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Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
Spreading the light: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dancers are regular performers at the American Dance Festival. Photo by Bill McKeown, courtesy of the American Dance Festival

Jones/Zane company celebrates the evolution of modern dance

American Dance Festival's 90th season featured 32 performances

In the dim lighting of the Reynolds Industries Theater, each dancer holds a shining light in the palm of their hand, guiding it from the audience to center stage. These dancers from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, representing celestial bodies, rotate and move in different directions and paces, all in the same time and space. The audience’s gaze is now fixed front and center.

The opening scene of "Curriculum II," a modern dance performance choreographed by Bill T. Jones, was arranged to express that people should not have to be similar to those in pop culture who are bound to the structure of corporate America.

Listen to Jeyani Horton's audio story

“The sanctity of the modern harvest was to be free from any restrictions,” says Jones, co-founder of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. The dancers in this piece were minimally covered with garments suitable for the comfort of the dancers' body, and each dancer was painted in a solid color from head to toe. This scene can be perceived as a multitude of different nationalities and lifestyles being introduced to each other and becoming at odds with one another, then understanding that they can be open enough to discover shared similarities to become one after being faced with technologically foreign forces.

“They need their space,” he says, pausing for a moment to give his audience the opportunity to digest his meaning and relate it to the galactic introduction they just witnessed

Dancers conquered stereotypes of dancer roles, assembling the petite dancer to lift their taller counterpart and end it with a graceful twirl. They held striking poses that underscored the unconventional ways dancers can control their bodies. The choreography also incorporated mirroring style duets to dramatize an aspect of the choreography.

“There was so much going on,” audience member Fran Lynch stated during the post-performance discussion. “We are bombarded with so much and we have to try to find the valuable nuggets within this piece.”

For more than four decades, Duke has been the host for the American Dance Festival’s renowned and emerging choreographers and dance companies to showcase evolutionary pieces rooted in the modern dance style. The ADF has welcomed companies such as Ballet Hispanico, staibdance, Kyle Marshall Choreography and ZviDance to perform for the Duke community and residents of the Durham area.

With the circulation of different trends and ideas from choreographers throughout the decades, modern dance is a style that continues to evolve and thrive, exceeding the expectations and rules of classical dance and social barriers. 

“Once you train a dancer in a particular way, it's like saying to a racehorse, ‘go be free.’”

Michael Klien

Michael Klien, a professor of the practice of dance at Duke, is a contemporary choreographer who channels innate movement when dancing and as he encourages others to move. Klien’s Parliament, an example of situational choreography, annually welcomes Duke students and staff to the Laboratory of Social Choreography at the Kenan Institute of Ethics to dance together in a silent and empty room.

The goal of this initiative is to gather a community of people, dancers and non-dancers, who are strangers to each other, to become familiar with one another solely through dance, movement and body language. For three hours, there is no music being played, removing the basic rules of rhythm, and no words are spoken among the group. The product becomes a compilation of social choreography that is free of dance restrictions and free of opinions within the group.

“Once you train a dancer in a particular way, it's like saying to a racehorse, ‘go be free,’” Klien says.

The racehorse signifies the body that undergoes rigorous training. A dancer who is conditioned by repetition of movement will have to rehearse just as much, if not harder, to unlearn that technical structure in order to move freely.

“I work with loads of novice dancers and with top dance companies in the world. Both hold a different kind of fascination,” says Klien. “I really enjoy that aspect of people having a different way of relating to themselves and their body that is not so conditioned by repetition of moves which they have done all their life.”

Klien describes contemporary dance as abstract or out of place, discursive, and politically engaging. European contemporary style is based on the artistic ability to portray feelings through movement. American modern dance values the physical ability to move. Early ballet was catered to a level hierarchy, and the expectation was to maintain a particular structure that matches the dancers to their left and right. The goal of modern dance was for dancers to set themselves apart from that group, with an ideology that suggests dancers promenade in ways that relieve the constraints placed on advanced dance.

Dance occurs in various contextual settings, which influence the dance style. It  can take place privately, where an individual physically expresses themselves in solitude without fear of judgment or outside opinions. Groups of people and individuals can gather at a club to dance, where the dance experience can be mutually shared or enjoyed without company. The most popular context in which modern dance takes place is on the stage, before a still audience, because of the power dancers hold when presenting choreography front and center.

The festival’s 2023 season presented 23 choreographers and companies, which performed 13 ADF commissions and nine world premieres. The  ADF also offers dance intensives that are available year-round to youth and adults who have a passion for modern dance and movement.

Contemporary dance focuses on the movement of subjects and allowing them to exist in a multitude of different ways, not forcing them to follow one particular order. Ultimately, the ability for newer trends and ideologies to mesh with or override existing ones is why the modern dance style continues to evolve.

“It is not about breaking down the art of dance in a revolutionary spirit,” Klien says, “but to carefully deconstruct the art and come up with new ideas to see what the dance society truly needs.”