Home » The Pillow Returns, Undaunted. . . And With Some Surprises. . . And New Faces, Too

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 “Fela!†and “Come Fly Away†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 “So You Think You Can Dance!†and what will be shown onstage at Jacob’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 isn’t a lot of common ground between popular dance and great art. “Fela!†just won the Tony award for its choreography, created by Bill T. Jones, whose company is appearing at Jacob’s Pillow in July and who just won the Pillow’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 world’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 —complete with  tutus, tiaras and en pointe, too.

   But it’s the innovative — the possibility of being surprised — that makes a performance at Jacob’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 — 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 Brown’s “Get Up (I feel like being a sex machine),†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, “horrible, horrible, horrible,†with cutbacks and layoffs abounding, this summer’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. Jones’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 year’s imports, Israeli company Barak Marshall and Sweden’s Göteborg  Ballet.  Baff confesses she’s curious to see what others think of Marshall’s “Monger†which, she says, has “a narrative but with few words, some funny skits and some great pure dancing.† The Göteborg Ballet is presenting an evening-long suite of three dances all based on Ravel’s Bolero, but Baff hastens to add that the music won’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 summer’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 Jacob’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 “Copeland crossed with a hoe-down.†

   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, Jacob’s Pillow continues to be one of the Berkshires’ great cultural treasures.

Jacob’s Pillow is in Becket, MA. For tickets and information call 413-243-0745 or go to www.Jacobspillow.org.

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