When I think of National Historic Landmarks, I envision a docent guiding visitors around a site populated primarily by ghosts. At Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, the first dance institution to be designated a landmark, artists work and people come to watch process and product from late June to late August, though the bustling place has its share of ghosts. You walk down the path to the Doris Duke Studio Theater on land cared for by Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers back in the 1930s. As you stroll from the Inside/Out stage to the Ted Shawn Theater, you pass a squat stone dining room built by those hardy men. Antony Tudor and Agnes De Mille probably ate lunch there in the 1940s. And long before that, the farm was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
The new and the traditional mix in the Pillow’s programming, too. The second week of the 2003 season featured MéMé BaNjO, Lionel Hoche’s up-to-the-minute French company, at the Duke, and María Pagés’s mix of ancient flamenco style with contemporary ideas about theatricality at the Shawn. Hoche’s background—the Paris Opera Ballet School, Nederlands Dance Theater, and Daniel Larrieu’s farther-out company, Astrakan—has resulted in a curious personal style. Watching Hoche’s The Rite of Spring and Volubilis, I start compiling data for a study on today’s dislocated body. If you saw a hint of such behavior among ordinary people in a public place, you might want to call for help.
In these dances, the five performers (plus Hoche for Volubilis) lash and wrap their arms around their own bodies, folding them in. They crook their elbows, cant their torsos, and twitch their shoulders simultaneously, while lifting one hip to swing a stiff leg around to a new stance. They lumber and limp. Being splendid dancers, they make all this look like a fluent language, but its message is still instability, awkwardness, and a kind of protective aggression.
This is especially evident in Rite. Hoche uses the two-piano version of Stravinsky’s great score to create a party in hell. Each of Philippe Favier’s six hanging white poles decked with colored wires bears a fluorescent ring and other lights; toward the end, one is raised so that Céline Zordia can stand beneath it, her head banded by a glowing ring, while she spits out a red flower. Zordia—a superbly luxurious dancer—is clearly the sacrificial victim, but Hoche fades in and out of Stravinsky’s scenario, and when Zordia falls in a burst of red light and doesn’t get up, it’s almost a surprise. Wearing bedraggled black finery (by Lazare Garcin), Marielle Girard, Loren Palmer, Emmanuel Le Floch, and Cédric Lequileuc brutalize one another as often as they hit on Zordia, and her innocence and strength seem to thrill them. From time to time, they cluster around and nuzzle her. The image is less that of a primal fertility rite than of a girl’s unfortunate coming of age in a dank, druggy, feral hangout.
Volubilis is sunnier. The six dancers—at first anyway—move in a cold, bright light by Rémi Nicolas, beneath a slowly spinning, snaky white backbone of a mobile designed by Hoche. The music is J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings in D minor, and although the performers look cheerier and less aggressive, periodically changing the colors of their T-shirts and trunks, Hoche’s choreography goes for the fierceness in the music, the jangle of the harpsichord. The dancers crank out their halting moves with those busy arms, stopping as if to stem Bach’s flow. It’s ingenious, compelling, and utterly unsettling.
María Pagés performed for ages in Riverdance, which explains a lot about her La Tirana. Along with forays into Irish history and culture, Riverdance embraces any tradition that makes noise with feet. Although La Tirana takes place in the Prado after the museum has closed, and Goya’s Maja comes to life before a smitten young man (Ángel Muñoz), history goes down the tubes in favor of multicultural flamenco. Pagés is the Maja of Muñoz’s dreams, appearing now in black, now in green, now in red stretch-velvet gowns. She’s a beguiling, heated, somehow touching performer—much less flashy than in Riverdance—with a beautifully expressive torso, head, and neck, and remarkable fluidity in those curling, wreathing flamenco arm and hand gestures.
Forget logic. Passion doesn’t draw the guy into Goya’s world; although two dancers come out in late-18th-century dress they do their heelwork to Irish music. Besides the expected sound of guitars, there’s an eclectic cascade of musical selections, e.g., a Bellini aria, a touch of Piazzolla . . . and was that the Pachelbel canon? Muñoz charms everyone by doing easygoing flamenco heelwork to “Singin’ in the Rain” (is there ambient music in the Prado?). The limping museum guard (Manolo Marin) emerges, maybe as Goya but definitely as a wonderful little fighting cock of a dancer, unimpeded by age. The talented ensemble of six dance as museumgoers, masked revelers, and more.
Pagés is also the central figure in Flamenco Republic, performing many solos in many different dresses—with a fan, a shawl, castanets. She’s always seductive, but I’m glad when she begins to challenge the other dancers and the musicians, to tease them and egg them on. This is a rich and wonderful piece, with many traditional flamenco forms—soleá, farruca, alegrías, and so on, played by guitarists José A. Carrillo (“Fiti”) and Luis Miguel Manzano, percussionist Francisco Alcaide, and singer Ana Ramón. The musicians and dancers spark one another with rhythmic altercations; dancers turn each other on with the speed and precision of their feet. Marin grows taller as he dances; Muñoz thrashes the floor with huge, space-grabbing steps; Pagés melts in the heat of her creation. In one terrific number, Emilio Herrera, José Barrios, Iván Góngora, and Muñoz make rhythms on the floor with two canes apiece; they’re joined by Maria Morales, Ana Maria Rodríguez, and Rocío Molina. Add to the foot-cane mix the castanets of Pagés and Marin, and you have a rhythmic dazzle that is as fresh as it is timeless.