Camille A. Brown's dancers just wanna have fun - and they are at Jacob's Pillow

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BECKET — In the immortal words of Cyndi Lauper, girls, they wanna have fun — and that goes for girls of all colors, the choreographer Camille A. Brown reminds us triumphantly in her 2015 "BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play," at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Exhausted by the one-dimensional categorizations too frequently laid on black women — "angry black female" or "strong black female," take your pick — Brown set out to create a dance celebrating, simply, the ways children in general, and black girls in particular, play.

Brown and four other women indeed depict girls; lovely, innocent, imaginative, fun beings who've yet to be cowed or shaped by preconceived ideas of who they're supposed to be.

And simplicity is the guiding principle: the dancers perform on designer Elizabeth Nelson's handsome, straightforward set of multilevel platforms; Burke Wilmore's subtle lighting is effective, shadowy without being ominous. Placed onstage, pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Robin Bramlett blend in both inconspicuously and necessarily: the ambient/funky/bluesy score, largely comprising original music by Patterson and Tracy Wormworth, is deeply integral to the work.

A large blackboard covered in pastel chalk drawings and the sunny streetwear for the child-women provide the only overtly colorful touches in this urban playground: one senses asphalt and chain link fencing rather than grass and cheerful jungle gyms. And yet "BLACK GIRL" is flooded with the vibrancy of Brown's choreography, the superb cast morphing from the weighted, intricate clapping and foot stomping rhythms of the Juba dance of plantation life to its jazzy, streetsmart offspring, tap dance. (The dancers perform in sneakers, and with a purposely grounded attack: thus, the hoofing pulsates earthily.) Sidewalk games such as Double Dutch are also conjured in some of the dancers' wittily whiplashing footwork.

The seamless weaving of these genres echoes the ways in which the series of barely overlapping solos and duets yet build toward a lucid whole. For a piece that, when considered afterwards, is so fragmented, there is an overall sense of an epic arc. Have we in fact seen Brown, the tough and goofy child who begins the work with her charming variety show of a solo, grow up to be Brown the resilient and worried/wise mother?

Evolving maturity is illustrated via three main duets. In Brown's first, she and the strong yet tranquil Catherine Foster dance with a joyous unselfconsciousness that is at times easy, laughter-filled, and at other times earnestly concentrated, the two engrossed in the secret, but still innocent, intricacies of their friendship. Beatrice Capote and Chloe Davis, however, may be portraying sisters, with Capote the younger one somewhat embarrassed by Davis' display of sexuality. (And, they fight, with the kind of intimate viciousness that only siblings really excel at.) Apparently mimicking what she's seen on TV, Davis experiments with a sultry jutting shoulder here, a cocked hip there. Davis herself occasionally breaks up at the silliness of her hot-mama posturing, but Capote is at that in-between stage—still young enough to be terrified by the new sensations she's feeling in her own body. Capote's own solo, in which she frenetically gropes herself and the air as if trying to grab onto something to steady herself, is quite moving, as is the way Davis first gives her the privacy to flail about before quietly circling back to be by Capote's side.

In her solo, Teneise Ellis moves with a suppleness that suggests an increasingly confident young woman. Brown appears behind her, watching with both patience and fretfulness, her hands fluttering in front of her stomach, or gesturing bossily, as if trying to direct Ellis' path. The classic mother-daughter tension/affection dichotomy is palpable, Ellis needing to assert her uniqueness but secretly loving it when her mom fusses with her hair. These lessons—how children must be allowed to be children; the ways in which our dances pass and grow from one generation to the next—are proffered with such sweetness. We can simply drink in the pleasures of the performance, to remember the feeling of someone playing with our hair.

In the end, for all of her exploratory independence, Ellis snuggles down, curling up to the maternal warmth and safety of Brown. Girls will be girls, after all.

A version of this review first appeared in The Boston Globe. Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.


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