Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Berkshires, Massachusetts – review

In a recent documentary on Jacob’s Pillow (showing July 26 in the US on PBS) the clown Bill Irwin hits upon a new welcome sign for the summer dance festival and elite training grounds: “Abandon all urbanity, ye who enter here”.

Indeed, the unvarnished barn look of the pinewood theatres and studios harks back to the hardscrabble farm that modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn stumbled upon in the 1930s. The gallery – with dancers’ photographs of their peers in New York City Ballet and other major troupes reinventing themselves in dressing-room mirrors, splayed on the sidelines of endless rehearsals, caught from the wings in cross-eyed intensity – is barn red. Even the recycle bins have had a rustic makeover.

The wooded backdrop, on the other hand, need only be itself to seem ancient and everlasting. The outdoor stage for free early evening performances – before picnic dinners unfold on lawns and terraces as hors d’oeuvres to the main show – is built on the edge of a deep valley, so it seems to hover in space, with only the distant hills to block our view of infinity.

The two ticketed shows this weekend, however, did not abandon urbanity. They embraced it, out of necessity as much as inclination.

At an outdoor talk between performances, Companhia Urbana de Dança director-choreographer Sonia Destri Lie said, “I don’t know about here, but to be black and poor in Brazil, life is going to eat you like cake”, by way of explaining her eight dancers, ages 20 to 28, raised in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. The troupe’s signature work, ID: ENTIDADES, demonstrates both what a body does to protect itself from that fate and what a person is – what, specifically, these eight individuals are – other than doomed.

It was clear from the start that this tour de force of hip-hop dance-theatre would not resort to the usual stunt-laden grandstanding. The dancers were no exhibitionists. In fact, for the first few minutes they were nearly invisible. They sat in a row on the floor against the back scrim with arms hugging their knees. Wearing black T-shirts and trousers and being black, they had to stand up to be seen, because the horizon line of light was set a couple of feet over their heads.

When they did rise, their gazes suggested why they kept down low. The look they gave each other and us was both confrontational and guarded. It admitted little beyond their chronic condition of danger. But after the men (plus one woman) sized each other up to tamp each other down, they engaged in something between a wrestling manoeuvre and a hug: an uneasy connection.

ID: ENTIDADES is not only darkly paradoxical but also profound. Destri Lie has taken apart and elaborated the discrete elements of hip-hop so the dancers gesticulated wildly and inscrutably – their gestures distant cousins of the pop, lock and wave. And their spinning and scuttling revealed more haplessness than usual. They seemed to be talking more than doing steps or tricks. The long intervals of silence – a medium of theatre more than dance – reinforced this effect. What the dancers were disclosing – especially in the many solos, which began without fanfare and maintained an introspective intensity for their long or short duration – was themselves.

The second piece, titled Chapa Quente after the favela slang for “trouble, and party, brewing”, may be less cohesive and mysterious, but it confirms that Companhia Urbana de Dança has more than one tale to tell and myriad ways to tell it.

Big City, the 40-minute opener on New Yorker Brian Brooks’s generous programme, takes on urban life more abstractly. It describes a landscape that we have made but that is at odds with how we are. To a wonderful original score by Jonathan Pratt that lends a chiming hominess to Philip Glassian progressions, the seven dancers whorled like a cloud across a stage spiked with a dozen aluminium rods rising to the rafters.

Brooks – whose career is taking off this year, with a BAM commission in October and a duet for Wendy Whelan at the Pillow in August – has proven one of the few choreographers to advance the minimalist agenda begun in the 1960s. His dances proceed by strict principles of sequence and accumulation, punctuated by swoops of momentum and plunges of gravity. At his most mesmerising, method and theme coalesce. Motor, for example, is both about endurance and depends on it. In one section, two dancers hopped forwards and back in the runner’s iconic pose – crooked arms and legs in balanced opposition – which Brooks subjected to incremental changes that I awaited with bated breath. Big City was less enthralling but more expansive, or would have been if the choreographer had acquiesced to its sprawling spirit. He has yet to find a structure for chaos.

Festival continues until August 25, www.jacobspillow.org

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