BECKET — A good dance class accompanist can be hard to find: It’s a calling. John Heginbotham, a former longtime dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and now a choreographer with his own eponymous company, knows from good accompanists. (Morris’s choreography is celebrated very specifically for its musicality.)
For Dance Heginbotham’s performances this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Heginbotham and Ethan Iverson, a former musical director and class accompanist for Morris’s group, have put together a program of three dances with original choreography and music created by the two.
The opening piece, the 2015 “Easy Win,” is an abstract frolic inspired by Heginbotham’s and Iverson’s experiences dancing in and playing for Morris’s ballet classes. With Iverson playing eight delightful, vividly-titled pieces on solo piano — the near-universal method for ballet class music — seven dancers move on and off stage, in and out of groups, form lines, or circles. Though this is definitely an often purposely-kooky depiction of a ballet class, the atmosphere captures the ways in which dancers are deeply interested in and even obsessed by the minutiae (usually).
Dancers bounce through pliés, describe ovals with their legs in rond de jambes, jump, turn, stretch. Rinse and repeat. In “Jumps for Harriet,” dancers jeté over and over, others mirroring or following, or, if necessary, leap over another dancer who happens to be laying on the floor. In “An Unlikely Romeo,” Justin Dominic and Weaver Rhodes have the stage mostly to themselves, but at first remain in their own worlds, extending a leg out into a long developpé or stretching; eventually the two circle each other warily before finally allowing for a hint of a duet, as they do a simple box step, their hips swaying with subtle flirtation.
The myriad of details, and the repetition, are necessary to the development and maintenance of one’s technique; but dancers are still human (and Heginbotham’s choreography is often funny), thus, in the “Slow Grind” section, we see dancers wilting like flowers in need of water, even nodding off while standing around, perhaps waiting for an in-the-weeds technical detail discussion to end and the dancing to resume.
They revive, and class continues, with the dual sense of exhaustion and ebullience — endorphins, baby! — that almost always accompanies the end of dance class.
Still, a friend once remarked that for non-dancers, watching dance class can be like watching paint dry, and even this whimsical sketch of a class — and even for me, a fellow obsessee — seems to sputter and run out of gas occasionally.
I’m sincerely sorry to report that “Dance Sonata,” the new piece Heginbotham and Iverson cooked up for this Pillow evening fails to get anywhere (for me, anyway) at all.
Iverson is joined by formidable musical colleagues — violinist Pauline Kim Harris, drummer Vincent Sperrazza, and bassist Dylan Stone — in a succinct performance of his lively, jazzy four-part sonata.
In his program note, Heginbotham says that “If ‘Easy Win’ is the ballet class—the warm-up—for a performance, ‘Dance Sonata’ is the show.” The piece however, seems more like the sketching, marking and noodling that dancers do in rehearsal lulls, individually, rather than a series of movements and phrases that coalesce into a defined work. The dancers have lots of fun skimming through simple jazzy/contemporary/balletic movements.
Looking gorgeous in Maile Okamura’s swank, detailed costumes, the dancers are given lots of kick-ball-changes, chassés, not-quite but cutely-almost Fosse-like finger-spread hands, grapevines, and the like. Much of it looks hastily put-together; filler to keep the dancers busy.
But kudos to the skilled, dedicated dancers in both dances, who, in addition to Dominic and Rhodes, included, in Thursday evening’s performance: Paige Barnett, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Courtney Lopes, Mykel Marai Nairne, and Macy Sullivan.
I have loved other Heginbotham works, especially his evening-length pieces “Chalk and Soot” and “The Principles of Uncertainty.” Happily, “The Understudies,” the duet Heginbotham dances with the incandescent Amber Star Merkens (another colleague from the Morris company) is, simply, beautiful, in its beautiful simplicity. Accompanied by Iverson and Harris, playing Iverson’s sweetly melancholic “Adagio,” these two seasoned artists conjure a couple facing the decision of whether to hold on or to let go. They stand side-by-side, so close that their arms seem Velcroed, but then their feet inch out, bit by bit, until they are leaning, in opposite directions, far away from one another. It’s heartbreaking, and suspenseful, but Merkens, just in time, grabs for Heginbotham’s hand. They embrace; they shuffle together in a familiar, intimate, yet absent slow dance; Heginbotham tosses Merkins’s arm over his shoulder and lifts her seemingly inert body just a bit off the floor, several times. He walks away from her, she goes to him; she walks away from him, he goes to her. They both try, they both give up, they try again. At the end (for now), the two end up where they started, side-by-side, but now laying, propped up on their elbows, as if looking up at the horizon. Are they looking at a sun setting on their relationship or on the glowing depth of a rising moon? It’s so moving, this story told in the wordless language of dance, the language that can say the unsayable.DANCE REVIEWWho: Dance Heginbotham
Where: Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, Jacob’s Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Aug. 14
Performances: 6 p.m., Aug. 13; noon, Aug. 14
Tickets: $25 — $35
Reservations and information: 413-243-9919, jacobspillow.org