Humans and Gods From Abroad in Premieres North of the City


Some performances leave me wishing I could hang out with the dancers for a while. The five men in Conny Janssen’s Rebound and her choreography for them affect me that way. Not that the guys are always sweethearts; testosterone often has its way with them. There are women in this Rotterdam-based company (until its Pillow appearances, seen in the U.S. only in Portland, Oregon, and Escondido, California), but they don’t appear in Rebound.

Thomas Rupert’s handsome set of three ten-foot-high, white-paneled walls could be construed as anything from a health club to an antechamber to who knows what. The performers can lounge in—or peer down from—windows in the rear wall and hoist themselves onto shelves sticking out of the side walls. Rattling or thunderous sounds and snatches of sweet music in Koen Keevel’s score add to the ambiguous atmosphere, and Remko van Wely’s lighting makes no allusions to nature or the hour of the day. Wherever the five are, they have no pressing agendas.

Their behavior is so ordinary that it’s a surprise when they exhibit dancerly skills, but these are so casually integrated into their everyday behavior that even Dario Tortorelli’s pirouettes and the thrusting of Martijn Kappers’s long, straight, limbs look like parts of speech. Dancing is just one of the things they do to pass the time or fling out challenges. After Javier Vaquero Ollero, Froilán Medina Hernández, Tortorelli, and Kappers have managed to join in a unison passage, they stop and look back at Kevin Polak, as if to say “Are you with us or not?”

Rivalries and conspiracies develop, but nothing looks really brutal, partly because of Janssen’s leavening of wit. Three of them grab Tortorelli, restrain him, walk him up a wall, deposit him on a high shelf, and slope off. When Kappers and Polak are done with a strenuous, contentious duet, Polak drops to the floor and Kappers sits on him, thinking. Small hostilities are directed at Ollero (did I see someone try to kick his face?), but he bounces back. Which brings me to the significance of the title. These fellows are not only resilient, they literally rebound. Polak clues us in to this when his head appears over the top of the high back wall. Who could have imagined a hidden, mic’d trampoline?

After they pull the trampoline forward through the back wall as if opening a big drawer, the mood gradually lightens, although not everyone is into jumping up and down. The men partner one another amicably. Kappers sings to himself. Hernández teaches some steps, Polak adds to them, and a crazy canon develops. Suddenly the guys’ boisterousness becomes only playful. And then everything winds down. What a day! Anyone for a beer?

Let’s hope that Conny Janssen Danst gets a New York City gig before much more time passes.

In Nacho Duato’s Castrati, the nine men of Stockholm 59º North form an artistic universe miles away from the men of Janssen’s Rebound. Duato’s subject is the castration of promising boy singers in 18th-century Italy to produce a high, florid voice for baroque opera. Castrati’s fierce rituals, set primarily to sacred music by Vivaldi, depersonalize the men as severely as the loss of testicles changed the lives of those real little boys. Rushing about in their long, black, open-fronted skirts (half priestly garb, half female attire), they swoop down on the terrified new recruit like dark birds. In Duato’s very dramatic scenario, those who were once victimized for their greater glory (and their family’s income) evidently consider it their mission to do unto others what was done to them. The men of Stockholm 59º North perform the several striking passages of fanatical high-intensity dancing as forcefully as members of Duato’s own Compañia Nacional de Danza did at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last year, and the audience gets high on the mix of powerful male display and shudder-inducing cruelty.

These dancers are all members of the Royal Swedish Ballet, eager to experience new contemporary choreography. Jens Rosén, who played the new recruit in Duato’s work, is the group’s artistic director. The earlier part of the Jacob’s Pillow program consisted of two short pieces by Mats Ek, whose work is rarely seen in the U.S., and a world premiere by Cristina Caprioli, whose choreography has never been presented here.

Ek’s Apartment is a U.S. premiere. A free-standing white door sets up an encounter between two high-spirited people. The woman gears herself up to knock, but the man’s hand reaches around it to stroke her suggestively. The door never opens. To music for piano and strings by “Innocent” Fläskkvartetten, the pair (I saw Jeannette Diaz-Barboza and Nikolaus Fotiadis) cavort with the kind clumsy charm you’d expect from a girl who wears a bouffant blue skirt and blue socks to match. Ek is very good at clumsiness. The man bunches up his partner and lugs her around; he drags her by one foot while she, sitting, mimes playing a flute. Their bodies fit together in odd ways, and even the occasional tender touch looks a bit off-key. In the end, they both disappear behind the door. Then she totes him offstage piggyback.

Pas de danse, created by Ek for the group in 2004, is performed against the unadorned barn wall at the back of the Ted Shawn Theatre, and the sounds of harmonica, accordion, and fiddle in Benny Andersson’s “Födelsedagsvals Till Mona” hint at a folk festival. This duet, too, has flashes of eccentric wit, and, as in Apartment, the women are not on pointe. Anna Valev and Jan-Erik Wikström are not happy with each other. In the course of their dancing—now resilient, now stiff—he keeps wanting to blow his nose. She won’t let him. He tears open his jacket and yanks himself around by its edges. She knocks him down. But all of a sudden, the back door slides open to the Berkshire night, and—surprise!—in slips a far more roguish couple (Kristina Oom and Oscar Salomonsson) not listed in the program. They draw the first two into some lively, festive dancing, and suddenly the four change partners. But any change for the better that you might expect when a man and woman are color-coordinated (one pair in blue, the other in beige) soon becomes unlikely; Wikström finally blows his nose, and Oom hurries offstage.

