Performing Arts

Chills, thrills and hard work among ADF memories

Chuck Davis, the late founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, will always be linked to the American Dance Festival for many who attended.
Chuck Davis, the late founder and artistic director of the African American Dance Ensemble, will always be linked to the American Dance Festival for many who attended. rwillett@newsobserver.com

The American Dance Festival, which settles into Durham each summer for a season of classes and performances by modern dance companies from around the world, is celebrating its 40th anniversary in the city. We asked folks to share their memories and heard from former students, dancers and enthusiastic audience members. Here are their stories:

The audience members

Joseph Fedrowitz, Durham

“Here I am, in the middle of my 34th season attending ADF performances, having seen almost every program presented during those years. Yet, it is very easy to choose my favorite memory:

“In 1995, Helen Tamiris, along with Pearl Primus, posthumously received the Scripps/ADF Award [for Lifetime Achievement]. Dianne McIntyre was to perform some of Tamiris’ “Negro Spirituals” as part of the ceremony. Onstage, there was a talk, a video and then, Dianne was on and the music began. She began the piece, “Go Down Moses,” and – something happened. An energy? a spirit? came into the theater. I don’t think I was alone in at first thinking: ‘What am I doing? Because, for a moment I thought it was just me cheering/praising/speaking for Dianne/Helen. After one moment, everyone else was somehow in that same space [as] the whole audience rose as one and started cheering.

“I still get chills and tears in my eyes thinking of it.”

Fedrowitz told us he had started to believe that he made it all up until he found an ADF video that validated his memories. The video, featuring Dianne McIntyre recalling that same ADF performance Fedrowitz refers to, was part of ADF’S 80 Faces series in celebration of the festival’s 80th season.

Joseph Fedrowitz currently serves as volunteer director of ADF School Tours.

Carlton Midyette, Raleigh

“I’ve been enjoying the festival since 1980.

“The most vivid ADF memory was the first performance by Laura Dean Dancers and Musicians many years ago. The mesmerizing, almost meditative twirling, set to live, vaguely John Cage-like music, was beautiful, powerful and fresh. Half the audience just sat and stared after the curtain closed. Then, there was an explosion of conversation and excitement as everyone tried to process, express and share what they had just seen and heard. It was a transcendent moment demonstrating the power of art and human expression.”

The production intern

Jillian Vukusich, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

“I was a production intern at ADF during the summer of 2000, I believe. What an incredible summer! From the friends I made to the incredible dance I was able to witness, it truly was a transformational experience.

“Production work helped me pay my way through college. As a dancer and aspiring arts manager, it was an incredible opportunity to work with some of the world’s finest while also observing so many different management and leadership styles.

“From stage managing for Shen Wei to Doug Nielsen’s phenomenal classes to cleaning marley each night after Twyla Tharp’s piece, which left remnants of colors from painted shoes all over the floor, to conquering the skill of focusing light atop an A-frame ladder, to Trisha Brown’s lovely treatment and respect for the stage crew, I felt blessed to be part of the community. ADF is a special place and I’m honored to have experienced a brief part of its history.”

The newcomer

Karen Wells, Raleigh

“In 1985, I was living in Mississippi and desperately needed to escape the humidity and repression it represented. So, on Memorial Day, I got in my car with enough money to last a month, deciding I was going to North Carolina to find a job. Even then, those on the outside, knew it to be The Creative State.

“I stopped in several places and, like Goldilocks, nothing was just right until I landed in Raleigh. I was an acquaintance of Raymond Williams, then Director of Dance and Music for the North Carolina Arts Council, who, on my first night in town, took me to this place/event/happening I had never heard of. As the staff person, who evaluated grants, Raymond was attending an African-American Master Class taught by Chuck Davis.

“Never mind modern dance, African dance would have been considered revolution in my home state in the mid-’80s. From the first drumbeat, I was totally mesmerized, transfixed and transformed. I still remember, while observing that class, the moment of certainty when I knew I was ‘home.’

“For the next 32 years, Chuck, summer at ADF and the amazing ADF leadership grew in my unbridled respect, fully deserving of our state’s support and accolades for changing lives.”

