THE BLOG
07/16/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Sep 15, 2013

American Dance Festival (1)

If the mention of a summer dance festival and school conjures up Fame-like visions for you -- long-legged lovelies stretching in crowded halls, ragged leg warmers, bare shoulders and naked ambition -- getting to know the American Dance Festival may take a little adjustment. For one thing, ADF focuses on modern dance, as it has since its inception in 1934, when Martha Graham, Hanya Holm and other modern dance pioneers taught and performed at the very first festival. This means, for one thing, that the dance students here have more meat on the bone; they eat yogurt and peaches while they stretch. They're older, too, mostly in college, which they expect to finish before they launch dance careers. (Ballet dancers still often go straight to work from high school, but modern dancers rarely do). They relish the chance to meet and be seen by dance professionals, but they know they're some distance from being "discovered." In all dance forms, but especially in modern dance, a body alone won't cut it: you need a dancing mind, an imagination, a sense of meaning in motion or motion in meaning -- and it's this the students have come to ADF to hone.

ADF also does a lot more than the summer school. The festival's programs are so numerous that a week here, a conversation with director Jodee Nimerichter and a lot of time parsing the website has mostly left me with an impression of a giant octopus. The summer six-week school, a three-week school for younger dancers, year-round classes for community; performances by national companies (Paul Taylor, Shen Wei, Trisha Brown), screen dance events, commissions from up-and-coming choreographers; ADF events in New York and abroad; ADF-sponsored films; grants for choreographers; studies of dance memory; extensive archives -- ADF is a powerhouse. And with new studios, ADF's first permanent dance space in its eighty-year history, the festival is signaling its own ambition.

It's a good time, then, to look closely at ADF -- what's it like here? what gets made and what gets taken apart? -- because I have the sense that a look at ADF is a look at America's dance future.

1. WARMUP

ADF's six-week school takes place at Duke University's campus in Durham, North Carolina, amid Southern heat, blooming magnolias and a tobacco town gone through dust and lurching into its next life. Hair with any nap blossoms in this humidity, so halo-headed dancers troop around under feathery willow oaks or scatter in the ever-present rain, which can drop right out of a sunny sky. In top-knots and droopy layers, their lines are calligraphic in motion, though when they stand still, you might not take them for dancers; they're too various. What they all have in common is health (bright, lineless faces) and a certain sense of weight; you can see they're happy on their feet.

The professional dancers -- teachers, choreographers, visiting company members -- move among the students like swans among geese. They look at once bigger and more detailed. Look long enough and you get it: they are more themselves. This difference can seem insurmountable, and yet many of these professionals were once students here. ADF is a place of coming full circle, and full circle again: arrive as a student, return as a company member, then a teacher, a choreographer, an audience member. (You can find the stories of notable ADF alumni on the festival's 80 Faces project here).

The fuzzy feeling of community you get from ADF press and from the students themselves can belie the hard work required to make that circle, though. Movies about dance tend to shortcut that work in one of two ways: either with a workout montage (Flashdance) or a sex scene (Black Swan). In reality, the work that makes a dancer out of a student and a dance out of movement is subtler, stranger and far more interesting -- and that's what I'll be studying in my dispatches from ADF.

ADF Director Jodee Nimerichter: "They don't choose it [dance] unless they truly truly have to do it. It's too hard."

Next: a visit with ADF's Cognitive Scientist in Residence.

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