American Dance Festival, Durham, NC

Written by:
Alyssa Schoeneman
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American Dance Festival Opening Week:
Doug Elkins & Friends
Stephen Petronio Company
Keigwin + Company

Nun quintet from “Fräulein Maria”
Photo by Christopher Roesing

Doug Elkins & Friends: ‘Fräulein Maria’
Conceived and Choreographed by
Doug Elkins
Directed by:
Barbara Karger and Michael Preston
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, NC

June 14, 2012

Doug Elkins & Friends kicked off this season’s ADF mainstage performances last Thursday with a guilty pleasure–indulgent, one-time performance of “Fräulein Maria” that won’t soon be forgotten.

This evening-length work, which premiered at the ADF in the summer of 2009, saluted Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” navigating the landscape of a familiar story with a comedic edge. Elkins’ work broke the fourth wall of the theater almost immediately, as an emcee conducted the audience in a round of “Do-Re-Mi” and then summoned an invisible Richard Rodgers onstage to speak about his musical masterpiece. In addition, audience members played a key role throughout the evening both physically and energetically; dancers played to audience members by joking with them, offering crackers to them and even climbing over seated patrons at one point. That must have been what Hammerstein meant by “the hills are alive.” (Yuk yuk).

And that’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that permeated the night. From a bell ringer who slowly morphed intoQuasimodoto aMother Superior who channeled Mother of Modern DanceMartha Graham, Elkins’ work was rife with cultural commentary and literary allusions. Even Shakespeare’sHamletmade its way intothe piece as Maria was instructed, “Get thee to a nunnery,” before leaving the Captain’s home.And for the dancers in the audience, Elkins planted jokes in the work that were specific to dance culture – a well-placedTimes Stepand a markedpetit allegroinspired waves of laughter in the audience.

Among the dance styles featured in“Fräulein Maria” were modern, tap,stepping, waving,voguing,B-boyingand ballet, each of which was performed with technical prowess. But even better than the technique were the animation and commitment with which each dancer attacked his or her choreography. The performers sustained high movement integrity while keeping their moods lighthearted; it was clear that Elkins’ dancers let themselves truly enjoy performing together. And it seemed that the dancers especially enjoyed performing non-traditional gender roles.

Elkins’ cast featured male nuns, a male Maria and a male Liesl (the eldest von Trapp daughter), in addition to same-sex and opposite-sex couples portraying Maria and the Captain. A duet set to “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” featured two male dancers performing particularly scandalous choreography; Elkins’ commitmenttooutrageoussexual humor made this scene particularly unforgettable, despite its fierce competition from just about every other number in the show.

There wasn’t a single moment during Thursday’s performance where the audience was disengaged, and that’s saying something.Simply put,“Fräulein Maria” is a knockout of a dance composition. If you get a chance to see it live, take it!

Stephen Petronio Company: ‘Underland’
Concept and choreography by Stephen Petronio
Assistant to the artistic director: Gine Grenek
Music by Nick Cave
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, NC
June 16, 2012

Stephen Petronio’s “Underland” was built as a non-narrative, non-linear look at Australian artist Nick Cave’s music; the choreography grew from and represents the emotional tones of the work, not its exact lyrics. At least, that’s what the program notes say. But having seen the show, I beg to differ.

Petronio’s evening-length work presented Cave’s songs as individual vignettes; each musical episode created a unique visual landscape through the use of video accompaniment and costume changes. Slow-moving video images featured close-ups of human bodies, atomic bombs and antiques; costumes ranged from fatigues to bejeweled bras and tutus, but always showcased the dancers’ legs.

But though the video accompaniment and dancers’ costumes changed significantly between musical episodes, the choreography and emotional dynamics – or lack thereof – remained the same. Leaps, arabesques and turns, despite their perfect execution by the company members, became stale after many iterations, and though Petronio diversified his dancers’ groupings between vignettes, new energy and interpersonal relationships rarely formed onstage.

The most glaring shortcoming of Petronio’s work was its lack of clear choreographic impetus. Besides the obvious through line of being set to Cave’s music, dancers’ phrases did not seem to stem from a place of emotional depth and complexity. Often the same major choreographic components – leaps, turns, high legs and straight lines in the arms – were used to represent moods as different as dark whimsy and grief, which made emotive content unbelievable.

