No place like home

Apparently Dorothy had it right. After being swept up in a whirlwind and enduring an odyssey in Oz that turned her perceptions upside down, she finally figured out that … well, you know.

These are heady times for the dance arts in Asheville, stirred by the recent influx of splendid new talent. And seeds can only flourish in fertile ground.

The Asheville Ballet Guild has been nurturing local dance through performance and education since the mid-1960s, offering programs ranging from professional stagings to pre-professional training and outreach efforts in area schools.

The group’s annual Fall Into Dance Festival was spearheaded by dancer/choreographer Anthony Gongora to “fill a hole in Asheville’s dance scene,” says Ann Dunn, ABG’s director. “Anthony’s vision was to bring professional-caliber, cutting-edge performances to the local audience, to present new ways of thinking about the medium.”

In the past, this invitational showcase has imported artists from major urban centers, both domestic and foreign. This year, however, local choreographers and dancers are pointedly being featured.

Dunn, who’s worked with such mavericks as George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Margaret Craske, explains how a piece typically comes to be.

“There is the choreographer, who comes to the empty space with a set of expectations, experiences and emotions, and fills it with the concept,” she reports. “The dancer then comes with another set of experiences and gives it substance. Finally, the audience absorbs it and turns it into part of their own experience.”

Two of the works at this year’s Festival — “Wood” and “Velocity” — are still in progress, giving the audience an opportunity to participate in their unfolding.

“Wood,” to be presented by AnnDunnDANCErs (the ABG’s small core of established artists), is a multi-media piece, choreographed by Dunn and inspired by the sculptures of Atlanta artist Chad Awalt.

Set to the haunting strains of Miles Davis, the piece incorporates spoken word and visual arts into its movement. In a sly take on the mythical Galatea, Awalt’s expressive carvings become animated, uncoiling the human core. A series of vignettes featuring solo, duet and ensemble performances are punctuated by Dunn’s own reflective voice, urging an awakening.

“Hopefully,” says Dunn, a published poet, “people will feel something about themselves coming to life.” This showcase performance of “Wood” is a preview of the full-length, contemporary ballet scheduled to be premiered next March.

By then, Dunn anticipates having added a score by a local composer, to be performed live.

Dancer/choreographer Brynar Mehl, who performed for eight years with the Merce Cunningham Company before joining Dunn, offers “Velocity,” a coyly named creation designed to challenge our notions of speed.

Part one of an intended two-part suite, “Velocity” reportedly mesmerized audiences when it premiered at the CulloWHEE! ArtsFest in June.

Mehl’s self-described “tricky little piece” is a synergistic mix of Satie’s “Gnossiennes” with an electronic score by pianist Steven Noll and three dancers “traveling together,” as the choreographer says, “but not at the same time.”

“Velocity” explores what Mehl calls “patterns of inevitability.” Movement evolves.

“It’s as if each phrase had to happen,” Mehl observes.

The Wings Dance Company and the J.D. Project (the latter having established a reputation for innovative thinking in alternative venues ranging from elevators to trees) will both present signature pieces dealing with issues of loss and healing.

But perhaps no piece more clearly illustrates ABG’s commitment to cultivating local talent than Sam Humphreys’ “Fantasy and Fugue.”

Humphreys, a gifted 15-year-old, is the recipient of the first ABG Young Choreographer Award, which provided him with the dancers, rehearsal space and stagecraft resources necessary to create his original work.

The resulting quartet is set to a Bach fugue and Leonard Bernstein’s rendering of the 23rd Psalm.

“It’s simply stunning,” beams Dunn, who’s delighted that the organization could facilitate the teenager’s vision and present it along with the works of more seasoned choreographers.

Including developing artists in such a program raises once more the much-ballyhooed question over the “amateur” and “professional” distinction in the arts. And it’s a good reminder that a dance company’s status is — like its performances — open to interpretation.

“It’s way more complicated than what is ‘professional’ and what isn’t,” declares Dunn. “It’s about talent.”


The Asheville Ballet Guild kicks off its 2003-04 season with the fourth annual Fall Into Dance Festival, to be held Friday, Sept. 5 and Saturday, Sept. 6 at Diana Wortham Theatre. Shows begin at 7:30 p.m.; tickets cost $10-$20. For reservations and more information, call 257-4530.

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