Dance Review: It's homage all the way for Urban Bush Women at Jacob's Pillow

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BECKET — Though marathons are tremendously difficult, people continue to run them; though a possibly dangerous undertaking, people continue to climb mountains. And artists, daring to test the line between homage and hubris, continue to grapple with the potential perils of iconography by creating new works in response to giant masterpieces of other artists. At Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week, the New York-based Urban Bush Women present "Walking With `Trane," an evening-length dance inspired by the music of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.

It's homage all the way.

With no narrative, overt stories or subverted messages, the 2015 work instead behaves, fittingly, like a heady jazz concert, ricocheting between themes and variations, riveting solos and thrillingly-coalesced groupings. Choreographed by company founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and dancer/co-artistic director Samantha Speis in collaboration with the dancers, the work plays with consonance and dissonance with a kind of spirited cacophony.

Perhaps the best way to tackle such an idol as Coltrane is to sidle up to his music. Divided by an intermission, the dance is composed of two parts, "Side A" and "Side B." Philip White's score for "Side A: Just A Closer Walk With `Trane," though steeped in, as the program note states, "echoes of the blues, bebop, hard bop, free jazz," direct references to Coltrane are scarce. White's music begins with long, ambient, synthesized notes that build into a kind of emotional catharsis; later his recorded score conjures Coltrane with sections for bass, saxophone and drums. Pianist/composer George Caldwell, however, in his solo piano composition for "Side B: Freed(om)," which he performs live, takes off from Coltrane's beloved "A Love Supreme," using the famously infectious melody to launch into wonderful new avenues of his own. (The "Supreme" melody makes a brief, nearly buried cameo in "Side A" when one of the dancers scat-sings it.)

The choreography is a blend of West African and post-modern dance forms, with the cast often grounded in a bent-kneed stance, their torsos tipped forward, or slicing through the air with loose-limbed kicks, or tilting into falls, lunges, and soft rolls on the floor. This movement vocabulary is performed with a viscerally propulsive attack by the seven dancers. While it is a happy fact that increasingly, dance companies are made up of individuals (rather than cookie-cutter types), these performers are gloriously unique. Chanon Judson-Johnson (another co-artistic director) is a study in movement contradictions: her height seems mythic at times, then she's crouched, so low it's as if she's folded herself into thirds; Speis moves her pelvis with fluid undulations, while her middle and upper spine follows different curves; Love Muwwakkil's measured stealth belies her occasional bursts of rapidly moving arms; Courtney J. Cook is at once powerful and vulnerable, a sensitive warrior; Tendayi Kuumba's seeming innocence is countered by her remarkable vocalizations in "Side A," when she ranges from a low moan to anxious breaths to stuttered cries and finally to a robust shout of pride, of joy; Stephanie Mas is a keen, adventurous mover with a playful curiosity often flitting across her face; Du'Bois A'Keen (the one Bush Man in the group) is a chameleon in both senses of the word, his body moving with a kind of luxurious slither while his facial expression is clouded, now open.

At the risk of looking for too many comparisons to a jazz combo (but I think it's the creators' intention that we see these similarities), "Side A" is more free-form in nature, with the dancers often in their own individual grooves — separate yet part of a whole, for sure — while "Side B" is more overtly structured, with a longish quartet followed by a long trio. Whereas the absorbing solos in "Side A" are mostly conducted in a sort of private silence, that quartet and trio seem in open dialogue with Caldwell, sitting at a grand piano upstage. The rarer interactions between two dancers in "Side A" tend toward a sort of no-actual-contact contact improvisation while a motif in "Side B" involves a dancer stepping on and catapulting off another's thigh.

A major element of the work is the series of projections designed by Wendall K. Harrington and Shawn Boyle, and in "Side A" they are largely abstract, with animated line drawings morphing from piano keys to train tracks (or, I suppose, "Trane Tracks") to apartment building windows. In "Side B" they are photographs, huge, grainy black and white images of, presumably, Coltrane and his band: hands on a keyboard, a torso leaning over a drum kit, hands gripping a saxophone. Helen Lucille Collen's costumes are loose, casual in "Side A" and crisper, in monochromatic reds, whites, blacks, and greys, for "Side B." All of it, simply said, just works, but, oh, how heavenly when the ensemble does break out into individual phrases, the stage electric, humming, the music intensifying right along, driving the dancers into the height of a storm, one that ends with a rainbow. Up on the screen, Coltrane's scrawled notes for "A Love Supreme" appear. As " rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability" scrolls across, the dancers — who've gathered upstage, their backs to us — rush toward the screen, as if to embrace the words. Lights out. Blissful, indeed.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com

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