The Pillow Returns, Undaunted. . . And With Some Surprises. . . And New Faces, Too
Dance seems suddenly popular, again. The increasing number of TV talent shows that feature dance, the success of dance-based Broadway shows like â€œFela!â€ and â€œCome Fly Awayâ€ and the overflowing audiences for recitals at local dance studios all suggest that Americans love to watch beautiful strong bodies performing gravity-defying miracles to great music.
Is there a difference, though, between the high kicks and shimmys shown weekly on â€œSo You Think You Can Dance!â€ and what will be shown onstage at Jacobâ€™s Pillow Dance Festival this summer?
The answer is yes, and the difference is in the choreography.
The finest actor still needs her Shakespeare, and a great dancer without a great choreographer is just doing calisthenics.
Not that there isnâ€™t a lot of common ground between popular dance and great art. â€œFela!â€ just won the Tony award for its choreography, created by Bill T. Jones, whose company is appearing at Jacobâ€™s Pillow in July and who just won the Pillowâ€™s annual $25,000 prize for outstanding visionary artist.
And there will be plenty of crowd-pleasing thrills in performances by such luminaries as Nina Ananiashvilli, one of the worldâ€™s leading prima ballerinas for more than 20 years, and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the classical ballet company in which all the parts are performed by men â€”complete with tutus, tiaras and en pointe, too.
But itâ€™s the innovative â€” the possibility of being surprised â€” that makes a performance at Jacobâ€™s Pillow so exciting. In the preview show last Saturday night, three companies that received artist-in-residency grants to develop new work showed excerpts from what they created, and each was tantalizing and intriguing.
Camille A. Brown, a tiny woman in a brown suit and cream fedora, danced a whirling solo to a jazz standard by Nancy Wilson. Kyle Abraham was a street tough with a giant boombox looking for respect â€” while wearing a flowing, gauzy white skirt. And Monica Bill Barnes had four women dressed in pleated skirts and heavy sweaters, like a librarian before the hero took off her glasses and let her hair down. Set to James Brownâ€™s â€œGet Up (I feel like being a sex machine),â€ they seemed to flirt ever more desperately with one unseen man, while reacting with disgust to another.
It was mysterious and very funny, and I want to see more.
In planning the 2010 season, Executive Director Ella Baff gives no ground to the free-falling economy. Though things in the dance world are, she says, â€œhorrible, horrible, horrible,â€ with cutbacks and layoffs abounding, this summerâ€™s schedule is full as ever. Five companies have live music.
Nightly free performances on the outdoor stage make dance accessible and inviting to the curious. Pre-show talks shed light on the often mysterious art of creating dances.
And two spectacular photography exhibits will be on display all summer as well: first, Lois Greenfield, who experiments with mirrors and props while freezing moments in time. In one, a dancer is immersed, blissfully, in a sand shower.
In another, three dancers are caught in mid-leap, but their faces are as serene as if they were deep in meditation.
The other show is by Arnie Zane, Bill T. Jonesâ€™s life partner and company co-founder, who died of AIDS in 1988. He was a serious photographer as well, and his work is experimental and very dramatic.
Baff is known for finding up-and-coming companies all over the world and bringing them to the United States for the first time. After showing at the Pillow, many have gone on to great acclaim. In a phone interview last week, she highlighted two of this yearâ€™s imports, Israeli company Barak Marshall and Swedenâ€™s GÃ¶teborg Ballet. Baff confesses sheâ€™s curious to see what others think of Marshallâ€™s â€œMongerâ€ which, she says, has â€œa narrative but with few words, some funny skits and some great pure dancing.â€ The GÃ¶teborg Ballet is presenting an evening-long suite of three dances all based on Ravelâ€™s Bolero, but Baff hastens to add that the music wonâ€™t be repeated three times. Each takes off on the well-known piece in very different ways. Companies from Thailand, India and China, both traditional and modern, are also represented on the summerâ€™s program.
The season kicks off next week with the revived Dance Theatre of Harlem, which nearly collapsed a few years ago and is now coming back to life under the direction of its longtime lead dancer, Virginia Johnson. Nine weeks and 357 performances later, the Jacobâ€™s Pillow season concludes with the New Paltz-based Vanaver Caravan, whose blend of Appalachian clog-dancing, Greek line-dancing and reconstruction of classics of the modern-dance canon has been described as a â€œCopeland crossed with a hoe-down.â€
With its beautiful grounds, opportunities for quick snacks and fine dining, dozens of free and family-friendly events, archives open for deep exploration, high-level professional training program (from which the students perform every Saturday night on the Inside/out stage) and classes anyone can try, Jacobâ€™s Pillow continues to be one of the Berkshiresâ€™ great cultural treasures.
Jacobâ€™s Pillow is in Becket, MA. For tickets and information call 413-243-0745 or go to www.Jacobspillow.org.