The Great Outdoors of Dance: Jacob’s Pillow

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Photo by Christopher Duggan; Lighting design by Nicholas Phillips

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s Jason Hortin and Benjamin Wardell in “Deep Down Dos”

Every Wednesday during the season at exactly 1:15 pm the bells ring on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshire Hills of Western Massachusetts.

It’s not just any bell, but a call to signify that dancers are in the house and a week’s worth of motion is about to begin. Ella Baff, executive director, is there to greet any number of dance legends who happen to be performing that week, introduce the outstanding staff, the fearless interns and the scholars in residence, which for the past two weeks, has included me.

Last week, The Göteborg Ballet along with Australian innovator (and Houston favorite) Lucy Guerin were in attendance, along with Chet Walker and hisJazz/ Musical Theatre Dance students. This week it’s Hubbard Street Dance ChicagoThe Vanaver Caravan and the artists of the Choreographers Lab.  Also included in the mix were CultureMap president Nic Phillips, who designed the lighting for Hubbard Street resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo’s two world premieres, along with Houston choreographer andUniversity of Houston faculty member Becky Valls , who is joining the Choreographers Lab.

What fun to have a tiny Texas invasion.

Thanks to Nancy Henderek at  Dance Salad Festival, I had seen The Göteborg Ballet a few years back in Houston. A clever program titled 3xBolero sent three choreographers riffing off Maurice Ravel’s famous one movement orchestral work, Bolero. Johan Inger’s Walking Mad fused narrative, inventive movement and one limber timber folding fence to expand upon Ravel’s notion of crescendo. Kenneth Kvarnstrom’s OreloB(Bolero spelled backwards) echoed Ravel’s intensity and relentless engine.

Alexander Ekman’s Episode 17 played with the composer’s cumulative structure with wit and sass. I am not sure I will ever listen to Bolero the same way again. Somewhere, Ravel is reveling.

Guerin’s Structure and Sadness references the 1970 collapse of the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. Enlisting movement based on the forces of push, pull, compression, suspension, torsion and collapse, her dancers double as engineers as they build one incredible structure on stage.

As with all of Guerin’s work, ideas are abstracted, yet fragments of a narrative illuminate her kinetic landscape. In light of recent infrastructure failures such as the BP Gulf Coast oil spill and other disasters, Structure and Sadness feels unusually timely. More importantly, Guerin’s poignant work stands as a testament of the depth by which artists transform tragedy, crafting beauty from the dust of despair.

Dancing outside is such a profound experience I wonder why it isn’t part of our dance going habits more often. At the Pillow, watching dance against the dramatic backdrop of the Berkshire mountains and lush forests happens at 6:15 every Wednesday through Saturday on the Inside/Out Stage.

Last week, I caught Jennifer Nugent of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in I’d Go Out With You. Nugent moves with same agile fluidly as the breeze moving across the stage. As the week went on, I took in performances by Amy Marshall Dance Company, students from the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program and  Zach Morris and Tom Pearson ofThird Rail Projects. The Pillow has embarked on an ambitious Save the Stage campaign.

By next summer, a new stage will be in place. I can’t fuss enough about the sheer splendor of witnessing great dance in the great outdoors. It’s such a reminder of how deeply dance tethers to the natural world. After Morris and Pearson’s dancers scampered about the rocks in time with the music, I watched a gaggle of wiggly children rush into the space recently blessed by dance.

Leave it to joy seeking little ones to know sacred ground when they see it.

This week I’m immersed in Hubbard Street’s rich offerings, which include Ohad Naharin’s Tabula Rasa, Cerrudo’s Blanco and Deep Down Dos, and Aszure Barton’s Untouched. I had the privilege of watching Phillips in action, as both of Cerrudo’s dances virtually partner with light. On Friday night, I’ll check out the global mix masters of  The Vanaver Caravan.

Not everything is in motion here at the Pillow. An exhibit of Pilates at the Pillow includes images, footage and writings about Joseph Pilates’ time here. A 1956 Dance Magazine story by Doris Hering, caught my eye. As the frequent scribe of Dance Magazine’s Your Body column, it was fun to see the column in its earlier incarnation. Mostly, we think of dance as something that can’t be captured.

True, unless Lois Greenfield happens to be holding the camera. Lois Greenfield: Imagined Moments features an extraordinary collection of her work over the past few decades. Dance, free of choreographic constraints and created specifically for the camera, comes to life on the walls of Blake’s Barn.

It’s hard to walk around on these hallowed dance grounds and not think about all the icons who traveled these very paths. Images of founder Ted Shawn and his men dancers, along with other dance luminaries, grace the grounds. The site is a National Historic Landmark. It was even a stop on the underground railway.

Pillow history surrounds the visitor, yet the Festival is very much about what’s happening right this minute in dance. The programing is a mix of international, national and up and coming troupes, most of which are on my must-see list. I am more than halfway through my goal of watching the entire 2010 season on DVD in the Archives. Wish me luck with that.

I told many of you I would be staying in a rustic cabin with no A/C with furry wildlife about. Sadly, that didn’t happen.

Instead, I stayed in a mountain home with a deck overlooking a meadow and the Berkshires. Oh well.

On Saturday, I will be in the presence of dancing hippos in Mindy Aloff’s Pillow Talk on her recent book, Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation. That may be the sum total of my wildlife experience. But I am proud to announce that I’m completely up on my Massachusetts black bear etiquette.

The Pillow is also about people. Can I help it if I hark from the best arts tribe ever? Houstonian J.R. Glover, Director of Education, filled me on the many diverse programs that happen over the summer and the outreach activities to the Berkshire community. I caught up with Caleb Teicher, a student in the Jazz/Musical Theatre Dance program, who I had interviewed years ago. It was a great joy to see what a fine dancer he has become.

I understand a tiny bit more about dance video and photography after spending time with Nel Shelby and Christopher Duggan. Veteran scholars Maura Keefe and Debra Cash made delightful colleagues. Archivist Norton Owen is a pillow treasure chest of knowledge. And, of course, it’s been terrific to hang out with the Houston contingent.

With two pre-show talks, an afternoon Pillow Talk with Hubbard Street’s director Glenn Edgerton and a post-show Q & A yet to do, it’s a dance-jammed day.

I have more to tell you, but need to dash now as my Pillow-palooza is still very much in motion.

Reprinted from Culturemap.

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