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Review: Off the EDGE broadens scope, pushes the creative possibilities of dance in Atlanta

Dance Heginbotham at Off the EDGE. (Photos by Jim Braverman)
Dance Heginbotham at Off the EDGE. (Photos by Jim Braverman)
Dance Heginbotham at Off the EDGE. (Photos by Jim Braverman)
Dance Heginbotham at Off the EDGE. (Photos by Jim Braverman)

Works by emerging innovators in tap, hip-hop and modern dance — plus a major international dance figure — shared the Rialto Center for the Arts’ stage last weekend in the culmination of Off the EDGE Biennial Dance Immersion. Initially a cutting-edge, contemporary dance festival, this second iteration aimed to attract new audiences by broadening the sampling of dance styles and genres. ArtsATL critics Cynthia Perry and Andrew Alexander weigh in on the concerts, with thoughts about what’s edgy, what’s accessible and whether or not the two can co-exist on stage.

Cynthia Bond Perry: Friday and Saturday evening’s concerts set out to offer a lineup of quality works by national and international artists who are pushing their genres in contemporary directions. In this sense, do you think the concerts succeeded?

Andrew Alexander: Yes. But I suppose some might question the “pushing their genres” part of that. Some audience members might understandably object to having that work categorized as the edgiest and most genre-bending work out there. But I think what a lot of observers are coming around to — I’m certainly one of them — is that the idea of things being mainstream or alternative, in the center or “off the edge,” traditional or contemporary, of one particular genre or another, doesn’t always carry a whole lot of meaning. The work of Michelle Dorrance certainly had a stripped down contemporary look, but what could be more traditional than tap-dancing to a soulful song?  Work is either good or bad. I think work that’s honest, interesting and accomplished will always move audiences and push things forward. That’s what we saw over the past couple evenings.

And you? Anything stand out as fitting that definition? Or anything stand out as not measuring up?

Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance.
Tap dancer Michelle Dorrance.

Perry: I agree with you. Both evenings left me energized with a sense of creative possibility. Consistently well conceived and well executed, the works were charged with the energy of artists in search of something very real; not intentionally “marketable,” but focused on revealing deeper truths about living in today’s world.

Regardless of style or subject matter, there was a respect for formal beauty. John Heginbotham, I think, offered good examples with “throwaway,” “Twin” and “Waltz Ending.” He kept his vocabulary simple, then gave the audience time and space to see the form, and to enjoy its organic evolution.

His images — such as tight gestures close to the body, as if restricted inside a box, or long, diagonal strides as if rushing to work — didn’t necessarily suggest beautiful things. But there was an underlying elegance to the way in which the dances evolved. Watching this was a wondrous experience. It reminded me of the way Isadora Duncan put her dances together.

Least clear to me was Jennifer Archibald’s “Sweet Sorrow.” She seems to be finding her own voice and storytelling — but with a vocabulary of much-used partnering sequences. Top-notch performances by our home company, nonetheless. How about you? Standouts? Or others, not so much?

Alexander: There’s nothing I could point to and say, “What the hell was that doing on stage?” as sometimes happens with mixed programs. I liked what was presented. One thing that occurred to me about the work: there seemed to me to be some sort of concession, or tacit acknowledgement, of the huge success of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance.” There was a lot of group choreography, fast-paced work, synchronous movement, dance vocabulary with broad appeal, accessible pop or hip-hop sounds, male-female duets, some audience interaction with cheering, clapping etc. Maybe the artists just selected fun, accessible work for the program, but who knows? Maybe even if that’s the case, it’s still evidence of a particular moment: this huge thing is here, and dancers and artists have to deal with it.

I thought the Wayne McGregor thing from the second night, a duet excerpted from “FAR,” was just unearthly. The movement was sinuous and snakey, then robotic or birdlike, all of it very alien, bordering on repellently strange, but always beautiful in a really different way. The Hubbard Street duet by Alejandro Cerrudo to Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu” was gorgeous. The lighting was a little too dark for my tastes, but I still liked the way the light and shade made the musculature so prominent: it matched his sculptural sense of the body and movement.

Louis McMiller and Daniela Neugebauer in WayneMcGregor's " Entity."
Louis McMiller and Daniela Neugebauer in WayneMcGregor’s ” Entity.”

Perry: Both were standouts, for sure. I think your question about accessibility comes back to one of the festival’s main goals: to attract new audiences. The work needs to be something people can relate to, but that stretches their conception of dance just a bit further. Avant-garde dance is a tough sell in Atlanta. If the festival reaches people in the same fashion that “So You Think…” reaches people, then blithely introduces them to Wayne McGregor’s work, is that such a bad thing?