Caprioli’s Cicada, which opened the program, is a handsome, elegantly wrought piece of work. Caprioli comes out of contemporary dance, and in this work she tweaks ballet, but not with the obvious distortions and displacements with which some choreographers today rock the classical boat. A couple of lifts even allude to Russian virtuosity (although these struck me as out of place).

The choreography collaborates intriguingly with the costumes. Part of the time, the women wear short yellow-green, silk dresses that they hike up or twist when they need to free their legs for certain moves. Twistiness is a factor in the movement, especially in the stunning opening and closing solos performed by Nadja Sellrup. The women are on pointe, and Sellrup’s legs look a mile long as she slices one high into the air, then sucks them together to form a tiny pedestal or kinks one foot behind the other. The music—Kevin Volans’s Cicada—like the dance has an edgy quality. Against its shifting, ongoing pulses, Caprioli maintains a clear, deliberate, pause-filled rhythm. Her skillful, uninsistent use of repetition and canon holds the structure together, and Tobias Hallgren’s lighting emphasizes the cool legibility of the choreography.

This is finely made dancing for its own sake. Sellrup, Valev, Marie Lindqvist, Fotiadis, and Wikström walk on, dip into movement for a while, then drop it and walk away. Sharing the stage, they’re not always together. They contemplate one another and the audience with detached ease. For a long time, there are no big jumps, and partnering has the look of experimentation: “If I do this, will she turn that way?”

I overheard spectators exiting at the end of the evening who were volubly thrilled by Duato’s piece, but also many who singled out Cicada for the beauty and purity of dancing that tells no story but its own.

In India, even the traditional so-called “pure dance” forms have a kind of agenda. The performer’s feet stamp out rhythmic messages to the earth, her hands blossom in the air and decorate the sky, and her gaze follows her gestures with unabashed delight. But dance and narrative often intersect too. Shantala Shivalingappa, who has played Ophelia for Peter Brook and performed with Pina Bausch’s company, is also an adept and exponent of the Kuchipudi style, and it was more or less a traditional solo recital that she and her superb musicians brought to Jacob’s Pillow.

Kuchipudi was originally a sacred dance performed by men, and the combination of boldness and sensuousness that resides in the movement vocabulary is beguiling. It resembles Bharata Natyam in the carved-out clarity of its designs, but like Odissi, allows the dancer’s hips and upper bodies to sway and swing a little. There’s something almost boisterous about it at times. Shivalingappa is small, delicately built, and seductively female, but she settles into the style’s broad, bent-kneed stances and swings a leg in front of her with powerful authority. Her boundings into the air have a cat-like velvetiness. Yet at the same time, she’s as contained as a little temple statue; her demi-plié is a thing of beauty, and her gestures are as precise as they are expansive.

Shivalingappa calls her program Gamaka. The word describes the vibrations of sound between two musical notes, and she has taken the larger, more cosmic sense of this oscillation—the essential vibration, OM, that lies at the heart of creation, as her theme. It underlies the brilliant witty dialogue between drummer N. Ramakrishnan, and his mridangam and then between drummer B.P. Haribau and his pakawaj. And it suffuses Shivalingappa when she enters to perform a poem in praise of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. Slowly advancing along a diagonal, she bends deeply forward and then arches back with each step, as if tuning herself into some celestial arc of motion.

Her sense of rhythm is impeccable, as displayed in her brilliant concluding tillanna and parts of her varnam. The varnam is a rich form, the heart of most solo programs in this style. The dancer alternates flashing passages of footwork with poetic sections. But drama and dancing also mingle subtly in this varnam. Shivalingappa’s face and hands and body tell fragments of a story of creation and destruction. They say “word”; they paint a picture on the air, flutter like birds, play an invisible sitar, draw a bow, crest like ocean wave. And often she seems to ask confirmation from us: “Is it not so?”

Lovely as Shivalingappa is, her choice of theme and dances doesn’t exploit her full range. In her poem-dance Jaavali, she’s adorably innocent and fluttery as a young girl who, feeling love for the first time, questions a friend about it (“Is it the cool breeze, or my heart, which makes my body shiver so?”). But one brief moment in her tillana, which is dedicated to Shiva, shows us something else; suddenly Shivalingappa’s face contorts in some kind of divine rage; her body tenses. I think of other Indian artists who’ve performed at Jacob’s Pillow, like Malavika Sarukkai and—years ago—Ritha Devi, and the variety of emotions they expressed. I’d like to see how Shivalingappa explores jealousy, grief, passion, indecision, spiritual fulfillment, and all the other feelings that vibrate in the universe.