Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre is a little company with big ambitions. Not only do they premier evening-length new works almost annually, interpret classic material in new and surprising ways, and collaborate with artists all over the word, but they’ve been doing it for well over thirty years. Once a year or so, however, they depart from their usual program of epic new works, and offer a showcase of short pieces by company members and guest artists. This year’s showcase, Solo Shots: Dance on the Rocks, may be wildly uneven, but it’s also wildly entertaining.
And before I tell you anything else: Yes, the show includes a flight of cocktails for those audience members willing to pony up a few extra bucks. Apparently the drinks (served in paper cups by a relentlessly charming cocktail waitress) were selected by the choreographer/dancers to complement each piece. I have to admit, the precise nature of this complementarity was unclear to me, but I wasn’t drinking, so maybe I missed something.
As the title suggests, Solo Shots features (for the most part) brief solo dances created and performed by ACDT company members. While I applaud artistic directors Susan and Giles Collard for giving the dancers a crack at creating their own choreography, the results prove something we already knew: that a good dancer does not necessarily a choreographer make. Beautiful movement is not enough. What we hope for is movement that expresses something significant, something urgent — something, moreover, that cannot be expressed any other way.
Luckily, Solo Shots includes among its twelve short offerings a couple of truly extraordinary solo pieces that do just that. One is Jenni Cockrell’s “dust, popcorn, sugar”—a fanciful title that seems totally unrelated to the intensity and originality of this butoh-influenced piece. Audiences will recognize it from a performance Cockrell did some years ago with local modern dance troupe, Moving Women, of which she is also member. There have been some changes to the work since then, not all of them for the better. (The earlier version was longer, with a protracted — and unforgettable — sequence in which Cockrell slowly drags herself on her forearms across the floor. I was sorry to see this curtailed.) Nevertheless, it’s impossible to mistake the essential seriousness of the piece. Cockrell actually has something at stake in what she’s doing, and it commands the audience’s attention. The work reminds us that, sometimes, to be real you have to risk being a little scary.
Pretty much at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of tone is “Can I Buy You A Fish Sandwich?” by another long-time ACDT company member, Jaime McDowell. Based on what sound like actual teenage journal entries, McDowell’s performance is a hilarious combination of deadpan and histrionics. McDowell has always been one of ACDT’s most engaging performers; it’s wonderful to see her use that charm ironically and self-mockingly here. The piece is goofy, but at the same time vulnerable and authentic. The only weakness is that McDowell’s voice is a bit too soft to be heard clearly; otherwise, she comes close to stealing the show.
Susan Collard herself offers “Beauty,” a glimpse of the evening-length modern ballet she is currently working on with Nelson Reyes, which we are told is inspired by the engravings of Francisco Goya and will be entitled “Birds of War.” This is the only ensemble-piece in Solo Shots. The ACDT dancers appear almost like the nine Muses (although there are only six of them) in a lovely and meticulously-rehearsed dance that begins in curiosity and longing and ends in solitude. Here we see an experienced choreographer working with an experienced company, and it makes one look forward to seeing the finished work.
As for the other performances, they all have their interest, and together they make for an extremely varied evening. Sharon Cooper’s “Again??” expresses the anxiety and exhaustion of being a dancer — a theme echoed later by guest artist Lindsey Kelley’s “Boma.” ACDT member Alexis Miller offers a diptych of quirky solos called “How’s the Weather,” in which she makes use of her considerable skills as a physical comedian as well as dancer. Amy Borskey’s “If I Could I Probably Wouldn’t” has a languid, dreamlike quality that contrasts well with Amy Hamilton’s “KiLLa,” an energetic calypso number set to music by the Tune-Yards. Karen George’s piece, which didn’t have a title in the program, begins with an a-capella cowboy blues song and ends somewhere in the neighborhood of Singin’ in the Rain. Sounds unlikely, but it’s actually fun.
The most unusual piece in the show is a short film by Lola York, called “Nest.” While York was also performing on stage during the screening, I have to admit I barely noticed what she was doing. Why? Because the film was so good. Shot in black and white and sped up to resemble a silent comedy, “Nest” is a hilarious and affecting meditation on the desire to make a home for oneself — somewhere — anywhere. York is a fine dancer; but if “Nest” is any indication, she has a real gift for filmmaking too.
If you go, be prepared for the informal environment of the BeBe Theatre. It’s a great little downtown blackbox, but the audiences can occasionally be nonchalant about theatre etiquette. On Friday night several people near me were texting during the performance, and a photographer in the front row (apparently a professional) had the “shutter release” sound-effect on his digital camera going like gang-busters throughout. It made me wish I’d signed up for the flight of drinks after all.