Review: Pursuits of happiness at Jacob's Pillow

From left, violinist-composer Alexander Balanescu, and dancers Estela Merlos, Eryck Brahmania and Mathieu Geffre of Umanoove/Didy Veldman, in “The Happiness Project” at the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket in July 2019.

BECKET — For those of us who grew up in the United States, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is the mantra most of us can incant from a young age. How perfect, then, that it's a Brit — a denizen of that land our forefathers were declaring their independence of — who's asking the near-traitorous question why humans are so bent on chasing that happiness rainbow. That's the heart of the matter in choreographer Didy Veldman's 2016 dance-theater work "The Happiness Project," which her company Umanoove is performing at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week. (The group's appearance marks its U.S. debut.)

"The Happiness Project" is performed by four dancers — Eryck Brahmania, Matthieu Geffr , Madeleine Jonsson, and Estela Merlos — and composer/violinist Alexander Balanescu. Balanescu, on stage with the dancers for the entirety of the piece, fluctuates between accompanist and catalyst. Often moving about, but sometimes sitting or standing, he plays his original music for the dance live, his violin amplified, and at times additional music (presumably recordings of Balanescu) is piped in.

The dancers are luminous, and the movement they're given, luxurious. The choreography is clearly crafted yet has an easy feeling of improvisation, filled with slippery, beautiful phrases that flow like long streams of thought out of the dancers' bodies. There's no straight-ahead narrative but rather a series of abstract scenes in which each dancer grapples with their character's own pursuit of happiness. In solos as well as in duets or interactions with the whole group, we discover their Holy Grails — or perhaps their Achilles heels. Jonsson longs for love, clinging or climbing onto others. Brahmania wants friendship, or more crudely, wants to be liked but is puzzled by how to go about it. Geffre wants things, fancy things, but this superficiality is just a cover-up for what he really wants — to be accepted for who he is.

Merlos: She seems good. In her partnered sections, she is lifted or leans against others with adventure rather than neediness. The others seem lonely; Merlos seems like a lone wolf, content on her own but game to hang with the pack too. Her main solo is a riff on the glass half-full or half-empty theme; though Merlos moves daringly and dartingly with the glass balancing here and there on her body, or near the glass now on the floor, the liquid never spills, the glass never shatters. There's no shock, there's no catharsis; this is how Merlos views the world perhaps, with an equanimity that is somewhere between half-full and half-empty. She doesn't shun the company of others, and she is, we see, a pleasure-seeker: at one point she follows Balanescu closely, tucks into a tight ball at his feet, then slithers up him while he continues playing, her body enveloped between his torso and his bowing arm. Her blissful face suggests it is less the warmth of a man than the wonder of the sound he's creating that she craves.

But can these pleasures, should they, be captured? The set design, by Kimie Nakano, who also designed the performers' simple, handsome costumes, is spare, consisting primarily of small black rectangles that serve as seats or platforms. They have lids that, when opened, emit a mystical, bright light. The dancers store their finds within, or take things out of these mini-treasure chests. A large sheet of clear plastic becomes an important prop, at times clinging to the dancers as they cling to others, at times nearly suffocating them, at times wrapping them up protectively.

Early on, Balanescu abruptly asks the dancers "Are you happy?" The responses are at once funny and sad. Jonsson worries her hands and arms into knots before deflecting the question with a joke: She stretches a leg out and hovers on the other, declaring that it's a balancing act, this happiness business. Geffre, is nervous, agitated. "Yes! Why?" he blurts out. He mimes what happiness might look like: a peace sign; a quick game of peek-a-boo; his thumbs hook onto the sides of his mouth and force it open into a terrible Joker's grin. Brahmania tentatively steps forward and back, side to side, his hands covering then unveiling his own superficial smile/grimace. "If I'm happy does that make you happy?"

Merlos, meanwhile, calmly takes something out of one of the treasure cubes. It's a plastic bag, we see, and on it she draws a smiley face. She puts the bag over her head, a definitive period to her "answer" to the question.

The moral of this story is to look for happiness in the everyday, to slow down, to savor, to stop and smell the roses, or in this case, the strawberries that Merlos produces as a precious offering. It's a sweet message, and the bones of the work are quite good, but the delivery of the message is at times too earnest. Yes, we need to be simpler. Lesson learned, but the piece doesn't need quite so much on-the-nose tutoring. (The strawberry session said it all; a previous scene, however, in which the plastic sheet became a chalkboard of sorts, said too much.) And though their desires are universal, the characters tip dangerously close to becoming stereotypes, rather than the humans that they are.

Janine Parker can be reached at