BECKET — “Like Water,” one of three dances presented this week at Jacob’s Pillow by the 45-year-old Dallas Black Dance Theatre, was a birthday present: A dance commissioned by one spouse for another. (The “recipient” happens to be a former chair of the Pillow board of directors.) The piece, and the appearance of this fine company — its first Pillow engagement ever — are, however, gifts for us all.
Throughout the program, the ensemble’s spectacular, virtuosic style of contemporary movement is mined thoroughly. The dancers are steeped in Horton technique — the modern dance style named for Lester Horton, with whom the young Alvin Ailey studied; it’s also artistic director Melissa M. Young’s area of expertise — and contemporary ballet. Starkly-angled side-tilts, deep backward hinges, ear- or nose-high extensions shoot out of the dancers with a fascinating mixture of calm exhilaration; they turn and turn and turn, either upright on strong relevé or in low, weighted pirouettes; jumps, likewise, range from earth-hugging chugs to skimming, skipping petit allegro to giant yet blink-of-an-eye-quick leaps.
They can do it all, and with an abundance of charm, and sincerity, to boot. If, as this program unfolds, there is a sense that each of the three choreographers relied rather often on the dancers’ ability to execute those hyper-flexible high jinks, this “realness” keeps even the “wow” material from becoming mere spectacle.
And, to be sure, the works are well-crafted dances full of meaning and mood. In Christopher L. Huggins’ 2003 “Night Run,” 12 dancers begin formally, the men approaching the women with tactile precision or the women turning and jumping succinctly into the men, who catch them up in a crisp embrace. This opening section ends with the women stepping away from the men, while extending a warning hand up. This mysterious tension infuses the lovely middle section for three couples; the women cradle the backs of the men as they hinge, or held just above the floor, the men’s arms circling about their torsos, the women float and sweep their arms, as if swimming. Sometimes these dream-like images trip toward nightmares, as the women kick and thrash. In the final section, the group coalesces to form a pack of stylized joggers, smiles of camaraderie flicking across their faces.
Huggins and “Like Water” choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie are in-demand choreographers in the larger dance community and while their works both flatter and are well-served by these dancers, it’s no wonder that the most intimate dance on the program is the 2018 “Face What’s Facing You!”, choreographed by company dancer Claude Alexander III. Hana Delong portrays an enigmatic central figure struggling with unspecified demons. When the group of 10 dancers encircle her, it feels like a community gathering arms about her rather than a stalking mob. Though Delong continues to elude their interventions, there isn’t a sense, to me, anyway, that she’s necessarily suffering from her self-imposed exile. There are motifs of action/reaction throughout, suggesting that our actions, no matter how private, can affect those close to us, but there are also many moments that depict Delong as a powerful, assured woman. She traces her hand down her thigh, her calf, to her heel; clasping that foot she lifts her leg up, to the side of her head; she releases her foot, gazing steadily out; the foot — her leg — remains for an unnerving couple of moments up there, before it descends, slowly. If she is carrying a weight, she knows fully just how much it weighs. She’s facing it, whatever it is. Alexander doesn’t tie the dance up in a tidy bow; when does life work like that, after all?
Circling back to that birthday present, which, according to Moultrie’s brief, but poignant, program note, is an abstract nod to both the struggles, and the resilience, of humans. Though stirring waves of grief lap at this dance, “Like Water” mostly bubbles with joy. In the first and third movements, set to an upbeat, acoustic guitar composition by Rodrigo Y Gabriela, a spirited group ethos prevails; the opening section is, simply, a joyous party of dance. Although the middle of the dance, set to spare music by Pêtr Aleksändr, shifts the mood considerably, Moultrie manages this somber turn, and the return, in the final section, to joy, deftly, without jarring incongruousness. With what sounds like the voices of children echoing through the music, a woman pushes her head into a man’s sternum and he ripples back before returning the gesture. They embrace, somberly, and remain thus joined, for a long time, while others offer individual dance phrases as if placing talismanic objects on a shrine. Terrell Rogers Jr. lifts his leg into arabesque, before dipping his body forward; then, like a flower dropping its petals, the position breaks apart delicately: Heartbreaking.
Moultrie, and these life-force-affirming/beaming dancers, reminds us of the absolute beauty that is present, in this existence. Given the continuing scarcity, on many concert dance stages, of Black and Brown dancers, the importance of this company cannot be overstated. But not to be mistaken for the reason this company is excellent.