The students

Amanda Abrams, Durham

“As a Chapel Hill native, I’ve attended shows at ADF for many years but I only attended as a dancer once:

“I attended ADF as a not-so-young dancer in 2003. I’d just quit my full-time job in Raleigh and was on my way to grad school in DC and a summer just for dancing was pure heaven.

“I took Gerri Houlihan’s technique class in the morning; a composition class with the then-director Donna Faye Burchfield and, later in the day, another technique class with David Dorfman in a big gym somewhere on [Duke University’s] East Campus.

“I was self-conscious about my age and constantly worried that I wasn’t as good as everyone else, but I still managed to take advantage of everything there – the ‘big’ shows, the smaller showings and student performances, the crazy jams on Saturday nights, the drop-in master classes that happened on the fly.

“I walked barefooted all over East Campus and sweated up a storm and it was all so, so, so worth it to immerse myself in dance for six luscious weeks.”

Amy Ginsburg, Durham

Ginsburg prefaced her story by saying she is a longtime ADF participant: full-time in 6-week school in 1980; Dance Professional’s Workshop multiple times: assistant teacher for ADF/Hollins MFA class in early 2000s; audience member and contributed annually since moving to Durham in 2005.

Then, she shared her ADF memory of participating in a Modern Technique Class in The Ark on Duke University’s East Campus.

“A packed class in full swing. It’s hot, all windows open and huge, standing fans blowing, three, four talented, passionate musicians creating a constant rush of sound that captures/supports/drives the full-bodied, challenging, imaginative, evocative, utterly fulfilling movement sequence that renowned master teacher, brilliant artist and extraordinary human being Donald McKayle has taught the class.

“We are moving across the floor on the diagonal in waves, entering the space in pairs, each pair/duet entering on subsequent repetitions of the movement sequence. The choreography carries us through space with multiple changes of direction and level, causing the accumulating pairs of dancers to fill The Ark with movement as the musicians are filling it with sound.

“I recall the exhilaration of moving with the dancer with whom I was paired and being among the larger group of dancers with everyone in the room dancing, playing music, watching so fully focused on what we were doing, so alive in the moment.

I remember Donald McKayle calling out ideas, cues, a few words of guidance that enhanced the quality of the dancing, often giving us perspective that could/would enhance our lives as dancers and as people, well beyond that moment.

The energy in the room built and built and when the class came to an end, everyone burst into applause. We stood clapping, sweating, smiling, expressing gratitude to Mr. McKayle, to the musicians, to each other. It was a highlight of the summer that became a treasured memory.”

The dancer

Ivy Burch, Durham

“My sister [Venita] and I staying on campus [Duke University’s East Campus] during the ADF’S six-week school session. This was our first time being out on our own, away from home. We had BIG plans to go to class all day then hang out in the later hours. Those plans were quickly spoiled as we were ‘BEAT’ from taking classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday! All we could do was to drag ourselves to the shower and bed.

“One morning, we decided to skip a morning class as we decided no one was around to make us go. Oh, how wrong could we have been. We were on the ground floor and who, to our surprise, showed up at our window, peering through the blinds and hollering: ‘Ivy and Venita, GET UP AND GET TO CLASS.’

“We jumped up to see this STILT DANCER of a man – he stood every bit of 7 feet, his wide eyes peering through our window. He was none other than Baba Chuck Davis, one of our instructors at ADF.

“We NEVER missed a class after that.

“Needless to say, those were the BEST years of ADF, where you learned discipline and confidence. The classes were HARD but FUN! From the experience gained through being a student at ADF, both my sister and I became founding members of the Durham-based African American Dance Ensemble [started by Chuck Davis in 1983].”

Ivy Burch and sister Venita Allen were among the 15 African American Dance Ensemble dancers who performed Baba Chuck Davis’ last “celebration” dance, an excerpt from “Mendiani,” as part of the American Dance Festival’s Opening Night Gala show on June 15 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Before he died at age 80 on May 14, Davis had planned and directed Ivy Burch in the assemblage of his last work.

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