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Dance's Tear Factor

News and Observer

In 30-plus years of writing about dance, I can count on two hands and a couple of toes the number of times a performer has made me weep. This doesn't include those that were so abysmal that I cried because I would have to relive them to write about it. Or the time my heart had just been ripped out of my chest and stomped on by the object of my affection. That summer, practically anything with a woman and a man on stage triggered a flood.

No. I'm talking about dancers whose pure artistry is so extraordinary, so inspired, that the performer seems possessed. Taken over by the spirit gods. The kind that takes a veteran critic by surprise and reminds her what drew her into the business in the first place. Why art is so critical to our lives.

I'm thinking about this as the American Dance Festival spreads itself over Duke University's campuses for the 25th time. This modern dance umbrella has brought us some of the most glorious performances imaginable, and landmark years lend themselves to reflection.

My passion for modern dance goes back to 1968, when I saw the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform "Revelations" for the first time. With the University of California's Berkeley campus fomenting a revolution just outside the theater door, Judith Jamison, Dudley Williams and the rest of the company danced with raw energy and a complete commitment to Ailey's glorious homage to African roots in America. Pathos, politics and wild abandon spilled in and out of each other. It propelled me to my feet, stomping, shouting and hallelujah-take-me-to-church-Judith-and-Dudley. I was hooked. I became a complete modern-dance devotee. Ballet was over. This was Berkeley in the late '60s; Vietnam was burning and so were our bras. Tutus were binding, and we didn't need men to lift us up anymore. Women were flirting with power, and we couldn't do that leading with our sternums. A woman needed to sink into her pelvis if she was going to come into her full power. Like Li Chiao Ping. I wept the first time I saw this diminutive fireball eat up the stage like a dervish unleashed from years of confinement. Her performance in a college faculty showcase was pure fire, risk and artistry. She was possessed. So was Diane McIntyre in "Negro Spirituals" at the Scripps ADF Awards ceremony in 1995 honoring Pearl Primus and Helen Tamiris. In a few spare movements, McIntyre peopled the bare Page Auditorium stage with a legion of ancestors on whose shoulders she stood. Never mind that the suite of dances was made by Tamiris, a white Jewish choreographer, the daughter of Russian emigrees -- an activist. And even on video, not an ideal medium for dance, Talley Beatty's passion in his 1947 "Mourner's Bench" overrides the grainy, indistinct picture and leaves me breathless and weepy. Modern dance was the intellectual's art form. It made us think. But more important, it made me feel -- deeply -- and I couldn't get enough. I plunged in, devouring it everywhere I could. Betty Jones and Clay Taliaffero's performance of "The Moor's Pavane" in San Francisco brought out the Kleenex. Jones, then in her 60s, resurrected the role the late Jose Limon set on her 40 years earlier when it premiered at ADF, then located in Connecticut. With Taliaferro, Limon's living spirit, the two created a synergy that transcended them both in the tangled Otello tale of love, power and betrayal. Other moving moments, these from ADF in Durham. Carol Parker in "Nocturne," Martha Clarke's wrenching solo. Merce Cunningham all vulnerable and tender in his "Pictures." Mark Dendy and Lawrence Keigwin in Dendy's virtuosic "Afternoon of a Faun." Arthur Aviles in "D-Man in the Waters," Bill T. Jones' spirited celebration of life. Jin Xing and a congregate of women whose long black hair created an impenetrable wall. His elegy to Tiananmen Square was all the more poignant danced on Duke's bucolic campus with Baldwin Auditorium as the backdrop. Trisha Brown caught me by surprise with a seemingly benign little solo called "If You Could See Me" when she accepted the Scripps ADF award in 1994. But there she was, a woman of a certain age, who understood that true sensuality is derived from a state of mind where humor, intelligence and confidence co-mingle. She offered up a tour de force that struck a deep chord. And I wept both times I saw Anna Halperin, somewhere in her 70s, perform a slice of a childhood recollection in "Grandpa Dances." She, Brown, Jones, Taliaferro and McIntyre all brought to their performances the majesty of wisdom to reveal mysteries of life. Subtly. They shined a light on a magnified moment without concern that we might see imperfection. They understood and conveyed the complexities of being human. And then it happened. I realized I had stopped feeling the sting of tears well up. Was it them or me? Eventually, I stopped writing about dance. I was done. Or so I thought. Then on a recent Sunday afternoon, I felt the sting again. And go figure, it was ballet that created the meltdown. Melissa Podcasy was dancing "The Man I Love" from Balanchine's "Who Cares?" and Peter Martins' "Valse Triste" in Carolina Ballet's season finale. I've seen her perform many roles and watched in awe as she conveys loss, expectation and desire in one brief bouree -- a floating glide on her toes across an expanse of stage. This time traveling backward. Podcasy can be innocent and childlike as Juliet, or lusty and seasoned as Carmen, roles choreographed for her by her husband, Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss. It's as if she rummages through the drawers of life's experiences to select just the right head tilt or sudden look to the right, punctuated by a penetrating gaze. In the blink of an eye, she offers a furtive glance and the perfect placement of a wrist. Podcasy is filled with quirks and little eccentricities that power her impeccable technique. Even her mouth has a life of its own. She has this way of taking a first step that is all at once delicate and purposeful, wrapped up in caution and deliberateness. She can do a breathtaking linger while somehow conveying a sense of internal motion. Paradoxes. How does she do that? How does she transform right before our eyes from one dance to another, all on the same program? In truth, she puts enormous thought into preparing for each role, writing a script in her head as she goes, matching internal dialogue to steps. Yet on stage, all that preparation melts away and what's left is the essence. She's like a well-developed character in a novel that you can't put down. Or the author who invents complex characters, then steps out of the way and lets the characters tell their own story. This woman is possessed. I wept all the way home.

Reflection added January 22, 2017. In 1987, on hiatus from writing about dance, to writing for it as press agent for the American Dance Festival, I had the great privilege to pen these words for Alvin Ailey's Scripps American Dance Festival award. It gave me deep pleasure to know that Harry Belafonte would read the inscription. I wrote the word "sassy" just to hear him say it. He didn't disappoint. The company's performance of "Revelations" that night propelled me to my feet and back to that experience nearly two decades earlier.

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