Dance: A year of looking back while leaping forward

Dancers honored greats - such as Jerome Robbins - while commenting on society's current missteps

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In 2018, professional concert dance performances in the Berkshires included lots of nods to tradition, but there were reminders aplenty that this is a living, evolving art form.

Though many dancers and dancemakers are well-versed in the history of their terpsichorean ancestors, they are still, like the rest of us, citizens of today. Not surprisingly — and sometimes, refreshingly, bracingly — the strains of frustration and discord that frequently cloud general discourse these days made their way into several dances.

And social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo were present both on- and offstage. At Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, choreographer Anthony Burrell's sensitive yet provocative "Endangered Species" presented the terrific members of PHILADANCO! recreating not only the sadly familiar "hands up, don't shoot" gesture, but also recalling the ghosts of some of the young men of color who've been brutally killed by metaphorical men in blue. Gun violence was also tackled at the Pillow in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's eclectic "Fractus V," as was bullying and "fake news." The end of the world itself — whether because of climate change or the endless cycle of humans battling other humans — was conjured in various other works at the Pillow, such as "Nibiru" (choreographed by Art Move Concept directors Mehdi Ouachek and Soria Rem); "Free Fall" (by Sharon Fridman and performed by his eponymous company and local community members); and ODC/Dance's performances of KT Nelson's "Dead Reckoning."

As usual, dancers' bodies often seemed to defy gravity in show after show, but there were plenty of F-bombs flying about in dance performances too. In "Play," part two of choreographer Faye Driscoll's "Thank You For Coming" trilogy, Pillow audience members also got the opportunity to chant and curse, if they chose to, along with the performers. Thus, in "Play" and other works, not only was traditional theater "etiquette" tossed out, but the elusive fourth wall was also shattered (sometimes unceremoniously, and usually with impish glee). At one point in her solo "Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster," Nicola Gunn waded into the Pillow audience, climbing over sitting viewers, sometimes straddling someone's seat, her groin inches from his or her face as she continued her profanity-laden monologue that walked a tightrope between hilarity and anger.

Yes, dear reader, dancers get angry too. But they're usually more, well, graceful about it than many members of society: Dancers' stock-in-trade is physical poetry, after all. Whether it was the National Ballet of Cuba's traditional production of the 1841 Romantic Era ballet "Giselle" (at Saratoga Performing Arts Center) or the South African choreographer Dada Masilo's new, exhilaratingly non-binary version (also titled "Giselle," it was performed at Williams College's '62 Center), the movement was ravishing, even if "Giselle's" subject matter — which touches on class warfare and misogyny — can get ugly.

In the larger world of dance, meanwhile, a series of harassment scandals unfolded in highly publicized real time at New York City Ballet. If the appalling details were demoralizing, the fact that this important institution took the allegations seriously was cause for cautious optimism. When a new artistic director is finally announced, here's hoping the moment feels like the beginning of a new chapter.

Thankfully, there was also much to celebrate, and many moments of pure pleasure and beauty. (Maybe beauty in the face of all that is bad in the world is in itself an act of protest.) The Royal Danish Ballet — the main keeper of the works of the legendary 19th-century choreographer August Bournonville — opened the Pillow season with excerpts of some of the oldest ballet repertory, and performed them with fresh vitality. On the modern dance side of the aisle, local appearances by "legacy" groups such as the eponymous companies of Jos Lim n (at the Pillow) and Paul Taylor (at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center) likewise demonstrated that not only were their respective dancers looking fine, but the founders' dances, some of it decades and decades old, looked wonderful too. For me, however, Taylor's newest dance, "Concertiana," was the strongest on that program. It was a momentous, melancholy moment when Mr. Taylor died a few months later, but how thrilling to know that this octogenarian master still had it that late in the game.

This year we also lost our great hero Arthur Mitchell, who in 1968 co-founded (with Karel Shook) Dance Theatre of Harlem. At the time, Mitchell was enjoying his own career as one of the rare black ballet principal dancers in a major company (in fact, the New York City Ballet), but Mitchell felt called to create that opportunity for others like him — and like Raven Wilkinson, who died Dec. 19. Although she never danced with DTH, Wilkinson was the first African-American woman to perform with the notable touring company Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo; she became an icon to many. Indeed, in The New York Times obituary, Virginia Johnson, one of DTH's earliest stars and now its artistic director, is quoted as saying that Wilkinson "was the first black ballerina I ever saw."

It's another reminder of how precious our history is to those of us in this field, and why we are keen to ponder our heritage, and to celebrate anniversaries. DTH, in fact, is celebrating its 50th this year; Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater its 60th; Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Pillow show this past summer coincided with its 40th anniversary and included a piece by company founder Lou Conte.

And thus, naturally, the dance world pulled out all the stops to mark the 100th centenary of Jerome Robbins, the renowned choreographer of many seminal works in both ballet and musical theater. Locally, Barrington Stage Company staged the Robbins/Leonard Bernstein 1957 masterpiece "West Side Story"; at Tanglewood, Boston Ballet performed that duo's first collaboration, the 1944 ballet "Fancy Free"; and, back at the Pillow, New York City Ballet principal dancer Daniel Ulbricht's "Stars of American Ballet" pick-up company performed a program entirely composed of Robbins ballets.

To echo my "Stars" review: Thanks for the memories, Mr. Robbins, and also Mr. Mitchell, Mr. Taylor, and Ms. Wilkinson. Your legacies inspire us all artistically, and sometimes even call us to action. Vive le danse!

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.


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