Downtown Dance Festival, Wagner Park, Lower Manhattan, New York – review

The first night offered contrasting takes on classic Americana, including a Pete Seeger tribute

For decades the Downtown Dance Festival (until Thursday) served to illustrate a puzzling New York phenomenon: despite the abundant example of extraordinary art, a parallel universe of junk persists. But when the excellent Erasing Borders Festival of Indian Dance appeared under Downtown’s auspices, I thought maybe I had misjudged.

Nope. After a couple of years of dogged attendance, I can confidently report that the gems are the accident. So is any organising principle among the acts. But on opening night as we faced out towards the Statue of Liberty, a fitting theme emerged – Americana – along with an object lesson in the difference between the derivative and the original.

The two-hour show began with Vanaver Caravan’s tribute to its Hudson Valley neighbour, the late Pete Seeger. It was half the tribute he deserved – the bad half. This admirable activist-singer did not just unearth folk songs, he also encouraged his audience in their righteous sentiments. The tunes may have often sprung from the people, but they were not meant to make Americans look to their roots so much as to urge them forward, in rallies and marches. Stripped of political purpose and amplified by simple-minded pantomime – for the seasons “turning” the Vanaver dancers turned – the ditties had only affect to offer: an earnestness now entirely cloying.

Mid-century modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey were earnest too, but in evident service to their young art. His Four Solos Based on American Folk Music and her Two Ecstatic Themes, both from the 1930s, merge physical idea and spiritual or cultural mood. A dance to shrugging shoulders features hands in pockets à la Huck Finn. An ode to love centres strangely yet persuasively on the ribs. Adam Weinert and Logan Frances Kruger made the work’s probing eccentricity riveting.

At the Museum of Modern Art until September 5, films of Weinert and Shawn dancing the solos decades apart appear on designated patches of museum wall when you point your smartphone there. While Vanaver sings of unions and reliable seasons, Weinert’s Reaccession of Ted Shawn inserts the present into the picture. In its first decades, modern dance was intent on distilling gesture into symbol. Weinert offers as a contemporary equivalent the convergence, via us and our ever present phones, of the here and now and the placeless and ghostly.

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