Arts & Culture

American Dance Festival opens 40th season here with a night to remember

The African American Dance Ensemble performs live "Honoring the Legacy" at the American Dance Festival, in Durham, N.C., June 9, 2011.
The African American Dance Ensemble performs live "Honoring the Legacy" at the American Dance Festival, in Durham, N.C., June 9, 2011. Sara D. Davis/ADF

It was a night for the ages and one not soon forgotten – if ever.

The American Dance Festival’s opening night program Thursday at Durham Performing Arts Center featured North Carolina artists in a wide variety of exceptional performances in celebration of ADF’s 40th year in North Carolina.

The evening began with a “Welcome to Durham” shadow sign projected on a large screen onstage. This sign opened a performance by 21 young people who demonstrated what they had learned at a recent Pilobolus Shadow Camp conducted by Edwin Olivera and Gaspard Louis at ADF’s Samuel H. Scripps Studios in Durham. These young people must be quick studies because they put on a professional show as they worked together to create a shark, a fisherman in a boat, a see-saw and other images in this fast-paced, exuberant work that ended with them using their bodies to form the letters ADF.

The fast pace continued with tap dancers Elizabeth Burke and Luke Hickey in their new work “15/34” a homage to their mentor Gene Medler, founder and artistic director of the NC Youth Tap Ensemble where they had learned the moves and the heart it takes to give their all and made it possible for both to go on to professional careers in New York. In it, they performed virtuoso feats sometimes at such speed that their movements were blurred. Even their soft, slowed-down moves were finely articulated in a performance that conveyed joy and grace. At the end, when they took their bows, Hickey spotted Gene Medler in the audience and extended his arms to Medler, as if to say “This one’s for you.”

During a break before the African American Dance Ensemble performed, ADF director Jodee Nimerichter paid tribute to the Ensemble’s late founder and artistic director Chuck Davis.

“He exemplified inclusiveness. He was Durham’s and the world’s dancing humanitarian,” Nimerichter said. She then led the audience in Davis’ credo: “Peace, love, respect – for everybody” and, as Davis had done, asked audience members to introduce themselves to two people that they didn’t know.

NImerichter also made it clear that over the past 39 seasons in Durham, the ADF has inspired a loyal following. When she asked audience members to stand if they’ve been coming to ADF since the first 1978 season, quite a few rose from their seats.

This season is dedicated to the late Dr. Allen D. Roses, who joined the ADF board in 1999 and became board chairman in 2011.

The next performance of an excerpt from “Mendiani – Dance of Celebration” by the African American Dance Ensemble began with a short video of Chuck Davis as a younger performer and more recent footage of him teaching young students, telling them: “We have to have peace on this planet. When we dance together, we bring peace.”

Then, the AADE’s cast of 14 dancers and seven musicians delivered a powerful, heart-felt performance of the last work Davis had planned and turned over to founding member Ivy Burch to choreograph and stage. The stage exploded with exuberant, high-energy dancing that heated up the dancing ground and would have made Chuck Davis proud. The fact that founding members Ivy Burch, Venita Allen, Toni K. Hall and Gail Rouse were among the dancers and Khalid Saleen, long-time, former AADE music director, as well as percussionist Beverly Botsford, appeared in this work, added to this celebratory tribute to Davis.

In “Fit the Description,” the Greensboro-based Joyemovement Dance Company proved how powerful a solo performance can be if it’s based on the truth and speaks truth to power. In program notes, the company’s founder Alexandra Joye Warren said she created the text for this work after police had arrested her husband for a bank robbery as he had been on his lunch break. This was the 11th time he’d been stopped by police since the first time when he was 15 when the police had told him “Next time, we’ll beat you up before we bring you in.”

In the solo, Emmanuel Malette’s movements expressed his character’s frustration and fear of being a police target because he “fit the description.” At one point, he ran back and forth as he kept looking back to see if he were being followed. At the end, the male voice in the text, said: ”Now that I’m telling my story, they no longer have a say in stating my identity.”

Two ballet companies also performed on this program.

The Raleigh-based Carolina Ballet performed the ADF-commissioned world premiere, “Dialogues,” by founder/artistic director Robert Weiss and resident choreographer Zalman Raffael to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme by Fredrich Chopin” performed live by pianist Melissa Podcasy.

In it, the many nuances of various relationships were portrayed. In one threesome, a male dancer kept extending his hand to the female dancer as though hoping she would take it, even though she was with another partner. She never did. The six dancers imbued everything they did with a seemingly effortless expressiveness that greatly enhanced these “dialogues.”

The evening ended with Charlotte Ballet’s tour de force performance of Israeli choreographer Ohah Naharin’s “Minus 16.” (The Charlotte Ballet first performed at ADF’s first Durham season in 1978.i

Naharin’s work began with an amazing solo performed by Maurice Mouzon Jr. that included some seemingly impossible feats such as performing three, consecutive, high backflips followed immediately by a front flip. Besides a variety of such impressive moves, Mouzon also embodied certain spasmodic gestures such as twitching and jerking as if an electrical current were pulsing through his body.

This performance also included a long section in which all 17 company members, wearing suits and hats, sat on chairs in a large semi-circle and, to music of the Israeli folk song, “Hava Nagila,” belted out the lyrics as they repeatedly performed the same moves, that rippled from one dancer to the next, and ended with dancers discarding all of their clothes except their underwear.

This work took a different turn when performers went into the audience and selected some people to join them onstage. Eventually, all audience members left the stage except for one woman who found herself the “star” when performers suddenly fell on their backs. So, what did she do? She threw up her arms in triumph. The spotlight followed her all the way to one of the exits.