest as though feeling to see if he’s still has a temporal body, of this world.
Losses add up as a person grows older – loss of people, of youth.  By dance’s end, however, there’s a sense of perseverance and defiance. Varone, bent over, hands on his back as though his back hurts, lifts one fist and makes a punching motion as though to say,  “I’m still here.”
Ben Stanton’s lighting design helps give this “tale” a dramatic, epic quality. This design includes murky, smoke-filled spotlights and sudden moments of complete darkness. Sometimes, light etches just the outlines of Varone’s torso, his face in darkness. Another time, he’s bathed in an ethereal, blindingly white light.
In “Big Daddy,” Petronio includes speaking and reading text as well as movement in this moving tribute to his father.
Text  -- excerpts about his father from Petronio’s autobiography, “Confessions of a Motion Addict” -- serves as the primary way he honors his father’s memory. Movement comes in short bursts. At one point, text and movement are in sync. Petronio describes how his father loved to play sports but could not interest his son in it. Then, the dancer delivers a sequence of sports movements, like hitting a baseball, but in a frantic, somewhat awkward way as though imagining what it would have looked like if he had tried it.
While actual movement plays a secondary role, we see movement nonetheless in Petronio’s vivid descriptions of his father, dancing the foxtrot with his mother, eating with gusto. Petronio also writes of how, as a child, he would dive off a diving board, even though he didn’t know how to swim, trusting his father would catch him. In the end, it’s his father, who places himself in Petronio’s hands, trusting his son to help him.
The dance ends, as Petronio says, “This is the story of a man. He is my father and he’s gone and that’s final.” Then, the dancer, his back to the audience, walks away.
Ronald K. Brown also honors his late father in “Through Time and Culture” but not in an obvious way. He pays tribute by continuing to do what he loves, which is dancing – something his father encouraged and supported. , and remembering his father, who supported and encouraged him to do this – and others who have done the same and are no longer on this earth. His dance celebrates life in his embodiment of rhythm as well as in movements, grounded in the African tradition, to Mother Earth. He leaves the earth in short jumps. Other movements have buoyancy. His performance is reverent and mesmerizing.