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Dance Review: Jason's Pillow Dance Festival
26 Jul 2009

DANCE REVIEW | JACOB'S PILLOW DANCE FESTIVAL Where a Week’s Typical Fare Is Beyond a Standard Plié Photo by Karli Cadel From left, Lee Howard, Jason Samuels Smith and Melinda Sullivan of A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It) at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. By ALASTAIR MACAULAY Published: July 26, 2009 BECKET, Mass. — The tradition of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is to be splendidly eclectic. (This is a prime virtue of American dance in general.) Posters here from the 1950s remind you of Pillow triple bills that began with international ballet stars, went on to rising modern-dance companies and ended with displays of flamenco. Although the Pillow now tends to present that sort of mixed program only for galas, any one day is likely to offer a different cross-section of dance. Related Times Topics: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Blog ArtsBeat The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion. More Arts News Enlarge This Image Karli Cadel “Sounddance,” with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Last week was, in that sense, typical of the festival, which has three main performance spaces and a fourth in reserve. On Wednesday and Thursday alone you could see ballet, two kinds of modern dance and tap. Performances in the Inside/Out series are scheduled for the open-air Marcia and Seymour Simon Space at 6:30 p.m. — as on Wednesday, when the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts (from the Hartford region) presented ballet. When it rains — as happened when Pam Tanowitz Dance was scheduled on Thursday — the performance is quickly relocated to the small Ruth St. Denis Studio (80 seats), with a simulcast for the audience members who can’t fit into the space. The most prestigious company of the week — it was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company last week — performs in the Ted Shawn Theater (620 seats) at 8 p.m. from Wednesday through Saturday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. And a second company of note — last week, Jason Samuels Smith and his ensemble, A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It) — dances at 8:15 p.m. in the Doris Duke Theater (280 seats) from Wednesday through Saturday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Mr. Samuels Smith and A.C.G.I. are at the Duke for two weeks (through Sunday), and his photograph is on the cover of the festival’s program. The common denominator of those four companies was footwork. Feet were used as a prominent source of texture, variety and rhythm, reminding you why lines of verse are traditionally divided into feet. The Nutmeg dances were mainly traditional ballet, with the women on point; Mr. Samuels Smith and his colleagues are tap virtuosos; the dancers of the Cunningham company have, since the 1950s, possessed feet as articulate as those of any other modern-dance company, or more so; and few young and upwardly mobile choreographers today show a keener sense of how feet can project in time and space than Ms. Tanowitz. (As an example of dance without interesting footwork, structure or rhythm, the Inside/Out performance of Rebecca Lazier’s “My Serenade” on Friday offered a tiresomely diffuse series of unrigorous movements, vaguely tacked on to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings.”) All five of the A.C.G.I. performers are soloists, each given a chance to shine. Mr. Samuels Smith is broad-chested, virile, bearded, powerful and open; his male co-dancer, Lee Howard, is a sly young beanpole; and the three women — Chloe Arnold, Sarah Reich and Melinda Sullivan — are different in build and manner. So it is all the more remarkable that the dance quintets are as striking as any other part of the show. They’re flexible in structure, sometimes with four dancers becoming a backup group to a soloist, sometimes with four dancers circling a fifth before arriving in a new line. But what’s most remarkable is how much excitement they can build out of a unison rhythm. It’s already a pleasure when five dancers establish one rhythm together; it’s another when they embellish it together; and yet another when the unison is sustained as it keeps changing in meter, emphasis and texture. Live music is central here, with Theo Hill (piano), Curtis Lundy (bass), Ahmad Rashad Jr. (rap) and Jo Jo Smith (percussion) contributing. (The playing of Mr. Hill and Mr. Lundy had real sweetness and charm.) It’s something of a family business: Mr. Samuels Smith is Mr. Smith’s son and Mr. Rashad’s cousin. And Mr. Samuels Smith is an easy, enthusiastic communicator, speaking now and then (he explains that he calls his company Anybody Can Get It as an antidote to the cutthroat competitiveness he finds in the tap world) and dancing with something akin to missionary zeal. His combination of weight and lightness gives him a striking range, and he has an ear for metric variety. You sense his eagerness to keep moving on, never to be stuck in a rut, to take all the tradition of tap and extend it. Still, if there is a soloist to single out here, it is Mr. Howard. His tall and very slender physique, like his quiet, near-blank face (though the eyes twinkle now and then), gives him an immature, still-growing look, but when he dances, he has the most fully developed — certainly the wittiest — personality of the five. He uses his youthfulness (I can imagine him keeping it for decades) as part of his personality and its larger playfulness. He bursts into a solo with authority, produces the occasional bravura touch (a diminuendo trill on one back-stretched toe, for example) and keeps varying his tone and shaping his long cadenzas like a master musician, all with boyish charm. The highlight of the open-air Nutmeg performance was its “Sleeping Beauty” Garland Dance, with 12 white-dressed women bearing garlands and 6 men in gray making a changing series of designs and phrases in front of the ravishing backdrop of the Berkshires. Some of the program’s other choreography was less appealing. One duet of men was set, with staggeringly antimusical emphasis, to the Lacrymosa from Verdi’s Requiem: the words kept saying “Requiem, requiem, dona eis requiem” (“Rest, rest, give them rest”), but the two dancers would not stop being kinkily busy. Ms. Tanowitz called her dance “Inside/Out,” probably not just because it was part of the Pillow’s Inside/Out series but also because the choreography was a rearrangement of the larger show (“Be in the Gray With Me”) given by her company at Dance Theater Workshop in June. With just five dancers and without scenery, this performance looked more whimsical and more like a collage of miniatures than the New York production, which I greatly admired. Even so, a miniature by Ms. Tanowitz has more inventiveness than a magnum opus by most choreographers. She knows how, in a single phrase, to contrast fast and slow, sharp and soft, large and small, stillness and motion. One motif for the feet — with each dancer in small steps on half-toe while flexing the other foot — was delivered with a humor and juiciness that have stuck in my head. Enlarge This Image Karli Cadel Uta Takemura of Pam Tanowitz Dance at Jacob’s Pillow. Related Times Topics: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Blog ArtsBeat The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion. More Arts News I have said little about the Cunningham performances simply because I have reviewed this company several times this year and because it performs in New York on Saturday and Sunday. The three works on this triple bill — “CRWDSPCR,” “eyeSpace” and “Sounddance” — are in vivid shape, excellently lighted. “CRWDSPCR” is funnier on each reviewing; the use of iPods in the “eyeSpace” score proves a gimmicky waste of money and time (it inevitably adds an extra layer of sound, as members of the audience whine that they can’t work their iPods); and “Sounddance” — a drama that seems to be at once a microscopic view of cells in turmoil and a huge myth of creation and destruction, as if before a black hole in space — is as sensational as when I first saw it in 1980. The scores, making the old wooden Ted Shawn Theater vibrate, have been as controversial as ever. The Cunningham company first performed at the Pillow in 1955; two members of the 1955 troupe (Carolyn Brown and Marianne Preger) attended the performance on Wednesday. Mr. Cunningham was the recipient of this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award ($50,000). The Pillow’s executive director, Ella Baff, introduced Wednesday’s opening-night performance by saying that Mr. Cunningham “inhabits the future,” a view to which the performance then gave ideal supporting evidence. The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival continues through Aug. 30 in Becket, Mass.; (413) 243-0745, jacobspillow.org.

Alastair Macaulay