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Modern madness 

Modern dance troupes celebrate the art of movement

To see them on stage, you might imagine that Atlanta's modern dancers move lithely through life, eyes sparkling and smiles bright, their sculpted bodies draped in silks and perfect lighting. The truth is that in the evening of a typical day, they're more likely to be found in a cinder-block rehearsal space, tired faces washed out by fluorescent lights, hair lank with a day's worth of sweat, wearing torn and over-laundered T-shirts.

By that time of day, they might have already taught three dance classes, led an aerobics session at the local gym and worked through a rehearsal for another dance company they're in. They're probably devouring energy bars and Ziploc bags of nuts and cereal to keep up their strength. For all their work, most of them receive little money (or none at all) and meager recognition.

But when the choreographer presses the play button on a cracked and duct-taped boom box, supple spines suddenly lift the dancers two inches taller. Their arms trace open arcs and their toes hold the centers of wicked spirals. These bodies that have already given too much to the day begin speaking poems and paintings, singing prophecies and revelations. And then you understand why they do it, why they must.

From the slow seductions of Southern belles in underwear working washtubs to a bluegrass ballad to cerebral investigations into cross-cultural communications, this year's Modern Atlanta Dance (MAD) Festival brings together some of Atlanta's best dancers and choreographers in a spectacular, wide-ranging showcase of kinesthetic philosophy and intimate confessions, of sublime artistry and sweaty sexual energy.

The new dance company called there ... in the sunlight, which makes its MAD Festival debut this year, performs "what does your soul look like?" It was created by company director Jhon Stronks upon his return to dance after a disenchanted two-year absence. Determined to no longer limit himself to the vocabulary of any one established dance style, he set out to learn his own body's lexicon. The result is a three-part narrative of a man fighting off the habits and holds of a false identity, withdrawing into squats and closed curves, then finding a long-limbed language of legs stretched out on unbent lines, of arms reaching up and outward.

The Zoetic Dance Ensemble's "Weight of Water" is a sensual introspection on the blessings and burdens of cultural history. To a slow bluegrass ballad, the dancers move through the worn-down cadences of women scrubbing clothes in a washtub, neither romanticizing the weary weight of their gender-bound duties nor sterilizing the women of their sweltering sexuality.

Elizabeth Dishman and Amanda Lower's "Selfsame" documents a fractured identity in bloody internal rebellion, with both sides of the duet fighting dirty and each asserting a sovereign claim. Their aggressions slowly give way to wary holds and touches and suggest the complex expressions available to a multi-faceted self.

In "Modern Love #5, 6 & 7," Full Radius Dance bounces through the giddy innocence of a playground crush set to Simon and Garfunkel's "Cecilia." To a Portuguese praise of St. Salvador, they move in a hush through the resurrection of love between lovers who have grown apart.

For CORE Performance Company, the Berlin dance duo Tanzcompagnie Rubato, featuring Dieter Baumann and Jutta Hell, developed "Links" as part of their longtime fascination with the potential for dance to communicate across lines of community, culture and country. The process of creating "Links" was itself part of the purpose -- it resulted from a week-long collaboration between the German choreographers and the American dancers. The work-in-progress that emerged examines how messages are transmitted -- and often imperfectly received -- through motion, with the mass of kinetic confusion working hard toward understanding.

Gathering Wild's Jerylann Warner created "Novena" around documentary footage she had seen of Italian ecstatics -- young girls who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary in the clouds and who run backward from the glory with their faces turned to the sky. Drawn to this image of religious ecstasy, Warner choreographed "Novena" to Lambarena's Bach to Africa, an exhilarating fusion of Bach's celestial Cantata No. 147 and St. John Passion with the earthy rhythms of traditional Gabonese chants and songs. The dance interplays the circles and curves of raw spiritual emotion with the classic lines and clean angles of Catholic theology, finding potent religion in the whole of head and heart.

Ellen Tshudy's "Ride" also uses traditional African rhythms, as found in the drum-heavy rock of the band Rusted Root. The dance starts slow and sensuous, sliding and gliding to relaxed and simple rhythms. But as the music accelerates, as layers of drum and guitar lines complicate the sound, the dancers find the subtler cycles that persist even in haste and confusion.

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