BECKET >> Choreographer Bryan Arias' "a rather lovely thing" which had its world premiere at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Wednesday night, is a sweetly quirky, beautifully affecting work. And it hasn't an arrogant bone in its body: "a rather lovely thing" is just that.
It is also at times rather absurdist, wonderfully so. During the course of the hour-plus dance, four terrific dancers — Arias with Ana Maria Lucaciu, Jermaine Spivey, and Spenser Theberge — play with various props, take turns wearing masks, change in and out of costume pieces that they take from a clothesline hanging over on stage right. Even though everything unfolds in plain sight, there are little surprises; Spivey, holding a big fluffy puff — is it a tutu or a sheep? no, it's a cloud! — casually hooks the puff to a wire descending from the flies, climbs up on a chair, his head now literally in the clouds. Spivey remains behind his now-illuminated cloud, while Theberge performs a fascinating solo. Both awkward and virtuosic, Theberge's head often angles pointedly elsewhere, while his body seems to have a mind of its own.
The two masks are perhaps versions of the same person: one sports the mien of a disappointed old man while the other's expression seems perfectly giddy. But the larger-than-life size of "happy guy" is slightly creepy; both are disorienting. "When am I happy and when am I sad," says a character in Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," adding "and what is the difference?"
In her solo, Lucaciu alternates between her own extremes, first nervously scratching and ducking and compulsively repeating a series of jerky movements, before finally chuckling to herself, perhaps finally comfortable in her own skin. It's a lovely moment, glorified further when Spivey joins her. Their duet spills over with the dizzying pleasure of a new love as they discover one another, their arms tenderly encircling, or as one softly catches the other's swooning body.
Arias' compound is similar to the magic mixture in Wes Anderson's films: the silliness is graced by sincerity, and the poignancy glows with humanity. "a rather lovely thing" is also, but only occasionally, a tad obvious. Arias doesn't always trust his otherwise superb instincts and overstates a moment here and there.
Arias is a disciple of choreographer Crystal Pite (he also performs with her company) and her influence is palpable in one of "lovely's" main motifs, in which two or three or four of the dancers journey all around the stage, expanding and contracting like rubber bands come alive. He also danced with Nederlands Dans Theater, and the Gaga-gooey mark of the choreographer Ohad Naharin is everywhere too, particularly in the loose way the dancers transition to the floor and back up again. Much of the movement is cushiony, quiet. Fast yet fluid, the dancers are often an articulate blur, whipping from a roll on the floor to a suddenly upright turn.
Like Brandon Lee's props and Theberge's and Marion Talan de la Rosa's costumes, the score is an assortment, anchored by simple and lush works by Bach and Chopin. A melancholy, shimmering recording of Nina Simone singing "Who Knows Where the Time Goes" accompanies the last solo, danced by Arias, now wearing the grumpy old man mask. At the beginning of the dance, Spivey wore the mask; his solo was anxious, hunched, doubting, finally lonely. Arias' movements waver between tension — he sits and folds himself up, just like that prop chair — and catharsis: he allows his legs to just fall out from their pretzel shape. At the end, Arias is alone, too, and maybe facing his own death, but he contemplates, with a child's wonder, a tiny kite hovering nearby. He has stopped fighting with himself, it seems, and sinks down with a sighing peace.
Janine Parker also writes for The Boston Globe, where this review first appeared. She can be reached at email@example.com.