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Review: A rousing and ambitious debut for “Off the EDGE” dance festival

Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC performed excerpts from Barak Marshall’s “Monger.”

Last week saw the inauguration of “Off the EDGE,” a festival celebrating contemporary dance that is expected to become an annual occasion in Atlanta. The week included artist-to-artist exchanges, backstage internships for high school students, public performances and exhibits of visual art, all anchored by performances at the Rialto Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday nights. The Rialto performances were diverse, offering a glimpse of the wide spectrum of styles and approaches in contemporary dance.

Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC started things off Friday with excerpts from Barak Marshall’s “Monger,” which in its look and themes seemed to preview its performance of “Below Stairs at Mrs. Margaret’s” on Saturday. Both works impressed with fleet and richly detailed synchronous movements, but also in the company’s facility with the pieces’ cynical humor.

“Mrs. Margaret” depicts a surreal nightmare of serving the insatiable title character offstage, and her enormous appetites and demands keep the performers running and apologizing. Afterward, they seem to hide or erase the earthy elements of their lives “under the stairs,” the effort of which inevitably bubbles over into resentment and anger.

The playfulness included some surreal, almost puppetlike moments. Two seated men “created” a woman by sticking their arms and legs through a dress held between them, and two mothers held swaddled babies whose heads were those of adult dancers. The piece is comfortable with abstraction and ambiguity, but it includes moments of specificity, dialogue and accessible humor.

“Date Night” was created specifically for the student company Emory Dance by choreographer Kyle Abraham, and the work seemed exponentially stronger on the Rialto’s proscenium stage than it had just a few months before in a smaller studio showing at Emory’s fall recital. Perhaps it was the change of venue, or perhaps the dancers had grown more accustomed to the material, but whatever it was, the depiction of “date night” in the separation of the sexes, tension, excitement and teasing was far more lucid and impressive the second time around.

Zoe Scofield performed a quiet and contemplative solo, “Untitled.” Her collaborator, visual artist Juniper Shuey, usually builds elaborate sets and installations for her dancers, but here was a more simple projection: gorgeously baroque drops of liquid diffusing, billowing and expanding, gradually changing the shade of the entire screen. Video shadows emerged behind Scofield on the screen, repeating her movements at odd intervals. The piece was haunting, and Scofield’s movements walked a weird line between grace and angularity.

In Kegwin + Company’s “Love Songs,” two strong couples danced to classic vocalizations by Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. The couples were energetic and erotic. The way they entered to Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” — with the female dancer leaning all her weight forward, her head resting in her partner’s hands as he backed away — spoke volumes about troubled love.

Kennesaw State University choreographer Ivan Pulinkala’s “Rhizome,” performed by the KSU Dance Company, opened the Saturday night program, and its use of female dancers was especially effective. Dancers en pointe suggested a ghostly, supernatural element — women transformed into swans or sylphs — but here fantasy extended into the horrific as legs, lit grotesquely by hand-held lights, scooted along in a close group accompanied by insect sounds. The piece featured a lot of sculpture and props that were, for the most part, smartly used. Combined with Emory Dance’s performance, one got the sense of what a successful “student dance performance” can be.

Andrea Miller’s “Dust” featured a cast not often seen in Atlanta: two male dancers. Their elaborate and adversarial points of contact looked like wrestling, and, as in wrestling, individual moments suggested embrace. Violence and tenderness have vastly different aims, but their goal of reaching, changing or overcoming the other are often parallel. “Dust” was especially haunting when one adversary left and the duet became a solo. This was not a dance of triumph and victory, not one of relief at being rid of an enemy. It was clearly one of grief and loss.

Atlanta’s own gloATL’s “You Made It” opened — unsurprisingly considering choreographer Lauri Stallings’ penchant for site-specific work — off the stage. The lights came up to reveal a male and a female dancer standing close to each other in the aisle at the front of the theater, arms outstretched, leaning closer and in slow motion. It was a moment of theatrical nakedness, with no music and the house lights on, and the movements were fleshy and bony, with weird points of contact and inventive weight sharing between the two.

Katarzyna Skarpetowksa and Brian McGinnis in “Duet From Meadow.” (Photo by Christopher Duggan)

There was an odd frontality and stillness to the first half of this piece. Things seemed almost too exposed and spacious, even uncomfortable, with the house lights on. But the performance quickly picked up pace as it became more conventional. Music by Chopin kicked in, and the house lights lowered. Two female dancers moving synchronously, with movements rotated on an XY axis, reflected and reversed, and the piece really found its center with Alva Noto singing an eerie version of “One.” This was one of the few uses of English lyrics during both evenings, and “You Made It” benefited from the specificity of lyrics juxtaposed with its abstract movement. The dramatic final tableau of three dancers sustained that specificity and drama.

Both nights ended strongly with Lar Lubovitch’s “Duet From Meadow,” created in 1999. It conveyed the sense not just of difficult movements perfectly executed, but of gorgeously airless geometric perfection as an overarching aesthetic.

To the eerily icy sound of Gavin Bryar’s “Incipt Vita Nova,” a male dancer used a precisely held but still supple female dancer’s body to trace gorgeously smooth and perfect arcs and circles in space. In the final tableau, she extended her pointed foot, creating a perfect circle in space as her partner turned her at a spookily sustained slow speed. It stays with me as the weekend’s most lasting image.

A guiding curatorial theme of this ambitious festival is a quotation from theorist and philosopher Nicholas Bourriaud, that “The movement of things permits the formation of identities.” In a weekend of memorable images and poignant movement, however, what touched me most would be difficult to relate back to a theme.

The Lubovitch performances seemed to suggest that belief in adherence to an ideal could triumph over movement and the body’s finiteness and transience. Rina Schenfeld’s performance at the Goat Farm, home base of gloATL, capped the week and suggested that play and nonsense are crucial elements of defiant endurance. It’s an old-fashioned notion about dance, and it may diverge from Bourriaud’s emphasis, or at least slightly from some contemporary interpretations. I think dance can offer a momentary respite from the ocean of words and politics and images — perhaps the last respite possible.

“Off the EDGE” received an incredible launching, with full Atlanta audiences enjoying two evenings of great dance. Many happy returns.