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ADF 3: Building the Big Show

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"The ground is shifting." Students hurly-burly across the dance floor, legs flying out from under them. "Birds are diving," the tall woman at the center of the whirlwind calls out. Hands shield the students' heads; they duck and skitter. "Water is spraying," she adds, tossing her fall of fine dark hair away from her face. She wears a black racerback maxidress over wide-leg pants, the folds of jersey showing her lines like wet-look drapery on a Greek statue. She's rangy, quiet, intense, immediate, her body revealing riverine shifts her quiet Dutch face conceals. This is Vanessa Voskuil, one of three choreographers making new work on ADF students for the Footprints concert (the other two are Rosie Herrera and Adele Myers).

She and her cast of 24 have been together for four weeks when I first see them, and the students are still feeling their way towards what she wants from them. Asked to bounce loosely, they jig up and down like little jackhammers. Some students wear dance techniques on the outsides of their bodies: this girl wears ballet in her wrists, in the set of her sternum. Others have the opposite effect, their bodies so open and empty I can barely tell anyone's in there. My gaze is attracted to the quietly self-possessed ones, the students who do and then return to themselves.

"A boulder is moving towards you." This direction, added to the three above, causes chaos; if the students can show two conditions and sketch a third, four is entirely beyond them. They flail. But I see how Voskuil is pushing them, trying to get them to think the difference, even if they can't show it yet. "I'm trying to get a specificity out of you that is unique to you," she says. Note that Voskuil doesn't mean to show an audience ground shifting and birds diving: she's feeling for steps, or feeling for the sensibility from which interesting motion arises. The new American dancer, in Voskuil's version, has a kinesthetic imagination that fires your kinesthetic imagination. Can you make a shape? Can you be in a moment? Can you show something you've never seen -- something in particular, new, yet resonant? Voskuil's exercises ask and reveal.

The Footprints concert opens the last week of dance and performance here at ADF; Forces of Dance, a concert in which ADF students will perform masterworks by Bill T. Jones, Martha Graham, and Twyla Tharp, closes it. In my next reports from ADF, I'll visit rehearsals for both concerts, chat with students, teachers, and choreographers, and finally view the performances themselves. Question and revelation -- that's what this next week is all about.

After the workout, Voskuil's rehearsal settles into quiet. She arranges some dancers like stones in a rock garden; they rehearse solo material, highly-wrought winding phrases. Others sit around, stretch, chat, check messages, write in journals. What you do on the sidelines matters, because professional dancers spend an astonishing amount of time watching and waiting, and they have to figure out how to watch and wait productively and socially, how to balance patience and perpetual motion. I zero in on one student, a cursive sketch in sweatpants. He's playing with the coolest new toy in these modern dancers' kits: hip-hop cause-and-effect that turns the body into a Rube Goldberg machine. I watch him build a sequence of falls and folds. He's a magician, spinning motion scenarios from thin air. It's mind-boggling work; I can almost see him growing new synapses.

Another dancer is absolutely still until called upon. Stolid, she doesn't look promising. Then Voskuil places her and she springs into life, conducting an imaginary orchestra, marching backward. Looking at any of Voskuil's individuals is like tumbling into a well, a well as deep as the student's experience can make it.

Voskuil rehearses in the Ark, an open two-story rectangle with windows all around and a balcony circling the space at the second floor level. The room feels like a hollowed paddle-wheeler, and it's easy to imagine it taking off on the flood, rocking in a storm. Today, though, the air's hot, heavy, still. The room has no air conditioning; fans stir in the windows. But despite the sluggish atmosphere, the name suggests what the students need to do: they need to make themselves Ark-worthy, their own species, rara avis. Of course we all are -- so maybe the work is to uncover, find or free what's there.

Later, watching Sue Healey's documentary Virtuosi as part of ADF's International Screendance Festival, I notice how almost all the dancers profiled refer to moments of change, moments in which they got past obstacles to their dancing. Now, Ross McDonald says, "I'm really okay with getting things wrong in front of strangers," in a way that he wasn't before. Dance has become "a search for a simple way of being in the body," Lisa Densem says. It's "suddenly waking up to the present -- waking up to, oh, this is my hand."

Next: Rehearsing Bill T. Jones and Martha Graham.