THE BLOG
07/30/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Sep 29, 2013

ADF 6: "I Have to Do It. I Have to Give It a Try" -- the Students Speak

It's Sunday afternoon, less than a week until opening night, and six students from the cast of Graham's Helios have met for lunch at a café near ADF headquarters on the Duke campus. They're close in age, all between 20 and 24, but in other ways the six are surprisingly diverse: three are American, three are international students; the Americans come from New York, Texas and Detroit, and represent three different American ethnicities; the international students come from Mexico, China and India. They are Scott Stafford, of Detroit; Jingqiu Guan, from China; Alexis Anderson, of Texas; Juan Pablo Roblesgil, Mexico; Sam Wong, from New York; and Deep Mehta, from India.

Why the diversity? Because modern dance encourages it, for one thing. If classical ballet still inclines toward symmetrical rows of swans, in other types of Western dance the pendulum's swung towards a gathering of individuals, varied in look and movement background. The students tell me their cast is the most diverse of the six Footprints and Forces of Dance casts, and it's true, but almost all the casts show significant diversity: no two people in the Bill T. Jones cast could be described the same way, and Vanessa Voskuil's chosen many Asian dancers for her work. (Only Twyla Tharp's Treefrog in Stonehenge cast is almost uniformly white and American). Another answer is that modern dance increasingly pulls global appeal -- especially in Asia, where the success of Lin Hwai-min (founder and director of Taiwan's Cloud Gate, and this year's Samuel H. Scripps awardee) has inspired a generation of dancers to learn and move.

That movement means more modern dancers are global nomads. Of the six students, only one has a strong idea where she'll have her career: Guan wants to stay in the US, where there are, she says, "way more opportunities than in China." For Mehta, "It's the biggest question for me right now, whether to stay here or go back. I need time to think." He'd like to dance in India, but it'd be easier in the US. The Americans wouldn't mind going abroad, and they're thrilled to meet so many international students at ADF because this multiples their dance knowledge, the chance to say "Oh, I love your movement," as Stafford puts it. For all the students, seeing each other is half the point, because "you never know who will be the next choreographer," Anderson says. Overall, a smiling internationalism prevails: they're happy to meet, and happy to meet again, whenever and wherever.
What's ADF for them? Everything. A surfeit of opportunities, an overwhelming array of choices: "It's been such an eye-opening experience, to try to be as receptive and non-judgmental as possible," Stafford says. Mehta adds, "You want to take every class" and see all the shows: "Each and every show I've learned something." ADF is friendship, too: "The most intelligent conversations I've ever had have been with my friends at ADF," Anderson says. For all of them, it's a coming-out: ADF is "so many people putting their vulnerability out there and saying okay," Stafford says.

Guan, the oldest dancer here, already has a master's degree in another field. She thought of ADF as a last hurrah for her love of dance -- but once here, she discovered "how much I can't live without it." To the mounting applause of the table, she declares, "I decided I have to do it. I have to give it a try." Guan also finally convinced her parents to let her pursue her dream -- a theme Mehta echoes. His father's a businessman and never before encouraged Mehta in dancing. "I had a lot of hurdles coming here," he says. But this summer, hearing his reports from ADF, his father changed his mind and at last told him, "I'm so proud of you, Deep."

Almost none of the students anticipated making the auditions for the Graham cast. "Who would know that this little girl from the 'hood would grow up and do Graham at ADF?" Anderson asks. Wong admits to "negative connotations about Graham" -- surely not unusual for young American dancers. But Cyrus's gentle, multifaceted teaching opened it up for them. "Duane goes at it from every angle," Roblesgil says. In particular, he's helped them feel Graham's technique and think about its roots. "Something about Graham feels so good," Wong says. It's "more, more, more -- hit everything, attack everything." He goes on: "A lot of people underestimate Graham's potential for the future. It's a timeless technique." With teachers like Cyrus tending the tradition, we may see Graham mattering more to the next generation. As Stafford says, learning Graham from Cyrus "feels like I'm taking a torch and lighting it."

What's after ADF? Some students are finishing school; some have big decisions to make. Stafford's the rare student who scored a job at ADF, but he's not inclined to rest on that. Instead, he's eager to see what he can make of what he's learned -- a common refrain. Whatever he learns, Mehta thinks, "How am I going to use it when I go back? How am I going to apply it to my practice? How am I going to teach it to other people?" Stafford says, and the others agree, "It'll be really exciting once we're out of the hurricane of ADF."

*

Back in the hurricane, on July 19 and 20, the Trisha Brown Dance Company performs at the Durham Performing Arts Center. What do the students take away from this, I wonder as I watch Brown's dancers flowing through her lovely, witty works. Brown, 76, has recently retired from her company, and it seems likely the company will fold soon, following the lead of Merce Cunningham's company -- and raising again the question of whether an individual dance and composition style can long survive its founder. Do these thoughts disappear with the mind that thought them? It grieves me to believe it -- but the work performed here as Brown's last, I'm going to toss my arms -- if you catch them they're yours, though full of beautiful invention, is shy of devastating.

If the students duck thinking about a choreographer's difficulties, they must consider the life of the dancer, in which you lend your body to another's work -- as Leah Morrison does so brilliantly here, dancing Brown's solo If you couldn't see me. With her back to us, facing upstage into a cold cone of light, Morrison rocks her rangy form in Brown's loping fall-and-recover phrases. In her slashed white dress, she's a priestess, leading us in a confrontation with the beyond. Between sallies, she pauses and switches her hips as if planning her next move.

Morrison thrills but overall, the forecast's gloomy: you know dark wins. Maybe the students feel it too. But then again they're dancers, and dancers are blessed or benighted to live in the moment. It's hang time; you deal with the ground when you get there.

*

I stop in with Voskuil and her students one more time. They have less than a week before the show, and as far as I can tell Voskuil is still arranging the dancers in space and teaching phrases, but she doesn't seem in the least worried. In fact, she's adding twenty more dancers to the piece, "to fill out some images."

Watching for a moment, I see why she's confident: in the past week, her dancers have gotten a lot better at showing the shifts she asks for. These are, at times, remarkably subtle and specific. "There's a sense of down and up at the same time. There's a sense of up to go down. Almost like there's too much light in front of you. It's like you're realizing it while it's happening." She turns to see the effect. "I don't think I want to see such a clear shape." The students try again: no unison, but individuals on the same path, brushing aside the same branch. Voskuil doesn't traffic in epiphany but in partial releases and discovered blocks; to show false understanding fading into true ignorance requires real complexity. I watch a young woman with a shaven head make micro changes to her forms as she sees what Voskuil wants. She's patient as a glacier -- and her patience cuts through the sweltering summer air. Something else is coming into being here, now.

Next: the performances begin.

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