BECKET-- Two years ago, Doug Letheren was about to move to Nova Scotia to become a Buddhist monk -- when he decided to join an Israeli dance company instead.
An acclaimed dancer and Julliard alum, Letheren was a performer at Batsheva Dance Company in Tel Aviv when he considered joining the monastery. Days before his move, leading Batsheva company members Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar told him they were about to start a new company, L-E-V. He decided it was a chance he could not miss.
L-E-V, an eight-member company, makes its American debut on Wednesday at Jacob's Pillow, performing "House."
Letheren first saw Batsheva perform at Jacob's Pillow, when he was a student at the summer program in 2008.
"It looked so familiar," Letheren said. "Like a language that you knew but that you'd never heard before."
He worked with Ohad Naharin, Batsheva's founder, at Julliard; Naharin taught him Gaga, the company's signature style, the style Naharin created.
"They're big news in the dance world," said Ella Baff, executive and artistic director at the renowned dance festival. "It's powerful, rigorous movement. They're onstage pretty much the whole time."
It took work for Letheren to let go of pieces of his traditional training and embrace Gaga.
"It's connecting to your bones, flesh. It's natural, precise, dynamic, clear," he said.
"It's one of the most important ways of moving," Baff said. The movement is hugely popular in Israel, and dancers study the discipline in other parts of the world as well.
Letheren described Gaga as a training method. There are words for the movements, but not in the same way as a ballerina or a tap dancer may need. "Dulce," for example, describes a dancer's ability to snap, to explode, Letheren said.
L-E-V has taken Gaga on a new path. In the company's first shows, performers, all of whom are former Batsheva Dance performers, wore tan unitards and white eye contacts and painted their hair white.
"You think, ‘Who is this tribe from this other planet?'" Baff said.
While the paint and eye contacts are now gone, the unitards remain as a trademark look. Letheren said that the costumes are a unifying factor, but they also draw attention to the particular differences of each dancer's body and movements.
The performance at the Pillow, "House," does not include eye contacts or paint. But they will be in unitards, Letheren assured. The show also includes live electronic music written performed by the company composer, Ori Lichtik, and lighting by acclaimed designer Bambi.
Letheren said the show exists in three parts: in the beginning, there is a family theme, a "resonance with human connection," he said. In act two, the theme broadens, and in the third, which Letheren called "flashy," the piece is "flipped on his head," he said.
"There is a fluid narrative," he added. "It's something that people find personally."
Of the eight dancers in the company, three are Israeli, one is Swedish, one is from Guadeloupe, one is Australian, and one, Letheren, is American. Because the Israel Defense Forces require that all citizens join the army at age 18, the Israeli company members have earned a status that allows them to fight in the military while also training as professional dancers.
"It kind of heightens everything," he said, admiring his fellow dancers who also serve as soldiers.
This is one of many international and innovative groups to perform at the Pillow.
"Body language is really a daily part of life. People connect with body language," Baff said.
To Letheren, every dancer has a different driving force.
For some, it's pleasure. For him, it's suffering.
Though he has not become a monk, he said Buddhism and the Buddha's first noble truth, that life means suffering, continues to permeate his actions.
Dance to Letheren is a mirror that people can see their own reflection in.
"It triggers some kind of understanding in the audience," he said.
"People can say things in movement who can't say things with words," Baff said.
If you go ...
What: L-E-V at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
When: Wednesday through Sunday, July 28. Wednesday to Saturday, 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where: 358 George Carter Road, Becket.
Admission: $39 - $65
Also at Jacob's Pillow...
What: Dorrance Dance
When: Wednesday through Sunday, July 28. Wednesday through Saturday, 8:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2:15 p.m.
Where: Doris Duke Theatre
Admission: $22 - $43