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Durham Dancing : Every year, this Southern university town shakes off its summertime sleepiness to become the 'U.S. Department of Modern Dance'

July 15, 1990|MARK I. PINSKY

DURHAM, N.C. — When American Dance Festival executive director Charles Reinhart called Twyla Tharp to inform her that she had been selected for this year's $25,000 Samuel H. Scripps/ American Dance Festival Award for lifetime achievement, she replied: "Can't you just send me the check? Do I have to come down?"

The response can be attributed in part to Tharp's cheeky nature, but it also spotlights the off-the-beaten-track location of this major festival.

Each summer, hundreds of strikingly attractive young people, the women often in leotard tops and hair pinned up in chignons, roll into town. Their arrival was once described as "the invasion of the posture people," a reference to their carriage, erect to the point of exaggeration.

The students come for classes, the audiences for performances by major companies. This year's American Masters Plus series included Paul Taylor, Laura Dean, Eiko and Koma, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Erick Hawkins, Doug Varone and Trisha Brown and concludes next weekend with Pilobolus.

For six weeks, Durham becomes what Dance magazine calls the "U.S. Department of Modern Dance." Because of the Duke Medical Center and related health-care industries, the city of 100,000 now calls itself the "City of Medicine," although it is perhaps better known as the home of the minor-league baseball team immortalized in the film "Bull Durham."

When the dancers hit town, the area just off East Campus shakes off the summer somnolence that once enveloped Durham: The Regulator Bookshop sells more dance books, magazines and out-of-town papers; the Ninth St. Bakery sells more croissants and, most nights, it's nearly impossible to squeeze into Franchesca's gelato parlor.

A new generation--'60s-era Duke students who decided they liked Durham enough to settle in, or to come back to after graduate school--has begun taking over the city's political and economic leadership. Many, like Lex Alexander, owner of a health-food supermarket, have become actively involved in promoting and supporting the festival. Alexander serves on the board of a local support group, hosting cast parties and arranging for dancers to eat at the home of local residents, and organizes audiences for special performances.

"These artists increase the fabric of this community so much," said Alexander, who each year puts the festival's poster image and schedule on his store's grocery bags. "At a time when the university is closing down (for the summer), you get this resurgence of energy, this wonderful influx of people, from all over this country and the world that are coming to this town to be involved in this dance happening."

Tonight, when Tharp receives the award--just before a square dance in a 70-year-old, once-condemned gymnasium on the Duke University campus--the contrast with the first such award will be obvious.

That year, 1981, the curtain went up on Duke's 1,500-seat Page Auditorium, revealing grande dame Martha Graham--seated alone in her red "Chinese Empress chair," lit by a single spot on the otherwise darkened stage--waiting for former First Lady and Graham dancer Betty Ford to present the award.

"It's what both of them wanted," explained festival director Charles Reinhart. "And I think that's the point. What does the artist want, and that's what we try to do. The generation gap--it explains it very easily--it's right there."

But Reinhart doesn't see the award to the 49-year-old Tharp as indicative of a complete changing of the guard in modern dance. "I don't think that the baton has been passed to the younger generation totally," he said. "There are people older than Twyla who will be getting the award. I think this was the year that Twyla seemed to be on the minds of more of our people than other times, and I think there's certainly a body of work that justifies it."

The Scripps/ADF winners bracketed by Tharp and Graham include most, if not all, of the pioneers of American modern dance: Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Hanya Holm, Alwin Nikolais, Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Erick Hawkins and--named posthumously--Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Jose Limon. These names are intertwined with the genesis of the American Dance Festival, which traces its origins to the summer of 1934 and the founding of the Bennington School of Dance in Bennington, Vt.

Building on the work of the trio many consider the first generation of modern dance--Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn--Graham and her contemporaries went to Vermont each summer until 1942 (with one detour to Mills College in Oakland), to teach, learn and create dances in a free-spirited atmosphere. After a six-year hiatus, many of the same people reconstituted themselves as the American Dance Festival on the campus of Connecticut College in New London, Conn. During the next 29 years, the festival became more institutionalized, according to a published history written by New York Times dance critic Jack Anderson.

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