Anthony Gongora is a man compelled to dance.
The organizer of Fall into Dance ’99, Asheville’s first modern-dance festival, says of his beloved art: “It’s one of those things that demands your entire being, spirit, mind and body. But producing the festival — a labor of love that spans the first three weekends in October, at the Fletcher School of Music — demanded even more: The idea for the unconventional festival, which is threatening to put Asheville on the modern-dance circuit, arose from necessity.
Gongora moved here from Chicago two years ago; in the Windy City, the Cal Arts graduate performed, taught and choreographed dance. “But when I got to Asheville,” Gongora recalls, “I went from dancing six to eight hours a day down to zero. I thought the only way I could work here was to create venues to do the type of dance I want to do.”
And through sheer determination, a $1,500 grant from the Unicorn Foundation, and the generosity of friends — including some of the country’s most innovative dancers — Gongora has done just that. Gongora’s plans began to crystallize in February, when he performed a show called “Clay … Pencil … Body…” which featured sculpture, drawing and dance. That groundbreaking production attracted an impressive 40 people a night. Then, after another dance company’s production performed to a sellout crowd at the Diana Wortham Theatre, Gongora got to thinking. “I knew that people I’d worked with were, as choreographers, equally exciting and inventive. At that point, I thought, ‘Let’s do a festival.’ I called people I know from all over the country and said, ‘I don’t have any money — just housing,’ and they said, ‘Yes.’ “
Among those people are some dancers who wouldn’t otherwise make it through Asheville, unless they took a series of very wrong turns on a very long drive. One such company, which performed last weekend, is Troika Ranch, an NYC-based troupe founded by composer Mark Coniglio and choreographer Dawn Stoppiello. Troika Ranch fuses traditional elements of dance, music and theater with interactive computer technology and media. The result is something that even Gongora struggled to describe. Using emerging technologies, Coniglio invents instruments specifically designed for performing his music. One such creation featured at Fall into Dance ’99 is the MidiDancer sensory suit, a device that measures angular changes at several joints on the dancer’s body during the performance. Using wireless technology, original music or other effects, the data is then transmitted to computers.
Obviously, this is not your average hoedown. Dance companies like these are difficult to accommodate, and accordingly, some had planned to scale down their acts, but Gongora and his dedicated (volunteer) staff would have none of that. They’ve hung curtains, designed costumes and installed lighting in order to transform the Fletcher School to meet the companies’ specifications. Volunteer Hal Gusler not only survived the death of a lighting board and lived to tell about it — he also learned enough before the festival to do a commendable job lighting the performance (a debut experience for him). Ann Dunn, artistic director of the Fletcher School of Dance, has helped shepherd the process, making it financially and logistically possible.
“Every single time that I’ve suggested something for the space, she’s totally been right there providing it,” says Gongora. When Dunn learned of Gongora’s unwillingness to impose on her by asking if he could lay 24 feet of track through Fletcher School (to further accommodate Troika Ranch’s mobile video projector), she told him to go ahead — and even dug up a screen large enough to meet the company’s needs.
On opening night, even this thoroughly unconventional festival proved that art continues to imitate life: Dunn, whom Gongora referred to as his “angel” for her integral role in birthing the festival, danced the role of Angel in her “Requiem for My Parents While They Live.” (Dunn was voted “Best Dancer” in the 1998 and 1999 Mountain Xpress readers’ polls.)
Other performances were equally ethereal and mythical. A crowd favorite that evening was a thoughtful, feminine work (danced by Asheville’s Amy Crandall Dowling) performed to a reading on the qualities of “The Ideal Woman.” Later, Dowling matched steps with Allen Desterhaf in her “To Have and To Hold.” An edgy, sexy performance was served up by Carrie Hanson, a Ruth Page Award recipient who recently created a new ballet for The National Theater of Mannheim, Germany. Hanson breathed life into intensely personal, fictional characters, starting “Suite for Weird Sister” with a shock of scarlet hair and a skateboard, then continuing in the next act with scuba flippers, as the white-and-blue-haired “Aquamarina Lacryma.” Gongora, himself, paired with Hanson to kick off the evening with the frenetic “Yes, I Think That, I Know” (choreographed by David Marchant of Missouri), then closed with Dunn and Dowling in the physical “Dreamscape 1,” which featured music by Tom Waits (dancing to Tom Waits is an achievement in itself, even without the slew of umbrellas the dancers shouldered).
“Dreamscape 1” gives a taste of Gongora’s next project — a larger work (to be performed in Chicago) called “The Falling Man’s Flying Thoughts.” Built around poetry, it explores aspects of time in dreams, says Gongora: “How things cut really quickly — you’re with one person, and it flips into another person. Events are not linear in their unfolding.”
Fall into Dance ’99 has not been linear in its unfolding, either. Like many of the best grassroots art initiatives, it has been high on heart and rewards, but hard on the people organizing it. But as Gongora says about dance: “You move from what moves you. There is not a codified set of steps that everybody dances; there are no rules for what you can and can’t do.” Experiencing that freedom is what makes Fall into Dance ’99 worth seeing, and Anthony Gongora surely wouldn’t have it any other way.