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DANCE REVIEW: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble brings a powerful dose of dance and life to Jacob's Pillow

Dancers in front of red background

Chloé-Grant Abel, Samiyah Lynnice, and Topaz von Wood of Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble perform in "Mary Don't You Weep." 

BECKET — In a recent interview, the teacher/director/choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson commented that humans “don’t cry enough … and we don’t laugh enough.” She thinks dance is one form of medicine that can help make up those deficiencies. To be sure, the program her 52-year-old company, the Colorado-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, brings to Jacob’s Pillow this week offers a powerful dose of dance, that metaphoric elixir of life.

The evening also offers a sampler of the group’s history, as well as Modern dance history, in choreography by iconic figures that include, in addition to Robinson, Katherine Dunham and Donald McKayle. Newer generations of dancemakers are also given a place at this prominent table.

Dunham’s “Ragtime”— the brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it excerpt from the 1972 production of Scott Joplin’s not-a-ragtime-opera opera “Treemonisha”— opens the program with an adorably old-school bang. Four sharply-dressed men enter, jubilantly, carrying chairs held high and giant smiles. Four women join, waving small feathery fans, and the romp is on: Male/female couples quickly form, performing easy-breezy steps with a mix of innocent glee and frank sensuality. It’s a hoot.

Robinson’s “Mary Don’t You Weep” is an excerpt from her “Spiritual Suite,” which was inspired by the lives and deaths of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and her brother; the latter— like King, a preacher— died in his sleep at 19. Nikki Giovanni’s spare poem “The Women Gather” is spoken in voiceover before Eric Gale’s powerful, bluesy/funky rendition of the dance’s titular African American spiritual rumbles in, its sway and strut infectious. Briefly, a Preacher, performed by Davry Ratcliffe, makes his way about the stage, in lunging steps, reaching his arms out, as if beseeching, then contracting into a shell, hands pulled back into his center, as if in private prayer. The main event, however, is the choreography for the three women-in-mourning who alternately traverse the stage, supporting one another, their arms clasped on others’ backs, or linked by outstretched hands, or sit on chairs, their feet restlessly skittering. Solos are filled with percussive contractions and breath-suspending hovers on one leg, the other leg piercing the atmosphere above the dancer’s head, their torso leaning precipitously sideways, or arching deeply back etched. The opening night trio, Chloé-Grant Abel, Samiyah Lynnice, and Topaz von Wood, were extraordinary, fierce and rigorous, determined.

The 2017 “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return” was the last piece the great McKayle made, and the company honors his legacy — and the dance’s somber subject — by dancing it with unwavering focus. Like McKayle’s dance, Anoushka Shankar’s sitar- and percussion-fueled score was inspired by the traumatic experiences of war-driven refugees. Kenneth Keith’s evocative lighting design (adapted by Trey "Trezie" Grimes) bathes the stage in dusky shadows or captures, starkly, a long diagonal of travelers picking their way across the stage with a mesmerizingly hushed, repetitive sequence, thrusting one leg forward, their hips following a moment later, describing half-circles, over and over. Yoojung Hahm and Tyveze Littlejohn are searing in their compelling, long duet that begins ritualistically, the two lunging side by side or, mirrored, etching legs out in staccato developpés. The ensemble’s precision throughout the dance, meanwhile — including later in the lengthy running, chugging, leaping sections — is striking, and essential to maintaining the framework of performance. While the performers, after all, are meant to indicate the exhaustion of constantly being on the run, their physical prowess as trained dancers, combined with their artistic integrity, underscores McKayle’s thesis here: the way that humanity, even amidst struggle and horror, is in the end a beautiful resistance to the ugliness of war.

Garfield Lemonius’s 2017 “Catharsis” is an abstract study in the less-fraught, but still-real, kind of day-to-day concerns we humans seem unable to shake. This piece too has a central pas de deux that highlights, through the duet’s alternating sharing of weight, the power of emotional support. Hahm, here with Corey Boatner, are largely magnificent in their virtuosic choreography, creating one indelible image after another, but occasionally Lemonius’s choreography slips away from organically-constructed phrases and relies on ambitiously acrobatic partnering that seems showy, unsuited to this ostensibly-thoughtful dance. The ensemble work, often driving, is likewise strained now and again by over-stuffed phrases, which the dancers valiantly strive to execute: often they do so successfully, exceptional as they are, but sometimes corners have to be cut.

How deliciously apt that this program of this company, founded by a woman, ends with a piece choreographed by a woman (former company member Nejla Y. Yatkin), for seven women. Better still that the dance, the 1998 “Salome’s Daughters” turns the usually misogynistic depiction of Salome as heartless man-killer on its head. Though the second part of the dance relies too heavily (for me) on the women stalking about, hands on hips, glaring out at the audience, as well as an awkward fusion of dance genres, the first section is a finely-constructed pageant showcasing a rainbow of strong women. In addition to Abel, Lynnice, and von Wood, the equally-terrific Caeli Blake, Jasmine Francisco, Gabriela Maduro, and Lauren Slaughter slip in and out from the group to perform striking, Graham- or Horton-inflected solos. It’s a testament to Yatkin’s choreographic chops that the staging for the group-cum-chorus is handsome enough to attract notice while keeping the soloist in the center of the frame. The dance is at once a celebration of individuality, and of the life-sustaining power of a community.


What: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble

Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

When: Now through Sunday. Aug. 21

Information: Tickets starting at $55. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

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

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