ADF 7: Opening Night (1): Footprints

7/22/13. Opening night for the Footprints concert at Duke's Reynolds Industries Theater feels like convocation: the house is packed and buzzing with ADF students ready to applaud their friends. When the lights go out, everyone leans forward.

First up is Rosie Herrera's Make Believe, a hot mess of disco, sequins and desire. Then its Adele Myers's joyful The Dancing Room, a romp for eight women in harlequin suits. Watching both makes me wish I'd dropped in on these rehearsals too. I'd like to know how Myers found her dancers' limits, or how Herrera got her students to take such an approach, at once suave and wild, like the cage dancers of the world's most fabulous nightclub/cult. But I've come to see how Vanessa Voskuil's Gates turns out and how her students do. (For my reports from her rehearsals, see here and here).

The intermission after Myers's work stretches long; people shift in their seats. Then, without the house lights going down, the curtain starts up, slowly, revealing no one and nothing, the stage bare to the back and sides, black, exposed.

Still nothing. But we know the dancers will come. People turn around. The inevitable crying baby bursts out; by the laughter I measure our tension. The air's alive, as if stirred by an invisible cast of thousands. Yellow-orange light drives down on us. Then the dancers appear at the doors, backing down the aisles, upright, dressed in ash- and clay-colors. They move slowly. My first thought: this is going to take forever. But then I find myself caught by the audience's behavior: some turn all the way around and some stay facing front, waiting. The dance is a litmus test for us. I'm watching these waves of people when the first dancer reaches me. Her face is intent, gazing at something beyond the back wall. Another and another passes. Their expressions are various -- pity, fear, horror -- but all intense, all focused on a point we don't see. They look like survivors, or beginners. Voskuil's phrase from rehearsal comes back to me: "I'm trying to get a specificity out of you that is unique to you."

Now dancers begin to rise out of the audience and join the procession. There's an absolute hush in the house. These must be the extra twenty Voskuil added last week -- and I realize that the young man next to me, dressed wholly in gray, is one of them. Still, it moves me when he rises: its his time to become now -- not mine, yet.

Now a few dancers on stage break into motion as others keep moving through the house and towards the back of the stage. Not dance in Myers's athletic sense: a frail shaking, a reaching, a brief pose, a disease or revelation that afflicts one and then another. It's simple, but because there are so many of them, there's a lot to look at, and too, each gesture or quiver is intricate as driftwood. They start and stop. The depth of field is cinematic: perhaps seventy feet from the dancers next to me in the aisle to the back of the stage.

Two dancers emerge from the crowd on stage: one is the young man I saw in rehearsal toying with hip-hop mechanics; the moves he was practicing have become part of the dance. Set diagonally against another young man whose twisting forms suggest a withered branch in wind, he looks like an exemplar of a way of thinking, logic against emotion. Neither suffices: they're absorbed into the group.

Now the dancers drop to the stage, shaking on their backs, palsied. I feel pity -- but the next moment it's erased by fear as they start scuttling towards us. Forty, fifty of them, coming like a plague wave -- and when they hit the edge of the stage they don't stop, they tumble right off, dropping softly to the ground one after another, and running stooped up the aisles and out the exits. I saw this move in rehearsal; it was innocuous, even funny. Now it's terrifying. Every instinct urges run -- and I have no idea what to think of myself when I don't. I seem to have split in two -- and now the lights go out.

A pulse lights up the stage and fades, then another. These waves of light seem to bloom from a single dancer who moves slowly forward, twining her hands in a cat's-cradle; the rest of the dancers flow and ebb as if strung to her fingers. This is the "now 90 percent; now 10 percnt " I saw Voskuil ask for in rehearsal, a slide between the epic and the local. The light settles like breath and the dancers find their way to a phrase. I'm having a strange feeling: I've seen both all and nothing of this dance in rehearsal. If I look closely at what any one dancer does, I recognize it, but the context and intonation have entirely changed. Voskuil's plucked out the best of each student's responses to her cues -- one's smoothly muscled turning, another's clear purpose -- and the students provide a shimmering background against which now one, now another of their number stands out.

The piece ends with an image of eating. We're left at some entry; we seem to have passed through the gates of Voskuil's title. Where that leaves us I don't know, but we've come through a reckoning. This is why people dance and why people come to dance: transformation.

Did I promise an evaluation of Voskuil's students? I'm afraid I can't give one. They and Voskuil made less a performance than a ritual. I suppose that, through experience and presence, a dancer could always improve on her effect. But I felt nothing lacking here. The students too were transformed: they became artists.

Next (and last): Forces of Dance and the closing party.