What images are conjured up when the word “edge” pops into your mind?  Falling?  High places? Knives?  Emotional instability?  How about experimental modern dance?

Off The EDGE, the long anticipated modern dance event, presented by the Rialto Center for the Arts, Kennesaw State University and gloATL, took over downtown  this weekend. The main stage performances took place at the Rialto but other related activities included a series of roundtable discussion at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, artist-to-artist workshops and “EDGE/Public” a free series of site specific performances by Atlanta-based artists in Woodruff Park.

Choreographer and founder of gloATL, Lauri Stallings was asked to curate a contemporary dance event for Georgia State University’s downtown theater.  She agreed under one condition… that the event not be called a festival.  “There doesn’t need to be another dance festival. There needs to be a swarm of ideas, energy, and activity.”

Stallings wanted to create something more experimental with a heartbeat that could work on many levels. A “Festivent”, if you will.  Thank goodness she did, because the result is a happening that embraces the good qualities of a festival but with the buzzing of a creative movement laboratory.  Off the EDGE connects Atlanta to the international family of contemporary dance companies and with  Edge/Public  it also welcomes the average “Atlanta Joe” into our tight-knit community.

The maiden Off the EDGE voyage began on Fri. 27, 2012.  It went well but not without growing pains.  The lineup was diverse, interesting and had a little something for everyone.  The companies came from NY, Seattle, LA and of course from our humble city.  But there were lots of little technical glitches and program snafus that made the evening stutter along.  The performances, however, were engaging enough to pull the audience back into the action on the proscenium.

The evening started with BODYTRAFFIC (LA) showing excerpts from choreographer Barak Marshall’s “Monger”.  The dancers were dressed as servants from the 1920’s/30’s in muted warm colors that seemed almost sepia when bathed in a yellow light.  It was a “Downton Abbey” sort of scenario.  The gestural derived movement has a sharp, hard, modern edge, almost Bollywood-like at the end.   The dancers speaking into a microphone addressing an unseen presence named “Mrs. Margaret” punctuated the action.  There is a clever moment when two male dancers sit next to each other and are presented with a woman’s frock and a pair of red heels. They each shod one shoe and placed an arm in the garment, animating the space between them. This newly created third character makes humorous inappropriate advances on each fellow.  The contrasts in the piece are successful, the dancing is riveting but the story is cut up too much to follow.  In spite of this, there was enough to make me want more.

Next was “Untitled (2011)” by Zoe/Juniper (Seattle).  The stage greets us with a black and white video of a liquid being poured into another liquid.  The soloist Zoe Scofield enters stage right, and crosses the space in an atmospheric way, reminiscent of Vaslav Nijinski’s “L’apres midi d’une Faun”.  The piece comes to a climax, as images of dancers and shadows are superimposed on the scrim. Having to stake her territory and compete for the audience’s attention, Scofield’s movement becomes more dynamic and lizard-like.  The dancer’s articulation through the awkward steps is poetic.  At one point, with her back to the audience, she drops down into a solid grand plié in first position, comes out of it by sticking her sits bones straight back and up.  She then  lifts her left hip to drag that leg across and  repeats the phrase three or four more times.  This odd journey, with Zoe in her grey short unitard embellished with rocky bumps, is definitely geared towards the dance lover with a more sophisticated palette.  But was compelling enough to “wet the appetite” of a novice and get a dialogue going.

The wonderful thing about this “Festivent” is that it’s a dais for movers and choreographers of all kinds to come together and strut their stuff.  Young students from Emory Dance performed “Date Night”, a collaboration with choreographer Kyle Abraham.  The piece was executed with good technique and a professional sensibility.  It gives the audience a chance to see the kinds of dancers being groomed in Atlanta, and provides an opportunity for these students to stand up and be heard in a professional arena.

The most polished and accessible work of the evening is “Love Songs (2006)” choreographed and performed by Kegwin + Company (NY).  It is a refreshing interlude after the abrasive music in “Date Night” and Zoe/Juniper’s peculiar aesthetic.   In this series of duets performed by Kristina Hanna/ Matthew Baker and Ashley Browne/ Gary Shaufeld, one can sit back; sing to the classic tunes of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone.  There is humor, sadness, manipulation, and sex.  The unwavering connection between the dancers and the flawless execution allows the audience to suspend reality and loose themselves in the unfolding relationships.

This première evening of Off the EDGE ends with a piece by Lar Lubovitch, an internationally renowned choreographer who has carved his place in Dance History.  Lubovitch’s work is classic, forward thinking and relevant all at the same time, which is amazing for a Company that has been around for 41 years.  Lar Lubovitch Dance Company (NY) presented “Duet From Meadow (1999)”.  Having seen this ensemble years ago, I was giddy with anticipation and on the “Edge” of my seat.

There is no other word but elegant to describe this work.  The dancers, Katarzyna Skarpetowska and Brian McGinnis, move in a smooth, quiet and strong manner.  They remain connected throughout the piece and the perpetual “string” of lifts is mesmerizing.  Every moment is placed perfectly and majestically leaving us in a mellow and thoughtful mood.

The evening was lovely.  As a dancer, there is no other place I would rather be than anywhere watching movement happen (except for maybe in a rehearsal studio).  I wasn’t sure, however, how this particular night fit in with Laurie Stallings original vision of the event. I left feeling like some of the puzzle pieces were missing, but hopeful that all will become clear the subsequent night.

(To Be Continued…)