Our corner in the world of dance enjoyed a summer of reflection on rich traditions, along with innovation at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and a few other stages where Terpsichore’s art form shares a presence among the mix of activities.
The Pillow launched its 81st season in late June with a visit from the Dance Theatre of Harlem, newly reconstituted following its eight-year hiatus necessary for a fiscal reassessment. Offering an ambitious program under the artistic direction of the company’s longtime prima ballerina, Virginia Johnson, the 18 dancers, leaner in number, explored repertory treasures, displaying enthusiasm and promise on their long journey back to the exemplary standards set by the troupe’s founder, Arthur Mitchell.
At the other end of the season last month, the Martha Graham Dance Co. -- 88 years in service and counting -- epitomized its evergreen nature. Under the wise and resourceful artistic direction of Janet Eilber, the troupe’s superb dancers indicated -- in performances of Graham’s "The Rite of Spring," commemorating the centenary of Stravinsky’s score, and fresh new works such as "Rust," Nacho Duato’s piece delving into torture -- that they are capable of bearing the rich Graham legacy and also moving triumphantly into another century of dance.
In between, the Pillow season was filled with surprises: Ballet B.C., the lively troupe of eight men and eight women from Vancouver led by artistic director Emily Molnar, brought energy and determination to three U.S. premieres, in which they defined contemporary ballet with cogency and spirit. Clearly grounded in classical style, these dancers moved on from that training to provide more than a glimpse at some of the exciting ways their brand of ballet is pushing beyond conventional parameters of form.
Similarly, Michelle Dorrance offered first evidence of wondrous new directions for the art of tap. "The Blues Project," unveiled by Dorrance Dance, displayed the solo and group work normally expected, but also ventured into masterful three- and four-part steps that proved exciting in this collaboration of Dorrance, Derrick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. A demonstration of tap as a percussive music-making instrument was outdone only by an exercise in soft-shoe percussion sans the assertive tap footwear, all of this with marvelous live instrumental music.
Live music, in this case, Steve Reich’s mesmerizing "Drumming," established the atmosphere for Ginette Laurin’s "La Vie Qui Bat" ("The Beat of Life"), given an animated performance by members of O Vertigo Danse, the group from Montreal. Players from the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec, under its director Walter Boudreau, moved seamlessly through sessions of bongos, marimbas, flute, soprano soloists and other drums in this tour de force challenge for musicians and dancers.
Among the most entertaining troupes at the Pillow this summer was 3e Étage, the group of soloists and dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet, who seemed to be enjoying their assignments as much as we did. In a series of vignettes delightfully cinematic, the 10 dancers proved fine comedians, as well as people able to move very knowledgably, including some really funny tongue-in-cheek ballet movements that were dazzling in their executions.
Wendy Whelan, for more than two decades a much favored principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, unwilling to rest on laurels, decided to turn her attention toward modern dance, and this effort became one of summer’s highlights.
For "Restless Creature," she engaged four notable choreographers, each to make a duet for her, and then be the partner in that duet. Brian Brooks, who worked with Whelan for more than a year, produced a very persuasive piece illustrating the synergy developed between the two and optimistic possibilities for Whelan as a modern dancer. Kyle Abraham, who worked with Whelan a shorter time, nonetheless established an obviously strong relationship, and his dance appeared to nurture her ambitions aswell. The show is moving on to Boston, New York and other spots, and it will be interesting to watch Whelan as she moves further into her new adventure.
Before the Pillow opened this summer, the Paul Taylor Dance Company returned for its annual visit, the sixth, to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, enthusing the crowds with the Taylor touch, which included a New England premiere, "Perpetual Dawn," offering the bucolic Taylor of youthful ardor, followed by the dark, nightmarish Taylor from a 1985 piece, "Last Look," and finally the choreographer we all hold dear, in his "Cascade," one of those gorgeous Taylor extravaganzas set to J.S. Bach.
As noted, Stravinsky’s "Sacre du printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") is 100 years old this year and being feted wherever feet move and symphony orchestras play. One of the most unusual surely was "The Rite," the tribute by Bill T. Jones, the choreographer, and Anne Bogart, the theater innovator. Given those collaborators, audiences were in for something different, and the piece unveiled in early July at Bard College’s Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson certainly was that.
A combination of dance and speech, it occasionally was difficult to separate the members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company from the actors of the SITI Company (Saratoga International Theater Institute), for both groups were involved in movement and spoken word. The Chosen One, instead of a sacrificial virgin, was a shell-shocked war veteran involved in a massacre, and the score was drawn from recordings of three symphony orchestras, big bands, small bands and the chamber music quartet known as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic.
Furious at times, the movement was emblematic of the riotous atmosphere of the 1913 Paris premiere of "Sacre." The Jones/Bogart "Rite" is about the legacy of Stravinsky’s score, Nijinsky’s original choreography and their presumed impact on history since then -- a heavy burden for Jones and Bogart filled with fascinating speculations.
Dance is alive and flourishing in Chatham, N.Y., specifically at PS21, the outdoor tent-sheltered stage known more formally as Performing Spaces for the 21st Century. During August, five dance companies delivered weekend programs, and PS21’s stage proved a good place to watch dance, we discovered on a visit late in the month for a performance by Parsons Dance, which returned for its eighth annual appearance. The evening’s agenda included "Caught," the still-startling Parsons signature work effectuated through pitch darkness and selectively-placed strobe lights; "Ebben," a compelling duet set to a popular aria from Catalani’s opera "La Wally," and a work-in-progress, "For EK," a newly commissioned dance commemorating the 90th birthday anniversary of Elsworth Kelly, the painter, set to Steve Reich’s pulsating "Music for 18 Musicians."