ADF 8: Opening Night (2) and Closing

I love dancers' parties. The floor's full and no one's drunk, with every style and move you can think of unleashed, celebrated, spun, from electric boogaloo to sixties go-go to glam jazz to the running man. People dress however they want to show off whatever they've got: I see a curvy doll in a poofy party dress, red as her flowing mane, a petite woman in purple Grease pants and a cinched belt (goodbye to Sandra Dee!), a slim sketch of a man moving in billows of loose slate-gray, a goofy guy in a bowtie. Every song the deejay plays is greeted with a roar and a rush to the dance floor, where you can be whoever you are, whoever you want...

But I'm getting ahead of myself: before the party, these student dancers have to get through ADF's primetime closing show: Forces of Dance.


Forces of Dance begins with the presentation of this year's Samuel H. Scripps Award for Lifetime Achievement to Lin Hwai-min, founder and choreographer of Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre. Speaking briefly after the award, Lin charms the audience with his quiet good nature. He talks seriously, though, about the challenges of a life making dance, and about the rewards. He tells a story: one day after news of his award got out in Taiwan, a taxi-driver, a complete stranger, tapped him on the shoulder and said, "Right on, man." After the laughter, Lin adds, "Running a company is tough -- but gestures like this sustain me for days."

After his speech, the fluid gestures of Chou Chang-ning, performing a solo from Lin's Moon Water, sustain the audience in a breathless spell. Her hands ripple like silky fins. She seems entirely wound in the dance herself, another creature in another atmosphere that we momentarily share.

Then the student performances begin. First, Dwayne Cyrus's students perform Martha Graham's Helios. I've fallen for this bunch (see my coverage here and here), so I'm on the edge of my seat as the curtain parts. Here they come -- first one, then all, effulgent in gold unitards, streaming across stage in stag leaps, spinning into Graham's spirals. Every dancer and move vibrates with energy and joy in motion; in particular, I notice Deep Mehta absolutely flying, a man transformed. This work, with its straining figures and mythic reach, is not contemporary -- it dates from 1981, but Graham formed her technique much earlier -- and it's far from easy for the students, but by their belief in it they make its fierce joy felt. They don't just wear the dance; they've learned where in desire and thought these steps might come from, and they recreate the desire and thought with the body and the steps, here, now. Two times come together in the flesh: this Helios is intensely moving in a way the best video could never be.
With the closing frieze of Helios, we're returned to the present, and then to Bill T. Jones's much more contemporary Love Re-Defined (1996). In rehearsal for this piece, Leah Cox stressed the students' relation to each other (read more here), and now I see why. More obviously than the Graham crew, these students have the chops, but Jones's tragicomic take on love depends on connection. The ripple and reverb of glance, flirtation, despair, the echoes of exits and entrances -- these are the real dance the steps support. When the students don't get that, when they concentrate only on jumping high and pointing their feet, Jones's love logic feels capricious, half-formed. But when they remember to relate, the little drama of whose foot is pointed and whose is flexed starts to matter. At first, this sense of connection is intermittent (though Johnnie Mercer Jr. always has it), but as the audience responds, the students grow more sure of the stories they're telling. These stories -- of love, desertion, desire -- are perhaps still a bit beyond the students' experience; they don't entirely know what they're dancing about. But they're getting better at guessing.

It's hard to know what to say about Twyla Tharp's Treefrog in Stonehenge, which closes the program. If the Graham students strain to inhale the air of another time, and the Jones dancers guess at an experience they're just beginning, the Tharp students aren't asked for any reach beyond the physical. Instead, they perform commercial dance in a razzle-dazzle style: So You Think You Can Tharp. The audience reacts to the slick surface: no need to extend an allowance for the dancers' youth here! But this is a student performance. I want to see a raw edge; I want to see the occasional failure that is inseparable from learning.


Back to the party. The refreshments are flying off the table; you wouldn't think so many svelte people could wolf down so many slices of pizza so fast. From "Thriller" to the twerk, every dance craze gets its moment, and the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" (which came out when these students were six, on the average) gets half the packed dance floor chanting "I'll tell you what I want, what I really really want!" Lin Hwai-min goes by in an earth tone swirl; Vanessa Voskuil's students are shrieking over the music that she has to visit them in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong. I catch a student from Love Re-Defined looking as serious about his buffet choices as, a few hours ago, he did about doomed passion.

This is the big release: everything goes back out to the world, back into the hopper, however you want to think about it. And now, as the students put it to me, comes the part where you go home and see what you've got and what you can do with it; now comes the really exciting part.