'Play' is the thing in new dance work at Jacob's Pillow's Doris Duke Theatre

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BECKET — When the house opens and the audience is admitted in for Abby Z and the New Utility's performance of "abandoned playground" at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this week, performers are already scattered about the stage, moving through a seemingly improvised series of warm-up exercises. Costumed in the generic wear of gym class or some team sports — loose tank tops, striped shorts and sneakers — some of the performers' movements also conjure those of athletes about to take the field. They move on and off the stage/field at random intervals, bounce side to side, stretch hamstrings, loosen their joints. They're mostly "in the zone," each seemingly deep in a pre-game headspace. When two suddenly whip through the space in unison and slide to the floor, however, it's in an obviously choreographed little phrase, the duo's prowess unmistakably redolent of postmodern and contemporary dance forms. The jig is thus up: the cast of nine are indeed athletes, but of the dance variety. What is the game? What are the rules?

This kind of quasi-performative pre-show show is often a mixture of fascination and banality — do we give our full attention to these proceedings or are they meant to be background while we chat and settle in to our seats and read our programs? Will we miss something crucial to choreographer Abby Zbikowski's intention if we look away or are we needlessly searching for something that isn't there?

In any event this scene is reminiscent of professional dancers' daily class but also conjures Sarah DeLappe's play "The Wolves." It too has a pre-show prelude in which the cast, who are portraying a high school soccer team, perform a series of rigorous pre-game warm-ups. Both share a ritual of repetition, but also of community.

In the 2016 "The Wolves," the play is the thing — in the Shakespeare sense — and in the 2017 "abandoned playground," the play's the thing again, but in the other sense — sort of. In both, drama hovers on the edges. In "Wolves," tension builds in the series of often funny, often vulgar, rapid-fire dialogues. In "playground," the dancers perform rolling waves of hyper-physical movement phrases that transform the performers into acrobats, martial artists, breakdancers, track and field stars. They tumble in somersaults; windmill their arms and torsos like scarecrows in a hurricane-whipped field; stab out a leg at an unseen enemy; crouch down and then propel themselves into a pungent jump, their legs flinging behind as their upper bodies also arch powerfully back. They run, forward, backward, around the perimeter of the stage, their pounding feet and swinging arms coming precipitously close to viewers' feet, knees, heads. (The show is performed with low-tiered banks of seating situated around the stage.)

This is all fierce, thrilling, provocative — could some of those near-misses be calculated? But each time we teeter on a possibly menacing edge, the atmosphere lightens subtly. The clouds pass; occasionally a dancer smiles, sweetly, right at us. But soon the skies shift again, and along comes another crack of thunder and flash of lightning to startle and/or mesmerize. Zbikowski's cast, by the way, —Alexa Bender, Serena Chang, Shaela Davis, Roobi Gaskins, Alex Gossen, Gabrielle Loren, Fiona Lundie, Jennifer Meckley, Benjamin Roach — is superb: personable, daring, compelling.

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Whereas words cascade out from the "Wolves" actors' throats with brutal truth and breathtaking speed, choreography spills out of the dancers' bodies with electrifying force, a power that is virtuosic but always human. Throughout the hour-long piece, the dancers breathe, pant, gasp and grunt with unconcealed gusto, with unmistakable necessity. Those breath sounds, aside from their utility (to borrow from the group's title), serve as apt accompaniment. The few brief bursts of Raphael Xavier's percussive, industrial-sounding score seem unnecessary, even inadvertently intrusive.

But what is the what here? There's no narrative in "playground," nor is it just a pile of strenuous routines. For me, the work dredges up deep context about team sports, particularly in the United States which to me seem evangelized to the point of propaganda. Look at how our society has embraced, then pushed sports as the must-have, be-all. There is the argument about the importance of team spirit (good), but the goal is almost always the pursuit of, well, a goal. (Remember "winning isn't everything it's the only thing"?) We are reminded in that obsequious, modern-day adage there is no "I" in "team," but make no mistake — that team must win.

In "playground," though, there's no other team nor are the nine competing against each other; there is a celebration of both the team unit and the individuals. The group is a solid community who rely on each members' efforts and gifts, who cheer each other on when the going gets rough and who also let others have the metaphoric and literal stage to themselves at times.

Arts funding has shrunk or disappeared from our public schools. The snarky rejoinder to that above adage is, yeah, but there is a "me" in team. And there's an "I" in individual, which the study of an art form — like dance — can particularly cultivate.

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


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