ASHEVILLE N.C.— It’s been 10 years since the North Carolina Dance Festival took center stage at the Diana Wortham Theatre, but the initiative goes back much further. “It started 27 years ago as a way to connect dance communities across North Carolina,” says co-director Anne Morris. “Our founder, Jan Van Dyke, wanted artists to show their work at various venues without having to leave the state.”
And, while that remains the festival’s underlying mission, NCDF has transformed in years past, working to accommodate unconventional choreography and nontraditional venues. This year, it comes to the BeBe Theatre for performances on Friday, Oct. 20, and Saturday, Oct. 21.
Though only a few hours’ drive from Western North Carolina, Greensboro — where NCDF is headquartered — can feel like another world when it comes to performance. “Dancers grow accustomed to audiences and artists; they become siloed,” says Morris.
The late Van Dyke wanted to fix that. In 1991, she introduced the festival as a traveling, statewide showcase of high-caliber choreography. Each season, two to three cities are selected to host concerts over the course of a weekend. Besides the BeBe Theatre, this year’s venues include the Van Dyke Performance Space and the Greensboro Project Space Gallery, both in Greensboro, and The Rickhouse in Durham.
All venues are community centers rather than college concert halls or auditoriums. That distinction is important, notes Morris. Though festival organizers want to continue nurturing relationships with local universities, they realize that not all art can be relegated to conventional spaces.
“In the beginning, most dance activity happened on campuses,” says Morris. “Now, so much happens beyond the university setting.”
Winston-Salem’s Chris Yon understands that firsthand. His NCDF production — formerly called “HOW TO PUNCH, KICK, STAB, KILL” and recently renamed “Rendezvous” — is designed to work in traditional and nontraditional spaces. When performed in the Greensboro Project Space on Thursday, Nov. 9, for instance, Yon anticipates that the show will occupy not one, but two different areas.
“We want to take the audience on a promenade, starting on the street and then moving inside,” he says. Even then, the interior is more like a ballroom than theater. “The setup is advantageous for us because the audience can get closer. Our subtle movements suddenly become more legible.”
The same holds true for the small BeBe Theatre.
“We’re more contained in Asheville, of course. But getting to perform the same work in several different spaces is an incredible way of keeping things fresh,” says Yon.
Accommodating both traditional and nontraditional venues does pose a logistical challenge for organizers. Each year, adjudicators select choreographers following a call for submissions. Unlike other festivals, NCDF has never limited itself to themes — organizers have screened applicants based on quality. But now, they must consider space accommodations.
“Do we select strong choreography first and the venue second? Or a venue and then the choreography that fits the space? We’re still trying to figure that out,” admits Morris.
Fortunately, Yon’s piece is flexible. What began as a dubious homage to Merce Cunningham’s “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run” has since evolved into a duet between him and his partner, Taryn Griggs.
“‘HOW TO PUNCH, KICK, STAB, KILL’ was a defense mechanism to the agitation and anxiety we have felt since last November,” Yon says, referring to the presidential election. But putting together an “angsty solo” felt counterproductive, so he and Griggs turned to the cosmos.
“We were inspired by ‘space rendezvous’ which, according to Wikipedia, is ‘an orbital maneuver during which two spacecraft, one of which is often a space station, arrive at the same orbit and approach to a very close distance,’” says Yon. “For us, this was an apt metaphor for the dance we are making: two bodies making a very circuitous, careful approach toward each other.”
Alexandra Joye Warren’s piece, “For Love of Country,” is more down to earth. Designed for a traditional venue, the choreography dissects healing, patriotism and reconciliation through the lens of America’s current political climate.
“My work has to do with things I’m trying to understand,” says Warren. “I like to flip things around, look at them from a different perspective and ask questions rather than put forth hard statements.”
Questions concerning race (Can people of color still love their country? Should they remain patriotic? How will the current administration affect their sense of place?) underpin the piece, making it not unlike other works presented by Warren’s Greensboro-based dance company, JOYEMOVEMENT.
Last year, the troupe put on a racially charged solo, “Fit the Description,” at the 26th annual NCDF. Described as a “love letter to all who have been accused of being a suspect because of the color of their skin,” the dance included a pre-recorded narrative told by Warren’s husband, Hashim.“It’s a personal story about his experiences with the police over the past 20 years,” the choreographer says.
The 15-minute performance is part of an evening-length piece that debuted at the Greensboro Fringe Festival in January.
“It’s a tight edit, but it really takes on a life of its own,” notes Warren.
Morris adds, “It’s powerful and honest. It brings up important questions that Americans of all cultural backgrounds are struggling with.”
Though this will be Warren’s third year with NCDF — she performed in Amy Love Beasley’s piece “This Place is the Place” in 2014 — this year is Warren’s first season touring. “We know all the camps described in the news — poor communities, people of color, left and right. People have all these different ways of categorizing themselves,” she says. “Well, we want to peel back that layer. We want to look at what people are actually feeling and experiencing, not the assumptions that are being made.”
WHAT: North Carolina Dance Festival, danceproject.org
WHERE: The BeBe Theatre, 20 Commerce St.
WHEN: Friday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 21, at 2 and 8 p.m. $18 general/$15 students and seniors