Once a year Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre takes an evening-length program of original dance to the big stage at Diana Wortham Theatre. For the company’s devoted audiences, it’s an exciting opportunity to see the work done up right, with all the atmospheric magic that a beautiful theatre, a large stage and full theatrical lighting can bring to a performance. Granted, if you’re a real fan of ACDT, you’re probably happy enough squeezing into the company’s scruffy and grotto-like home at the BeBe Theatre and sitting close enough to hear the dancers’ joints crack. But whatever the big stage loses in intimacy, it gains in spectacle — assuming the work is strong.
And the new ACDT offering is the strongest I’ve seen from the company so far. Don’t let the show’s rather bland title mislead you: Travelogue: Stories of Our Migration is a spectacular and moving program of original dance, featuring an impressive variety of styles and elements. Once again, ACDT has teamed up with sister company White Dog ProjectX International to feature new choreography by Nelson Reyes and Diana Cabrera Stepanova (both from Cuba) and Thierry Raymond (from France), whose works comprise the second half of the show. The first half — a long, episodic piece entitled “Ellis Island: New York, New York” — features choreography by some of ACDT’s permanent staff: Artistic director Susan Collard, co-director Giles Collard, and dancers Jenni Cockrell and Kala Hildebrand.
“Ellis Island: New York, New York” is a series of choreographic vignettes set in an imaginary Ellis Island around the turn of the last century. The dancers appear as new immigrants at the eponymous immigration center, wearing period costumes, carrying small suitcases and entering into various combinations for trios, duets and solos. These range in tone from the humorous and quotidian to the anguished and expressionistic.
ACDT’s Junior Company makes a strong showing in Susan Collard’s “Piles of Paper” and Giles Collard’s “The Bureaucracy,” the two vignettes that open the piece, and from there it only gets better. Susan Collard’s “We Have Arrived” is a lush ensemble number that then introduces the ACDT dancers, and it is followed by Jenni Cockrell’s stunning trio, “Women of the Balkans,” which features Cockrell herself, Kala Hildebrand and Jaime Scott — each of them a beautiful dancer and an experienced performer, and each possessing an entirely distinct aura on stage. Cockrell’s precision and feisty charm are counterpointed by Scott’s voluptuous grace, while Hildebrand holds herself aloof, as if a Greek statue had come to life with radiant expressiveness down to her fingertips. These women have worked together for years, and it shows.
As “Women of the Balkans” subsides into stillness and silence (the first in the show so far), a man in a longshoreman’s cap walks on stage. Seeming to flirt with the women, he starts tapping his foot, and soon he’s dancing a slow Irish jig. The solitary figure (Joe Mohar), and the simple sound of the tapping shoes in the vast theatre are intensely dramatic, especially following the lush sensuousness of the previous numbers. When a lone Irish fiddle strikes up to accompany the dancer, and the fiddler herself (Laurie Fisher) emerges from somewhere back in the shadows, it’s nothing short of breathtaking.
One reason it has become conventional for choreographers to set their work to pre-recorded music is the sheer expense of hiring musicians, whether you’re talking about a tambourine player, a DJ or an orchestra. And because it’s conventional, many audiences have come to expect the quasi-cinematic experience of being surrounded by a canned soundtrack as they watch dance.
But anyone paying attention to the energy in the audience during “The Irish” or the other live-music piece, “Remembering” (featuring Marcus Chatfield on guitar and Duke Ramuten on harmonica, a.k.a. The Shinola Troubadours of Possum Splendor), will have noticed a quantum leap. There’s something dangerous — and hence fascinating — about live performance, especially between musician and dancer. Pre-recorded music unfortunately makes dance feel that much safer.
That’s my opinion; and now I’m going to offer another one: I’m on record as expressing the view that video and dance rarely mix happily, unless the video images are somehow “abstract.” Video images, for example, of dancers (or worse: live-feed video of the very dancers who are on stage at the moment) can only do one of two things: make the dancer’s look like the dwarves of Stonehenge, or distract the audience’s attention from the dancers entirely.
In either case, I want my money back. ACDT has taken a risk by collaborating with videographer William Towers on “Ellis Island,” but the risk pays off. Towers has worked with dancers before, and he knows his business is to enhance and support the live performance. The set is backed by a huge video screen, and the entire piece is accompanied by a skillfully assembled montage of black-and-white documentary footage — presumably from Ellis Island itself.
Sometimes we’re shown what appears to be actual film footage; at other times the camera pans slowly across or zooms slowly in on a still photograph. The combination of slightly over-exposed black-and-white footage, slow camera movements, and the colossal format of the screen ensures that the images become abstract, more of an atmosphere than a distraction. It’s extremely effective.
After “Ellis Island,” the second half of the show pairs a more hip, energetic and contemporary work by Nelson Reyes and Diana Cabrera Stepanova, entitled “Welcome to the US,” with a work by Thierry Raymond that feels almost ancient. Whereas “Welcome to the US” takes a humorous look at the experience of becoming an American citizen (complete with Statue of Liberty head-gear), Thierry’s “Nomade” is a more meditative and expressionistic piece about exile, wandering, and relocation. The dancers slowly circle the stage carrying long bamboo poles, which converge, from time to time, into striking images of forests, gates, fences, rafts, and even a pillory. “Nomade” ends the program on a somber chord, to be sure; but all three of the major works in the show discover a melancholy within the hope of starting over in a new place. Despite the variety of styles and approaches, Travelogue is a coherent and moving program of modern dance.
Travelogue: Stories of Our Migration, presented by Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre and White Dog ProjectX International. Choreography by Susan Collard, Giles Collard, Jenni Cockrell, Joe Mohar, Kala Hildebrand, Nelson Reyes, Diana Cabrera Stepanova and Thierry Raymond. Videography by William Towers. Lighting design by Jason Williams. Performances Saturday, Dec.5 at 8 p.m., Diana Wortham Theatre, Pack Place, Downtown Asheville. Tickets: $25/$20 students and seniors.254-2621 or dwtheatre.com