At Jacob's Pillow, FLEXN stands as a metaphor for fractured lives
BECKET >> Dancing, an art form that relies mostly on the body to tell stories, has become very vocal. Pre- and post-performance talks are now orthodox and, in "FLEXN," the Reggie (Regg Roc) Gray/Peter Sellars collaboration presented this week at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, there is even a panel discussion embedded into the piece itself. It begins the evening but it's not meta-theater.
At each performance different community members will appear as panelists. On Wednesday night, a teacher — Akilah Edgerton — and a student — Keiana West (disclosure: I've had this delightful young woman in one of my classes at Williams College) — sat with Gray and Sellars and spoke with earnest about the importance of the issues explored in "FLEXN."
Gray and 15 fabulous dancers — who perform variations on the theme of the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Jamaica street dance style called flexing — are vocally silent, although the chatter continues in the lyrics that stream from an array of rap songs in Epic B's fragmented score. Yet the dance and these dancers don't need anyone to explain to us what they're saying, loudly and clearly.
"FLEXN" follows on the long tradition of dance as protest. While it's not, as Sellars noted at the beginning, "about" the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, those terrible events (and the scores like them), and the ongoing presence of institutional racism, inform the work. "FLEXN" is indeed permeated in anxiety and frustration but a goal is that it can be a part of the honest, vigorous and difficult conversations necessary to fixing our deeply broken systems. Black Lives Matter, Sellars said, is the most urgent movement of our times.
To this cast, dance matters too. Their bios — snippets are included in the program, while my press packet included long versions — are rife with haunting and beautiful descriptions: for them dance is a thread to hold onto or a rock to stand upon but it is omnipresent in their lives.
Flexing is rooted in storytelling, and practitioners are encouraged to be expressive both physically and emotionally; there are "foundation" steps that inform the genre's vocabulary, but the dancers also incorporate other styles into their movements. (The "point" work of Jookin', for example, is a favorite of a few of the cast members.)
In a series of abstract sketches, soloists or small groups depict universal struggles of love as well as the horrors of gun violence within communities. Ben Zamora's lighting design, which features a series of striking neon strips arranged on the backdrop, creates a range of moods.
It's moving, and it's entertaining, but it's not a whole: While the meandering may be purposeful — a metaphor for fractured lives, like the "bone-breaking" aspects of flexing — for all the scintillating moments there is a lot of repetition and a curious lack of imaginative staging. There is, to be sure, much that sears in the moment and later hovers in memory: Slicc's liquid knee perambulations; Cal's heartbreaking isolations in which he is both the hunter and the hunted; Shellz's lyrical undulations; Tyme's long arms reaching crazily and menacingly behind him, like a cobra about to strike; Brixx's beautiful long solo, which descends like a warm balm after the many depictions of violence.
On the one hand, it seems that with a lot of tightening, "FLEXN" could be a great rap opera. But if this loose compilation is what Gray and Sellars really want, then perhaps the proscenium is getting in the way. Maybe viewers should be cheek-by-jowl with the dancers, where they can feel the heat up close.
Janine Parker also writes for The Boston Globe, where a version of this review first appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: FLEXN. Created by Reggie (Reg Doc) and Peter Sellars
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Sunday. Evening — Tonight at 8:15. Matinees — Today and Sunday at 2:15
How: 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org; in person at Jacob's Pillow box office on site
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