According to the “About” section of the MAD Festival’s Facebook page, “The annual Modern Atlanta Dance Festival (MAD) presents the best of Atlanta’s modern/contemporary dance.” This year’s lineup, however, was bookended by a couple of choreographers from outside of the Metro area, Melissa Pihos and Sarah Wildes Arnette, both of whom are assistant professors of dance at Valdosta State University. If, perhaps, this goes against the mission statement of the festival, I think that there is enough value to creating the opportunity for Atlanta audiences to see artists from elsewhere in Georgia to justify the geographic expansion. I don’t think that it betrays the sense of the festival’s localness to look outside of the economic domain of the State’s largest metropolitan area, so long as it doesn’t stray too much beyond the boundaries of the State. That said, I’d love to see a separate Southeastern regional dance festival in Atlanta, though I wonder if there’s really a big enough audience for it or, for that matter, a good funding source.
The program began with the first of the Valdosta pieces, Pihos’ “The Wives.” This was an excerpt from a larger piece called “PIHOS a Moving Biography” about Pihos’ father, Pete, who had four wives (although not all at the same time). Four dancers represented the four wives, each in a boldly colored dress, and passed a white cloak between themselves as the focus shifted sequentially from the first to the second wife and so on. Images of Pete Pihos at the stage of life in which he was with each woman were projected against the cloak as each wife’s tale began. Audio from interviews regarding each of the wives was mingled with music by Arvo Pärt as each dancer depicted the general demeanor and relationship style of each character. Although the focus was mostly on the individual portraying the wife who was being spoken of through most of the piece, there was some good ensemble work towards the end that did a good job of expressing the fact that, although Pete was only married to one woman at a time, each of the wives existed within his life in a context that included all of them at once. Overall, it was intelligently put together and genuinely engaging: Ms. Pihos effectively expressed the story through the movements of her dancers, letting the audio and projected content merely complement what was going on in the choreography. This was fairly impressive given how easy it would have been to fall back on the archive material to tell the story.
Next up was “What if” by Corian Ellisor. The only two pieces that I’ve seen of his so far were both flashy pieces born of drag burlesque sensibilities. This, however, was a gorgeous and sensitive duet for two men in matching sweat suits. Full of emotion, it had a sort of dream-like quality to it. As nice as it was, though, it felt compressed, as though it were a suite of dances drawn from a larger work. I could easily picture the various parts of this duet punctuating scenes with a larger ensemble that express the social context for the work’s eponymous question.
Gregory Catellier and Kristin O’Neal, who are known in some circles as the Peter Lorres of Atlanta’s dance education scene, performed a delightfully fun and funny work called “Nostalgia for a Future Past.” I think that I caught glimpses of this work between the bodies of a rather tight crowd at a show produced by Core at the High a little over a year ago, but I couldn’t really make out much of what was going on. In matching white suits with black shirts, the duo did a comedic routine set to variations on Johnny Richards’ “Young at Heart” – one variation of which was some impressive whistling performed live by the duo – and Manu Chao’s “Bongo Bong.” The whimsy and playfulness was wonderful, though it was lit entirely from the side, which created a sense of faux seriousness that detracted somewhat from the aesthetic. A sense of seriousness could have complemented the piece, making the appeal to maintain a youthful spirit seem either earnest or, if done another way, sad, but the lighting design just looked fake and out of place.
The first half of the program wrapped up with Full Radius Dance’s “Unicorn.” This was a rich, beautiful piece that, unfortunately, relied too heavily on side lighting, but was still an absolute joy to watch. Full of all of the great shapes that Douglas Scott creates so well out of his dancers, there was a sense of an earnest search for the mythical in the world coming from the perspective of people who, themselves, have mystic qualities. Watching it was almost like enjoying a rich, delectable dessert, though I have to admit that I’m not terribly fond of the folk music of the British Isles that accompanied it.
Short but intense, the piece that brought us back from the intermission was Kamali Hill’s “Exterminating Kings.” This was a solo work for a Black man set against a series of poems, raps, and hip hop about the (in)justice system. Dancer Calan Bryant began the work by taking off his clothes and neatly folding them and setting them aside so that he was only in a pair of shorts: presenting the audience with the bare body of a Black man. From there he stepped into a circle of light that served as a kind of prison. There his movements reflected vulnerability, a drive to toughen up, and the reaction to a general assault from all around. It was a well crafted, intelligent, and pretty amazing piece.
I think that my opinion of the next work, “juncture,” by Alice Halter, suffered somewhat due to its position in the program. It was a very dramatic work but it didn’t manage to say anything to me. I wouldn’t be able to point to anything specific about it that I didn’t like – the choreography was sound and fully realized and the aesthetic seemed solid – but I think that following a work as intense as Hill’s meant that I was looking for more than it could deliver. I think that it would have made more of an impression on me if it had been the first piece after the intermission and I think that Hill’s work might have even done better if it had been proceeded by Halter’s; the aesthetic of “juncture” was somewhat dark and it was easy to get into just because it had a familiar structure to it whereas “Exterminating Kings” began with a man coming on stage and taking his clothes off, which isn’t quite as “dancey” and took a moment – albeit only a brief one – to get into after coming back from the intermission. As it was, I haven’t much to say about “juncture” and am already having a hard time remembering it the afternoon after I saw it.
The evening was concluded with SWAD Collective’s “Stand by.” choreographed by Sarah Wildes Arnett. This was a piece about the various societal pressures on women, which is a subject that is almost as ubiquitous in dance as sexism is in our society. The work was in four parts that segued into each other incredibly well using costume changes that occasionally occurred on stage and a shift in music and, to some extent, choreographic style. There was a lot of theatricality to the dancing, though not much in the way of pantomime. The first part was a comedic depiction of street harassment in which all but one of the dancers played horn-dog men in tight, flesh-toned shorts and tanks and ties hanging loosely from their necks. The movements of the men were floppy and silly as they surrounded the woman and wouldn’t let her go about her business. As they left, they took her skirt with her and left her with a stool and a pair of really tight pants, which she very awkwardly squeezed herself into through a rather silly and entertaining dance that concluded with her being tempted into eating donuts despite the concerns she had about her figure expressed in her pants-dance. As she left with the donuts, the rest of the company came on dressed in variations of girdles and went through a rather interesting choreographic bit expressing the tedious machinations of traditional beautification routines. The work concluded with all of the women dressing in colorful dresses and seeming to finally express themselves for who they were. It was well conceived and performed and also a thoroughly entertaining work with which to end the show.