Dance in the Berkshires: Deconstructed choreography takes center stage

"What is dance?"

It's an impossible question whose answer, likewise, is fairly impossible to pin down, but in 2017 dance lovers in the Berkshires could at least consider the question from many angles.

From my perspective, much of the dance I saw this past year was quite good — occasionally transcendent, even if not groundbreaking — with a few themes poking up here and there. While many of us were weighted down by anxieties of the destruction of much that we hold dear, deconstruction seemed at the forefront of many choreographer's minds. Some of it was indeed politically-charged, as in "Elvis Everywhere," dendy/donovan projects' satirical mash-up of Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley performed at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. At Mass MoCA, Bill T. Jones tossed large chunks from Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick" into a text salad that also included Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech (recited backwards by Jones). The work, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," was Jones' response to artist Nick Cave's massive installation "Until" — itself a response to, in part, police brutality.

Love was offered up in non-linear form, too. At the Pillow, dancers in Kyle Abraham's "Dearest Home" performed a series of absorbing duets that depicted couples in various, fragmented stages — often painful — of their relationships, while the one couple in Sarah Slipper's (artistic director of NW Dance Project) "MemoryHouse" embodied what I called a "beautifully romantic ... paean to love."

The ritual of performance itself was chopped up for fresh consideration: In the "Attendance" section of Faye Driscoll's "Thank You for Coming" series, the Pillow audience went on a meta-performance-deconstruction journey through a ragged collection of purposely unwieldy scenes at once hilarious and earnest. At Williams College (disclosure: I teach dance at that institution) Netta Yerushalmy served up a few slices of her ongoing project "Paramodernities," in which she deconstructs iconic works by choreographic giants including Alvin Ailey, George Balanchine, Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, Vaslav Nijinsky. Familiarity is mixed with homage and faint satire, resulting in a curious viewing experience.

Diversity — or the lack thereof — has recently become a more frequent theme in the dance world, and there were some hopeful signs of progress. Regarding female leadership (though the field of dance overflows with female performers, the number of female choreographers and directors is disproportionately low): during the Pillow's 10-week festival, at least half of the companies featured on the two main stages were ones led or founded by women, several of whom — including Danielle Agami, Camille A. Brown, the late Trisha Brown, Marie Chouinard, Driscoll, Jessica Lang, Slipper — are also noted choreographers. Former ballerinas Lourdes Lopez and Julie Kent now head two of our country's well-regarded medium-sized companies, Miami City Ballet and The Washington Ballet, respectively. Both companies offered vivid performances, and both — like the smaller yet formidable Ballet Hisp nico, which also appeared in this year's festival — have a higher percentage of dancers of color than many mainstream companies in the U.S.

Legacy and tradition, those hallowed watchwords of dance, were much in the air at the Pillow this year, its 85th anniversary season. (The Pillow grounds include the Ted Shawn Theatre, the first in the U.S. built specifically for dance performance, and are thus understandably sacred to legions of dance practitioners, scholars and observers.) Complementing the aforementioned veteran ballet companies were the companies of three longtime American modern dance choreographers. The "youngest" among them, Doug Varone and Dancers, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year; Trisha Brown's eponymous company — Brown passed away in March — hovers near the 50-year mark; meanwhile, at 87, Paul Taylor continues to create works for his troupe, itself more than 60 years old. Taylor's company typically performs at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center each year, so Pillow director Pamela Tatge and the Mahaiwe's Beryl Jolly came up with a plan that allowed for the Taylor group to appear at both venues. As it happened, the Taylorites weren't in top form during the Pillow's July engagement; I was relieved to have the chance to catch them again, and looking fine, at the Mahaiwe in October.

While that trio of companies offered a primer of sorts on the partial trajectory of "traditional" American modern dance — and its offspring, postmodernism — a host of choreographers and dancers at various stages in their careers working in a wide range of genres were also presented, providing many examples of the ways in which dance continues to evolve alongside that all-important tradition. Thus, in addition to ballet and modern dance, tap, bharatanatyam, kathak, and flamenco were represented; dance in the Berkshires, therefore — as it usually is, thanks to our area presenters — could be viewed through a wide-ranging lens that included artists from around the world.

Circling back to just what dance "is," though: at one point in their whimsical dance-theater piece "The Principles of Uncertainty" (which closed this year's Pillow Festival) co-creators John Heginbotham and Maira Kalman asked that impossible question. Their funny-cum-poetic answer? "No one knows."

Here's to more mystery, more beauty, more of whatever it is that makes a dance a dance, in 2018. I can't wait.

Janine Parker can be reached at


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