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Opening night on August 1st 2016 of a shared week at the Joyce presented by the venerable American Dance Festival got the six-day run off to an auspicious start. Provincial Dances Theatre, a company from Russia, treated dancegoers to two mesmerizing contemporary works by Tatiana Baganova that will also be on the boards August 2nd and 3rd. From August 4th to 6th, the Miami-based Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre will complete the season.

I promise that I'm going to expound on the virtues of the Provincial Dances Theatre program. But first, a history lesson. This is, remarkably, ADF's first time ever as a presenter in NYC. ADF was founded at Bennington College in Vermont in 1934 by such iconic modern dance pioneers as Martha Graham, Hanya Holm, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. Other dance greats associated with ADF include Helen Tamiris, Martha Hill, José Limón, Pearl Lang, Merce Cunningham, and many others. ADF, throughout several incarnations and with various names, eventually landed at Duke University in North Carolina in 1977. The organization has always stayed true to its mission of preserving historical works while also promoting and nurturing what is new.

So how did the performance at the Joyce on August 1st measure up to that lofty goal? Very well indeed, given that Baganova's dance theater works definitely qualify as "new". First on the evening's bill was "Maple Garden" to the sometimes haunting and sometimes rollicking music of Die Anarchistische Abendunterhaltun, a group from Belgium, performed by the Moscow Art Trio. Lighting design by Andrey Pleshakova and costumes by Olga Pautova and Viktoriya Mozgovaya helped to evoke a sense of fantasy tinged with grotesquerie. A bare-branched tree on stage right became part of the action toward the end. In case you plan to see this piece, I won't be a spoiler as to how that happens. What I will say is that the dancers in the troupe are superb both as technicians and as performers. Occasionally they use their voices in spoken commands and unnerving laughter. The latter happened when one man and woman were attached by strings that were then cut with scissors by a second woman. What did that mean? The interpretation is up to each viewer, but I did note that the entire audience was at rapt attention not only during this sequence but for the entire piece. At one point, when the women flip their long hair back to reveal that their lovely faces have somehow transmogrified into chillingly horrible visages, we let out a collective gasp. Overall, I was transported from the mundane to the uniquely imaginary by this commendable work of art.

Next up was Baganova's "Sepia". A program note let us know that this is a work "capturing the atmosphere" of Japanese writer Kobo Abes' 1962 book Woman in the Dunes, which is about a man who ends up trapped in a house with a woman. He is expected to produce children with her and to constantly clear away the sand. Eventually, he dies. Baganova's visual interpretation isn't so much about that admittedly bizarre yet compelling plot as it is about the provocative quotes printed on the playbill, among them this one: "It is nice to look at a woman, powdered by sand, but to touch her is hardly pleasure". On stage, with the wailing accompaniment of fragments of Avet Terteryan's "Symphony No8", we first see multiform bags hanging from ropes. As the piece progresses, various dancers open the bags so that streams of sand pour down until the entire surface is covered. The performers slither, shuffle along in a squatting position, and walk almost flat-footed through the sand. The men sometimes carry the women. As I write this, I realize that the admonition "You had to be there" is apt in this instance. I cannot capture in mere words the eerily sensuous effect Baganova, along with Lighting Designer Nina Indrikson and Decorations and Costume Designer Anastasia Sokolova, created. I now understand why Baganova is the recipient of Russia's most prestigious theater award, the Golden Mask, for both "Maple Garden" and "Sepia".

This ADF season is Baganova's debut in NYC. Rosie Herrera, whose work will be showcased starting on August 4th, returns to NYC with a new work commissioned by ADF. Check back here on BWW Dance World at the end of the week for my review of Herrera's half of ADF's premiere NYC season.

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Photo by Grant Halverson

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