A Modern Milestone

May 21, 2008

A woman in a red dress changed Paul Taylor’s life his first summer as a student at the American Dance Festival. Celebrating its 75th season this summer, the six-week modern dance festival offers a double bill of potentially life-changing experiences: a diverse performance lineup and a school that promises a wide range of learning opportunities.


Taylor credits the festival with setting him on the path to choreograph. His memories of that first summer at ADF in 1952 remain vivid despite the fact that more than half a century has passed since he struggled to learn modern dance technique at Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. (The festival started at Bennington College and moved to Connecticut College in the 1940s, and on to Durham’s Duke University campus in 1978).


“I’ll never forget it. It was a very formative time for me,” Taylor said in a telephone interview from his Long Island home. He can still see Martha Graham in a red dress, walking across the lawn towards him. A red parasol bathes her face in pink light. When she reaches him, she gives him her New York phone number and invites him to join her company—a heady moment for the 22-year-old student.


In addition to Graham, the faculty included Doris Humphrey, Louis Horst (Graham’s musical director, who taught choreography), and Merce Cunningham. “It was my first real exposure to dance,” Taylor said, “and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.” He took Martha Graham up on her offer and counts her as an influence to this day—especially when it comes to theatricality.


Taylor is just one of a long list of former ADF students-turned-professional dancemakers who have premiered work at the festival. Taylor’s many ADF premieres began in 1961 with Insects and Heroes, followed by Aureole in 1962. This summer, his company performs a new work, Changes, to music by The Mamas & the Papas. “They gave me a chance,” Taylor said of ADF’s early support.


Choreographer Shen Wei, recently chosen to create the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Beijing in August, also had ADF support early on. It began with a 2000 commission in which students performed and became members of the company he formed at the festival that summer. Mark Dendy, Larry Keigwin, and Charlotte Griffin are some other choreographers who got their start at ADF.


“Where’s the talent? How can we help the talent?” ADF director Charles Reinhart asks when describing the festival’s mission. “It’s still possible for the hair to rise on my head from seeing a choreographer do an incredible work.”


Shen also represents the international arm of ADF’s reach. He received his modern dance training at the Guangdong Dance Academy in Guangzhou, China, where ADF sent teachers for its first international exchange in 1987. Shen became an original member of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company, China’s first modern troupe. Since then, the festival has established similar programs in Russia, Korea, and India.


Reinhart and his late wife Stephanie took the festival to new levels. Stephanie was instrumental in globalizing modern dance. She received the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres award from the French government for her role in bringing French modern dance to the rest of the world. Under the Reinharts’ leadership, the festival’s international flavor included foreign companies on the performance lineup and commissions for choreographers to study and create work at the festival.


In 2001, Stephanie Reinhart won an Emmy Award for her PBS series “Free to Dance: The African-American Presence in Modern Dance,” which grew out of ADF’s Black Tradition in American Modern Dance project. Initiated by the Reinharts in 1987, this series aimed to honor and preserve the work of black choreographers. The project has set historic pieces by Donald McKayle, Pearl Primus, Eleo Pomare, and Talley Beatty on the Joel Hall Dancers, Philadanco, and Dayton Contemporary Dance Company.


Many esteemed teachers have imparted their knowledge to students over the years. Betty Jones is one fondly remembered by many students. Jones, who danced leading roles with the Limón Dance Company, taught at ADF for 42 years, the last time in 2001. “For me, ADF was probably the best teaching I was able to do. I had the students for six weeks,” Jones said in an interview from her home in Honolulu, where she co-directs Dances We Dance. She advised students to take their studies seriously, to dance out of love, and to respect their individuality. “José used to say, ‘We are all unique and we should not try to be like everyone else,’ ” Jones said.


Current ADF dean Donna Faye Burchfield remembers her first classes with Betty Jones in 1982. “I can still see her hands moving,” Burchfield says. “It was in large part because of her that I continued to go back. It was transforming.”


Year after year, the festival creates an atmosphere in which dance thrives. Four days a week, students take three classes chosen from many technique and composition options. At other times, they may participate in opportunities such as archive projects and yoga. “You see dance, talk about dance, and dance,” Burchfield says. “It’s a ritual that enacts something very powerful. After 75 years, we’re still coming together to do that.”


That immersion appeals to Asheville, North Carolina, native Myra Scibetta, who spent her fourth summer as an ADF student last year. “There are so many options. You take classes, see performances by professional dancers, meet people from all over the world,” Scibetta says. “There’s definitely a connection that will exist for a long, long time. I want to pursue dance as a career.” For her ADF work/study job last summer, Scibetta served as Martha Clarke’s assistant for the resetting of Clarke’s acclaimed Garden of Earthly Delights. During three weeks of rehearsal, Scibetta kept a daily log of decisions made in the collaborative effort with musicians and dancers. She also took care of Clarke’s Pomeranians, Pie and Sofie, who came to rehearsals with the choreographer. “They slept a lot,” Scibetta says. “They’re theater dogs, truly.”


A new MFA dance program, developed by Burchfield and sponsored by ADF and Hollins University, where Burchfield heads the dance department, has enriched the festival experience in unexpected ways. Initially designed to help older dancers continue as professionals beyond the stage, the program brings these MFA candidates to the festival to show their work, take classes, and teach. Their presence has piqued students’ interest in the history of modern dance—something noticeably lacking in recent years. “History gives you something to push up against,” says Burchfield. “It helps you to find your own place.”


For choreographer Mark Dendy, his first summer at ADF in 1981 helped him find his place as an artist. “It changed the creative direction of my life. It opened my mind,” Dendy says. Prior to ADF, he had studied dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he felt he got excellent training. But, he says, “At NCSA, you got red, yellow, and blue, and at ADF, you got the whole box of 64 crayons. From ADF, I have an appreciation of every dancer and choreographer alive or dead and that it’s a shared heritage. I get something from all of it.”


This summer, Dendy will work with 16 ADF students to create a world premiere. He’s thinking about forming a company again while there. “I’ve found so many of my dancers at ADF over the years,” he says.


In the festival’s future, Reinhart sees a continuation of the global focus that could include international residences throughout the year at Durham’s new performing arts center, scheduled to open next year.


This summer the festival will acknowledge the past as well as embrace the startlingly new, just as Reinhart did his first year as festival director in 1969 when he made good on his promise “to shake things up.” He presented Twyla Tharp’s Medley (1969), performed outdoors until mosquitoes forced dancers inside.


As Reinhart has put it, the festival will continue to move “onwards and sideways” in order to support modern dance.


Susan Broili is a journalist with
The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C. and a contributor to Dance Magazine.


Photo by Tony Cenicola, Courtesy ADF.