I loved the way Compagnie Käfig extended hip-hop’s expressive range. I often think the American recording industry has appropriated the dance idiom for its own marketing ends. Without choreographers like Rennie Harris, whose “Home” appeared in Atlanta with the Alvin Ailey company in 2012, hip-hop would likely be swallowed by commercial music and entertainment giants.

Compagnie Käfig choreographers Mourad Merzouki and Anthony Egea appear to be doing for Rio de Janeiro what Harris is doing in Philadelphia — elevating street dancing to a theatrical art form. I loved the first section’s playfulness — the way dancers moved easily between punches, head spins and slicing capoeira moves as blues music was played on the berimbau. Under dramatic theatrical lighting, the men’s aggression then rose to silent screams and controlled rage. Later, Vivaldi’s music heightened their bodies’ Baroque twists and rippling musculature, creating a sense of struggle and despair. Just gorgeous.

Alexander: I likewise loved Compagnie Käfig. Part of the festival’s purpose is to test which of these companies might be a good match to bring back for Atlanta audiences. It’s clear Käfig would be fantastic. I liked them as much as you did, and pretty much everyone seemed to dig them, as well. The company performed at Spoleto last year and they were a big hit there. Speaking of which, Atlantans who attend Spoleto this year will have the opportunity to check out full shows from some of the performers from Off the EDGE. Michelle Dorrance’s company, Hubbard Street, and Keigwin and Company (which performed at Off the EDGE in 2012) are all slated for this summer in Charleston.

By the way, what did you make of the free public performances “Dance in Unexpected Spaces,” which preceded the ticketed events? And the first Off the EDGE festival in 2012 had lots of free classes, panel events, and the like, but there weren’t many this year. Any thoughts on that? One of the most memorable events last year turned out to be an off-site, free performance by Rina Schenfeld at the Goat Farm on the final evening.

All in all, it seems a shame the festival doesn’t take place in warmer weather. It seems like an event that needs and wants to get outdoors a bit more, but, well, this wasn’t really the prime year or season for that.

Students from Kennesaw State's dance program.
Students from Kennesaw State’s dance program.

Perry: Spoleto is certainly a place where audiences can catch more of the avant-garde. That’s part of what inspired Off the EDGE. Great dance companies were performing in nearby cities like Charleston, Durham and Miami — but weren’t coming to Atlanta. Rialto Center Director Leslie Gordon and the Loridans Foundation decided to do something about it. As for Edge/Unexpected — it was a great way to highlight to Atlanta’s home talent. Fascinating choreography in a beautiful domed space. Violinist Chip Epsten can make just about any dance feel magical.

Speaking of the local scene, what did you think about the kids from Kennesaw State?

Alexander: I feel like I’m sounding too positive about everything and that it’s time for me to start ripping something apart, but I actually thought the kids were fantastic. It was interesting to see football moves, which always seem so lunky and bulky, performed by lithe, graceful dancers. Ivan Pulinkala’s piece had really smart use of live musicians and a big sculptural work: it had a fleet narrative with a nice shape, almost cinematic in its effect, with tons of different stage images and compositions along the way, all of which the dancers handled beautifully. A really great mix of the comic and the creepy, eulogizing the game but kind of sending it up, too, The audience obviously loved it. Just a fun work, about a subject everyone is familiar with, and on the whole, very well executed.

Looking back at the whole Off the EDGE 2014, could you pick out a favorite performance or perhaps even better: a particular movement or moment?

Perry: It would have to be the moment on Friday when I realized — despite the lack of adequate program notes — that I was seeing members of Random Dance performing choreography by Wayne McGregor, one of the world’s most interesting and sought-after choreographers. Right here in Atlanta. “Entity,” with its thrusting leg extensions, interlocking partnering, and torsos undulating through its own architecture — helped me feel linked to what’s happening outside of Atlanta, in the greater world of dance.

Alexander: I found the ticketed events a little short each night, especially Friday. The lights came up and I think people were surprised it was over. There’s a wisdom to keeping things short and sweet, but I think it would be possible to add a work each night. It was also surprising that some companies only presented one work, while others presented as many as four. I liked the “Dance in Unexpected Places” aspect, but it would be nice to have that outside. Maybe the next Off the EDGE can be in May. Anyway, all in all, it was a great event.

Perry: The producers have done a remarkable job, considering this is only the festival’s second iteration. There’s definitely a process in establishing a festival like this — figuring out how audiences, artists, venues and ancillary events all work together. I like the idea of comparing the sampler concerts to viewing paintings by various artists in a gallery. It help us to discern what we like or don’t like, and what good quality works in different genres have in common. It’s a wonderful eye-opener.

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