BECKET >> If dancers often seem superhuman as they ply their fey mixture of athleticism and artistry, the program offered by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago at Jacob's Pillow this week shows that dancers are mortals too: Their lungs must pump and their hearts must beat. The evening begins with a multitude of breath sounds that four dancers use as their own accompaniment and ends with the searing vision of one man's last breath. And somewhere in the middle another man mimes the thumping of his heart, which seems to beat right out of his chest.
It's an often dark program, metaphorically and literally — in the five dances there are just bits of subdued color in the costuming and lighting — but the Hubbard Streeters always glow, whether the work is somber or celebratory.
In William Forsythe's 2002 "N.N.N.N.," the two women and two men are given a mostly-pedestrian palette of movements but there is nothing everyday in the way Forsythe builds this exploration of action/reaction, construction/deconstruction, momentum/inertia.
The theme begins as one man experiments with the mechanics of his own limbs and grows into layers of variations on that theme. Sometimes the quartet conjures a wacky Rube Goldberg-esque creature whose ultimate purpose is not nearly as interesting as the entertaining journey getting there.
The dancers' studiousness and their occasional looks of surprise create a suspenseful playfulness. Their breath sounds are utile — over and over, the dancers demonstrate the way a forceful exhale can add propulsion and freedom to a movement — and sometimes funny — gurgling, bubbling sounds escape from the group during one particularly wiggly sequence.
Forsythe's brilliant design is held tautly together by Jacqueline Burnett, Jeffery Duffy, Emilie Leriche, and Kevin J. Shannon, Wednesday night's terrific cast.
The excerpt from the 2013 "Second to Last," by Alejandro Cerrudo, the company's resident choreographer, comprises five austerely beautiful pas de deux. Like the Arvo Pärt composition they dance to, the couples' interactions are gossamer, their movements nearly evaporating even as they're being executed.
Couples recede into the wings as the next one enters, the overlapping adding to the air of impermanence. The dancers move carefully, protective of one another; in partnering the lifts are soft, the women's toes often just skimming the floor. (The pairings, alas, are all male/female: Why not show such tenderness through the lens of at least one same-sex duet?) The duets are intimate and elegiac, the lovers perhaps about to be parted by death.
The separation in Robyn Mineko Williams' 2014 "Waxing Moon," however, is of an unambiguous nature — a breakup caused by a love triangle — and the interactions here are full of tension rather than tenderness. To my mind it's the program's weak link; Williams gives her cast unnecessarily melodramatic gestures that even these fine dancers fail to imbue with believable pain, although the closing pas de deux for Jason Hortin and the lush Burnett has more depth. I wished the work had started there.
Conversely, Crystal Pite's 2008 solo "A Picture of You Falling" is immediately evocative, and though it concludes with a definitive statement — "This is how it ends" — tantalizingly, it seems like only the beginning of something. Jesse Bechard is both full-bodied and vulnerable, arching back gloriously or twisting himself into a conflicted pretzel.
Pite's 2012 "Solo Echo" was inspired by Mark Strand's poem "Lines for Winter" and her dance for an ensemble of seven, set to excerpts from Johannes Brahms' cello and piano sonatas, is equally poetic. With Jay Gower Taylor's stage-snowfall and Tom Visser's lighting, the dancers are cast in a kind of futuristic, shifting moonscape, the chilliness of their struggle warmed by the very humanity of it.
As in "Waxing Moon," the second part surpasses the first, which is rife with those silly, gimmicky sock-footed slides — et tu, Ms. Pite? — so obviously out of place in this otherwise deeply moving dance.
Like many of Pite's works, the dynamic of the group is not superior to the dignity of the individual, but what vivid pictures she creates of how the many can support the one! Often the group moves wildly about the stage, a jellyfish-like organism that contracts and expands, as it strains to stay connected. The final image is heartbreaking, but it is also luminous, akin to the end of Strand's poem: "tell yourself/in that final flowing of cold through your limbs/that you love what you are."
Note: Hubbard Street 2, the junior company, is also at Jacob's Pillow this week, presenting a program in the Doris Duke Theatre. "Mariko's Magical Mix: A Dance Adventure," an hour-long show geared towards children was conceived and created by Williams in collaboration with the design studio Manual Cinema. A kind of movement play peppered with dancing, we follow the title character's dream-cum-adventure with fun illusions vis-a-vis shadow puppetry.
Although Mariko has to climb her way out of some scrapes, the gently-paced show never stays too long in the danger zone. The deliberately cartoonish two-dimensionality of the projections, and the earnest three-dimensionality of the six young dancers helps keep the story in a sweet dreamland rather than a troubling nightmare.
The "critics" I spoke to afterwards raved: 7-year-old Esmé and 4-year-old Rosemarie liked "everything," while 3½-year-old Sophia especially liked "the dancing." The overall summation of James, also 7, says it all. It was, he says, "super great!"
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Who: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
What: Works by William Forsythe, Alejandro Cerrudo, Robyn Mineko Williams, Crystal Pite
Where: Jacob's Pillow, Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Sunday. Evenings — Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2
Who: Hubbard Street 2 and Manual Cinema
What: "Mariko's Magical Mix — A Dance Adventure"
Where: Jacob's Pillow, Doris Duke Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket,
When: Through Sunday. Matinees — Friday at 2:15 and 4:15; Saturday at 11:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m.; Sunday at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m.
Tickets: $35, $25; youth tickets — $10
How: (413) 243-0745, jacobspillow.org