Shaping, changing

It’s about 2:10 on a Wednesday afternoon, and we’re in a basement studio of the Asheville Center of Performing Arts on Walnut Street. Sunlight washes down from a skylight, hitting a long rack of costumes, a sort of pageant on wheels: a row of red satin dresses, Santa-trimmed in white, garnished with others of varying jeweled greens and blues. In the room’s center, eight of Add dance’s nine performers rehearse a piece for their upcoming summer concert.

The atmosphere is tense, the dancers’ exchanges marked by a through-gritted-teeth politeness commonly employed by warring couples in restaurants.

The performance is only a week-and-a-half away, and the work being rehearsed is complex. Last week, choreographer Leigh Ann Walker, Add dance’s artistic director (and founding member), realized that much of the piece wasn’t working, and she’s come to today’s rehearsal steeled and with a clipboard full of changes. Visibly nervous, she goes over each one. Afterward, the dancers block out each change.

The rehearsal began at 12:30 with a warm-up at the barre. Almost two hours later, my mind is numbed by the sheer amount of steps performed — and I’ve done nothing more physically straining than seat myself creakily on the floor.

“Diffidence,” the piece being rehearsed, is an ambitious exploration — in space and patterns — of the stonewalled feeling of being blocked creatively, being too shy and nervous to show your work in public. Two movements are used throughout, the repetition serving as a mesmerizing thread as the dancers fold in, out, around — and, sometimes, on top of — one another.

At one point, a chorus of “Sorry”s goes up when a group lying stretched on the floor gets inadvertently trampled.

Does this sound ungraceful? It is, yet it’s not. The company’s dancers are strong and technically sharp. What’s more, they clearly love to dance, so that even watching the practice at the barre is absorbing: One dancer might stare straight ahead, her foot crisp in its movements from front to side to back, while another is turned toward the mirror, intently monitoring her own movement, examining each extension for pointe and turnout — as dreamy and introspective as a woman brushing her hair before a mirror.

Add dance was formed five years ago, when Ann Dunn (now owner of the Fletcher School of Dance) offered Walker the chance to create a company sharing the nonprofit status of her own Ann Dunn and Dancers, a venture she then wished to be finished with. (Later, however, Walker decided to dispense with the nonprofit status, returning it to Dunn’s company. The move, while risky, freed up time for rehearsals and dancing that she says had been spent on bookkeeping.) Joined by two fellow Dunn dancers, Walker held auditions, and a dance company was born. “I wanted [it] to be friendly and collaborative,” she says. Only three of Add dance’s original members — Walker, Conway Taylor and Monroe Moore — are still with the group, but the company has managed to attract a steady flow of high-caliber dancers. Other current members are Cricket Green, Susan Haines, Angel Hilemon, Sandra Hayslette, Nicole Kmecza, and Nora Lozano.

Before the Wednesday rehearsal, Walker and I met downtown and talked about the bittersweet side of dancing, particularly its hyper-demands on the body and psyche.

“Often, [going to] performances brings me to tears,” she confides, referring to the dual edge of awe and envy that goes with watching an accomplished dancer or an amazing piece of choreography. “And it’s not necessarily because it’s so beautiful. It’s because I love it so much, it hurts.

“That’s one of the things that makes this group really special. Because I think we have really talented dancers … and we’ve all wanted to be ‘Dancers,’” she continues. “And you know, once it’s in your blood, it’s there forever. … I feel so fortunate. Because I just think that [dancers] see life differently. You feel everything. You feel life. You don’t just see it, you don’t just go through it. You experience it through your body.”

Permeating this summer’s performance is a deep current of turbulent introspection. Like all the company’s performances, this one will include choreography by various members. Local dancer Connie Schrader makes a guest appearance, taking part in a duet she choreographed for herself and Taylor. The music is largely classical, by composers like Penderecki and Henry Cowell, as recorded by the likes of Itzhak Perlman and the Kronos Quartet.

“When you hear of modern [dance], you think of weird music,” says Walker with a laugh, describing how she, herself, became infatuated with the form she calls “classical-contemporary.” And, she says, “of dancers pushing rocks around with their noses on stage — or rolling around in the mud.”

It’s 2:40 p.m. The changes have all been blocked and rehearsed, and it’s time to run through the whole piece. The time constraint is now even more pressing: Rehearsal must end at 3 — but with only three rehearsals left, there’s no cutting corners.

“Diffidence” begins with Walker facing the audience for some 15 seconds, until she’s joined, one by one, by the other dancers. Their movements form a mesmerizing dialectic between a gentle rocking in place — like a sprinter in the block before a race — and a fluid release. The patterns emerge with an infallible beauty — and, by degrees, the afternoon’s weariness falls away, as each member is swept up in the dance, diffidence forgotten.

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