Review: House of modern dance has many tenants – and tenets

Jul. 20, 2014 @ 03:15 PM

Programming for the American Dance Festival’s sixth week proves, once again, that the house of modern dance has many tenants (and tenets).

The Paul Taylor Dance Company’s program caps the week Friday and Saturday at Durham Performing Arts Center.

The 1978 “Diggity” and 1976 “Cloven Kingdom” offer a rare chance to see these early gems. That this work seems fresh and new today attests to this dance maker’s gifts; at 83 – he turns 84 on July 29 – he continues to create work as his company celebrates its 60th anniversary.

When “Diggity” opens with a spotlight on a dog, it’s already funny and becomes more so as lights go up on a stage full of these realistic-looking, metal profiles of dogs by Alex Katz, modeled on Taylor’s dog Deedee. The dogs create an obstacle course for dancers who leap over, dance around, beside and amongst these canines. In my favorite part, dancers bark as they run for the sheer joy of it – just like dogs.

 “Cloven Kingdom” shows that the trappings of civilization are thin as tuxedo- and gown-clad dancers’ elegant moves to classical music soon morph into animal movements. To percussive sounds, men hold their hands, like paws, while the women hunch over in a spastic jerk.

The ADF-commissioned premiere, “Marathon Cadenzas,” opens on a festive scene festooned with lights and a disco ball. Marathon competitors outdo themselves with enthusiastic deliveries of the jitterbug, Charleston and other dances. But, as time passes, the mood becomes bleak as fatigued dancers stagger and collapse. The marathon promoter, a gangster-type played to the hilt by Sean Mahoney, keeps firing his gun in the air to command people to keep dancing even after dancers fall. He kicks one fallen woman twice until she gets up. Still, the dance ends on an upbeat when a woman leads the promoter on, then rejects him.

Tere O’Connor’s approach to dance is different. He creates his work in silence instead of to music. He doesn’t use story or make statements. He’s not that interested in imagery but does focus on structure. He believes in the ability of dance to have an impact – or as he put it in his ADF talk on July 17: “My belief is that dance really affects people like water that laps at their certitude.”

That talk came on the last day of a four-day focus on his work. The other three days featured Tere O’Connor Dance performances of his interrelated “Sister,” “Secret Mary,” “poem” and “BLEED.”  While the first three dances, performed on July 13 at The Ark, and July 15 at Reynolds Industries Theater, can stand alone, each is part of process that makes “BLEED” possible.

There’s a lot to see in these works: shifting group patterns, unusual hand gestures, interesting lifts, a sense of connection among performers and the creation of memorable structures. Plus, the sound scores provide an eclectic mix of music and other sounds like sirens. In “BLEED,” there’s also the sound of thunder and rain – but maybe that was the storm outside. O’Connor created the sound collage for “Sister” and his longtime collaborator, percussionist John Baker, created the composition/sound design for “poem” and “BLEED.”

In “Sister,” movements by Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson suggest a close relationship as they often perform the same motions simultaneously.  This connection also comes through when they just stand and look at each other.

Performed in silence, “Sister Mary” opens with Tess Dworman’s solo as devynn emory, Ryan Kelly and Mary Read look on. Dworman continuously twists her body, flails her arms, flings her head from side to side, long ponytail flying.

The end of “Secret Mary” and beginning of “poem” blurs because the first cast exits one-by-one as simultaneously the cast of the second dance – Natalie Green, Michael Ingle, Oisin Monhaghan, Heather Olson and Silas Reiner - enters in the same way. This blurring is another sign of the interrelatedness of these works.

Watching “BLEED” there’s a deeper sense of engagement than with the other works. Perhaps this is the result of becoming more acclimated to O’Connor’s dance-making as well as some familiarity with his dancers; all 11 dancers from the other works appear in this one. Also, since experiencing dance means not only seeing but feeling it in the body – there’s a kinetic connection – we carry this history, this memory as well.  And, from this work, who can forget the structure the entire cast creates as they form a line that curves and resembles a large snake, the end section flattened as dancers crouch. Later, they repeat this construction giving audiences more time to marvel.