BECKET — Where would any artist be without the presence of masters, mentors, and muses? As a choreographer, teacher and former dancer, Zvi Gotheiner has been affected, influenced and inspired by other choreographers, teachers and dancers. When it comes to choreography, Gotheiner, like many dancemakers, looks not only to his own field for vision, but also to music, literature, theater, and, as in the case of his 2015 "Escher/Bacon/Rothko," visual art. His own abstract take on these 20th century masters, which is performed this weekend at Jacob's Pillow, is full of painterly images of the terpsichorean kind.
Although some obvious connections appear on the surface of Gotheiner's physical triptych, "Escher/Bacon/Rothko" is both simply gorgeous and sophisticated — not a paint-by-numbers affair. Throughout, Gotheiner celebrates the individualism of his nine dancers; a collection of different heights and musculatures, they are all given ample opportunities to demonstrate their thrillingly unalike virtuosities.
Of the three sections, the first, fueled by the works of M.C. Escher, has the most segmented feel to it. There is a faint sense that we are watching a series of "task"-oriented sections, ones that don't always connect seamlessly. Perhaps this is Gotheiner's intention, his fleshing out of the multiples of blocks and shapes in some of Escher's wood-cuts. The costumes in this section — all are by Mary Jo Mecca — indeed conjure the clean lines of many Escher works, the dancers garbed in short black unitards, with one of the long sleeves white.
The phrases themselves, and the layering of them, are lush, full of swooping torsos, slicing or circling arms, loose chassés, and legs that first pierce out in front before diving into arabesques. A range of emotions threads through the section as possible little mini-stories unfold in the myriad of duets: playfulness, stubbornness, wonder, even shyness.
Scott Killian's original score begins with a layering itself, at first a solo piano that has a looping, driving quality before softening and deepening into a more ambient plaintiveness. Each of the three sections ends both enigmatically and definitively: here, a tentative woman rewards her wooer with the sweetest of kisses.
The middle section is tense, vaguely disturbing — as one would expect, given the cryptical distortions of many of Francis Bacon's portraits — and goes in and out of the borders between the artist's art and his life.
The company's four men, at first conservatively outfitted, enter and saunter about, cruising. Soon they form a horizontal line facing the audience and the over-the-top glowering morphs into grotesque facial expressions as their upper bodies crumble and contort. They seem to try to bite at their own faces; later they nearly gnaw their ties off. They tug, somewhat sheepishly, at their zippers; one man goes all the way and, thus partially freed, dances with both clarity and abandon while the other three huddle and discuss. Here, and the way the others finally awkwardly chug out of their trousers lends the subtlest trace of humor to the proceedings. Without it, the glowering and the growing cacophony in Killian's score would be overwrought; with it, the men's struggles for companionship and dominance are poignant.
"Rothko," the final, and truly tour-de-force section, is saturated not with splashes of deep color in the lighting, but with the evening's most vigorous and beautifully constructed choreography. (Indeed, Mark London's lighting throughout is stark, particularly here; Rothko's famous rectangles are conjured by the very absence of color. A deep royal "Rothko blue" is found in Mecca's serviceable but — in such a diversely-physical group — unnecessarily uniform costumes.)
The ensemble forms and dissipates into canons and more duets, as well as some extended solos, gifts from Gotheiner to his terrific dancers, who in turn honor him by diving into them with all they've got — not so easy to do, at the end of an already demanding evening. Gotheiner and Killian make an interesting choice here: the music is plangent, casting the exuberance of the choreography in melancholic shadows. For some it may pitch toward melodrama; for me, the mix coalesced into radiance.
What: "Escher/Bacon/Rothko." Choreographed by Zvi Gotheiner
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Doris Duke Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Sunday. Evening — Tonight at 8:15. Matinees — Today and Sunday at 2:15
How: 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org; in person at Jacob's Pillow box office — 358 George Carter Road
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.