Ultimately, I found “Underland” to be a disappointment — both as an individual work and as a member of the ADF’s 79th performance season.

Keigwin + Company
Artistic Director: Larry Keigwin
Executive Director: Andrea Lodico Welshons
Reynolds Industries Theater, Durham, NC
June 19, 2012

Keigwin + Company’s program lit up the stage at the American Dance Festival, both literally — with bright lights and flashy costumes — and in spirit. The concert began with a new work, “Chairs,” followed by the lofty “Trio” and the competitive “Natural Selection”; the second half of the program featured “Contact Sport,” a highly physical quartet for four men, and “Megalopolis,” a work formed at the intersection of minimalism and hip-hop culture.

“Chairs” brought an immediate intensity of focus to the stage. Twelve company members stood, sat and shifted their weight with rhythmic precision, amplifying the power of the drums in composer Jonathan Melville Pratt’s “Flexus.” Dancers’ movements swelled as the music became more complex; Keigwin’s layered choreography and strategic lighting design allowed dancers in each section of the stage unique moments of visual pull. Chairs performed their own dragging, scooting, turning and folding vocabulary in addition to amplifying the dancers’ inversions and lifts. “Chairs” peaked as dancers, seated side-by-side, engaged in playful gestural conversations and rippling movement.

The night’s second piece, “Trio,” proved refreshingly simplistic. Two men and one woman, dressed in black briefs and bare-chested (the woman wore a nude leotard), performed balletic phrases in alternating unison and fugue, imbuing both loftiness and gentle sensuality into their movements. Keigwin’s choreography mirrored tonal qualities of the music, “No. 6 for Piano, Marimba, Cello, Violin” by Adam Crystal; dancers remained upright with piano accompaniment but moved to the floor when Crystal introduced the low strings. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this piece was not its revolving pairing in partnering and lifts, but instead the subtle differences in each dancer’s approach to identical choreography.

“Natural Selection” brought Darwinian Theory to the stage with notable accuracy. In this work, Keigwin explored three main survival tactics: procreation, community cooperation and individual competition. Dancers pawed at one another early in the piece with a clear sexual appetite and performed duets that necessitated codependence. A stripped stage allowed dancers access to the backstage wall mid-piece; the performers ran, climbed and reached up the wall with the intensity of a caged animal trying to escape captivity. Throughout the work, grouping and isolating dancers proved to be effective tools in illustrating survival of the fittest situations. With its conceptual complexity and well-crafted choreography, “Natural Selection” was a perfect way to end the concert’s first half.

“Contact Sport” began the second half with a bit of nostalgia. This highly physical quartet featured four men – meant to represent choreographer Larry Keigwin and his three brothers – engaged in brotherly bonding to the music of Eartha Kitt. The clean-cut men teased one another and had physical competitions throughout the work, but always in good fun. Though the majority of the work’s movement vocabulary stemmed from modern dance, one dancer brought his B-boy skills to the stage; this brought a strong energetic shift to a piece that was otherwise even-keeled. Overall, “Contact Sport” was enjoyable but was not a standout in an evening of memorable dance.

The program closed with “Megalopolis,” an avant-garde take on life in an ant colony – except this piece was way cooler than whatever ant-dance you just pictured. Dancers clad in futuristic, glittery black and silver bodysuits began the work to music excerpts by composer Steve Reich. Company members often moved across the stage in single file, indicating a sense of hive mind. Chugs in deep plié and pelvic and leg gyrations gave Keigwin’s choreography ties to African dance, but the repetitive circular patterns in Reich’s composition seemed to stifle the movement’s energetic potential. And that’s where music megastar M.I.A. came in.

Though their choreographic phrases remained the same, Keigwin’s dancers lit up from within when Reich’s music switched to M.I.A’s “World Town,” and later to “XR2.” From that point on, dancers began to *WERK, for lack of a better term, and the audience couldn’t get enough. Audience members whooped and hollered as dancers introduced waacking vocabulary to their phrases, and as stage lights grew flashier. When the electrifying “Megalopolis” had finally come to a close, audience members rose to their feet for the company’s final bows.

As an artistic director/choreographer, ADF Alumnus Larry Keigwin knows a thing or two about pacing and overall composition, and with dancers like his, Keigwin + Company concerts are sure to sell out for years to come.

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