Brave New Worlds: A Crucible of Modern Dance, American Dance Festival Celebrates 75 Years

By Broili, Susan | Dance Magazine, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Brave New Worlds: A Crucible of Modern Dance, American Dance Festival Celebrates 75 Years


Broili, Susan, Dance Magazine


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 ADE

"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.

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