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DANCE REVIEW: Eloquently-trained bodies speak volumes in BODYTRAFFIC's triple-bill performance at Jacob's Pillow


Tiare Keeno and Guzman Rosado of BODYTRAFFIC in "Notes on Fall."

BECKET — Matthew Neenan’s 2018 dance “A Million Voices” opens the triple bill performed by the Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, reminding us instantly of how terrific this contemporary dance company is. Set to songs sung by the iconic mid-20th century singer Peggy Lee, the dance is at once winkingly hip and charmingly nostalgic, retro in all the right ways. It’s all kinds of other things too — well-constructed, exceptionally danced, witty yet earnest — and curiously soothing. The program notes that Lee’s music, “in response to the political climate of her time, reminds us that even during dark times, life is worth enjoying.”

Indeed, the cast of eight dancers offers up snapshots of individual lives experiencing some of the universal joys of life. (Along with the ups, however, there are a few downs; this is life, after all.) Dancers fall in and out of love, dream big dreams, fret, and play. Like whimsical figures emerging from a Chagall painting, they become a circus troupe, high-stepping like elegant elephants; or they become a human train, their lower legs moving rhythmically like wheels and rods.

Although they’re telling their tales in the most abstract way — through the physical language of dance — their eloquently-trained bodies speak volumes. And Neenan’s choreography, based in ballet, contemporary, and modern, is an uncannily seamless mix of performative and pedestrian movements: a smart and sensitive correspondent with the lyrics, rather than a rote follower. Neenan’s staging is likewise expert; one moment the dancers are scattered about the stage, moving or pausing or posing individually before joining, on a dime, without a formal set-up, in a tightly-knit group phrase. Duets form organically, as if pulled into sharp focus by a movie camera, the rest of the group still in the frame, but now receded. It’s all superb — whether ensemble, solos or duets — although particular sections stand out, such as Ty Morrison’s slightly melancholic, delicate yet expansive solos, and the endearing, on again/off again/on again duet, set perfectly to “Is That All There Is?”, and performed with both deadpan yearning and sincere love-fire by Jordyn Santiago and Joan Rodriguez.


Ty Morrison of BODYTRAFFIC in "SNAP."

The other ensemble piece on the program, Micaela Taylor’s 2019 “SNAP,” also mining aspects of the human condition, is an exuberantly eccentric call to action. The task? For individuals to celebrate their uniqueness, to, as the program states “‘snap out of’ social pressures to conform,’ and at the same time, to buck the potential isolation of modern life and—channeling E.M. Forster— to connect with others. The dancers morph easily between Taylor’s blend of rubbery-kneed playfulness and funky, staccato-accented movements. The perils of social disharmony are briefly enacted—two men end up in a faux fist fight—and just as quickly discarded: the heartfelt message is clear, that violence is a waste of our time and spirits.

BODYTRAFFIC is performing this week on the Pillow’s outdoor stage, and some of the production elements for “SNAP” felt out of balance in this setting.

I suspect that this piece was expressly designed to rely on the scenic and dramatic effects created by theatrical lighting, while the music, SHOCKEY’s thickly-scratched and layered score — with delicious bits of James Brown in the mix — was occasionally, and uncomfortably, screechy on this sound system.

This famously “bucolic” setting — the stage is surrounded by the sublime trees and sky of the Berkshire Hills — serves Brian Brooks’ 2021 hushed “Notes on Fall,” set to four sections from Leoš Janáček’s piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path,” beautifully. This now-passive, now-passionate, deceptively-difficult duet (Brooks’ choreography is composed of a tricky combination of loose contact improvisation and smooth, weighted-yet-silent descents to the floor) is performed with unwavering focus and full command by Tiare Keeno and Guzmán Rosado. Again, though the work is abstract, the dancers, through their bodies, through Brooks’ movement, seem to be telling a tale familiar to many humans: whether it’s companionship, friendship, or love, our close relationships are at times work, at times works-in-progress, but sometimes, if we are fortunate, they are works of art too.

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

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