Theater archives

Andrea Miller and Jean-Claude Gallotta at Jacob’s Pillow


“Can anything be new, original, private?” asked the spoken text that accompanied Twyla Tharp’s 1971 The Bix Pieces. Not really. Yes. (Certainly both those answers could be true when considering the marvelous Bix.) I can see-or think I see-how Andrea Miller, the founder (in 2006) and sole choreographer of Gallim Dance, was influenced by her training in the Humphrey-Weidman technique and her two years in Ohad Naharin’s Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company. Like Humphrey’s choreography, Miller’s movements for Blush acknowledge the weight of the human body and the ways in which emotion affects and perhaps deforms it. The six dancers who perform it at Jacob’s Pillow (Bret Easterling, Caroline Fermin, Moo Kim, Troy Ogilvie, Francesca Romo, and Dan Walczak) have the intensity and brute force of Naharin’s company members, as well as their sensitivity to the body on an almost molecular level. Yet Miller, only five years after graduating from Juilliard, gives signs of being a most original artist.

Blush happens in a kind of arena. A white line the height of a dancer’s waist runs across its three black walls. The brilliant lighting designer Vincent Vigilante has placed a number of lamps close to the floor, and the atmosphere is predominantly dark and smoky, except when a row of amber footlights at the back of the stage shines in our eyes and, near the end, when bright light suffuses the Doris Duke Studio Theater. Costume designer José Solis garbed Gallim’s three women in black trunks, ankle warmers, and semi-backless, loose-sleeved tops. The three men also wear ankle-warmers, but they’re bare-chested, and their trunks have a loincloth-like drape. White paint covers their hair and bodies; through it, the performers’ natural skin tones emerge, but only dimly.

The opening solo performed by Kim to Pimmon’s “Introduction to the Sound of a Kiss” establishes the physical language of this fierce tribe. He often strikes a movement and holds it. He hunches his body, walks in a squat, scrabbles backward on the floor, and wrenches his torso around with single-minded precision. He walks the fine line between stability and loss of balance, whirling into fall after fall. Already in this solo, Miller’s grasp of dynamics is evident, as is her ability to vary big, whole-body movements with smaller, isolated gestures. This is surprising, given the fact that her dancers are almost always in control, never limp.

The world they inhabit is a strange one. What at first seems recognizable is skewed into unfamiliarity. While the women dance in unison-turning their heads briefly to look at us as they walk away, legs wide apart, knees bent-the men crawl on their sides along the back of the stage. When the men do rise, they walk for a while like zombies to the music’s deep, muttering drums and high, hissing beat (Andrzej Przbytkowski’s original composition). That’s when the row of yellow lights comes on. There are rules in this community. Three pairs, every now and then changing partners, dance in shifting three-part counterpoint. Moves such as those that Romo (a co-founder of the company) and Fermin show us (while the other four lie in a row, supine and arching, between us and them) reappear later in the piece. In the midst of duet with Kim, Ogilvie lifts a hand to smooth her hair; the gesture appears casual, but when she repeats it a few seconds later, it assumes the status of a choreographic element.

The behavior of these people is almost always single-minded. And hostile without being malevolent. Easterling and Walczak shove Ogilvie stiffly and rapidly back and forth between them as if this were a job they had to do. Later, and for a long time, these two men grapple-wrestling, embracing, knocking each other to the floor. Easterling springs onto Walczak’s back, puts a hand over his eyes, and calls out directions while Walczak carries him along. Their duet is punishing, but it finishes as it began, with the two of them in dim light, their arms around each other, running in a circle.

It’s intriguing that some of the activities in Blush are accompanied by Chopin piano pieces and Arvo Pärt’s haunting “Fratres.” The sweetness of the music hints at what might lurk beneath the daunting rituals. In the end, without warning, the lights brighten, and to Wolf Parade’s “I’ll Believe in Anything,” the terrific performers thrust their arms into the air, burst into plodding leaps, and dodge around in foolish games. This is as happy as they get. By now, sweat has had its way with the white paint, and their skin is indeed blushing with life.

If Miller pursues her ideas via skilled dancers and redefined formality, Jean-Claude Gallotta, the founder-director of Groupe Emile Dubois, mingles dancers and non-dancers in simple patterns and encounters that are meant to look only slightly different from what we might glimpse on the streets of a very imaginative and lively town. Polished maneuvers retain a rough edge. The company, which Gallotta formed in Grenoble with Mathilde Altarez in 1979, became the resident of one of France’s National Choreographic Centers two years later. The group hasn’t performed here for a number of years; the last work of Gallotta’s that I saw was, I believe, his well-known Mammame from the 1980s. Des Gens Qui Dansent, the piece he brought to Jacob’s Pillow, is the third episode of a trilogy begun in 2000. If Gallotta’s performers are more diverse than those of two decades ago, the slightly whimsical charm of his imagination remains.

Trained in fine arts, Gallotta came late to dance and early on discovered the work of American vanguardists like Robert Wilson and Meredith Monk. He traveled to New York to study with Merce Cunningham in 1978. But Gallota is an original in both mind and body. Onstage, he frolicks like a child-gawky, impish, preoccupied. And this recent work celebrates and refines the ordinary.

The stage of the Ted Shawn theater is bare except for several ballet barres, its backdrop the walls of the old barn theater. Some black chairs sit at the sides. The 10 company members who file onto the stage are young, old, tall, short, slim, sturdy. They’re dressed in ordinary clothes (if you call the strappy high heels that Béatrice Warrand wears ordinary). In this, their “opening number,” they strut toward and away from us in precise rhythm; they plant their feet and shake their hands in the air. Backs to us, they turn around, one by one, to utter a single sentence that explains why they dance. The music (by Strigal) stops abruptly, and the performers, puzzled, do too. As they leave the stage, the barres fall to the floor (if that isn’t a mission statement, I don’t know what is). Gallotta ambles on, in his usual slightly stooped posture. Muttering something that sounds like “Je veux dire quelque chose,” he takes fidgety little running steps and pauses, thinks, then runs some more.

Marie-Christine Soma’s lighting revises the stage with dim beams, and the music turns slightly sepulchral. Gallotta, sitting with a mic, speaks-almost singing-an echoey, barely audible commentary. From this point we see a number of overlapping encounters-duets, trios, quartets-often observed by others. Ximena Figueroa and long-legged Thierry Verger use their dancerly skills to engage in a dialogue; as they gallop around, she keeps thrusting a leg at him; on the run, he turns to catch it instantly, as if it were a fly ball. Burly, mustachioed Martin Kravitz and white-bearded Christophe Delachaux (both nimble and wonderful) stroll together singing an old Italian song by Antonio Lotti and cherishing the repeated words, “bocca, bocca bella.” In one beguiling quartet, Verger romps inquisitively with Cécile Renard, Figueroa, and Camille Cau, all three now wearing matching shorts and tops. They collaborate in turning him; he visits each of them; all four walk holding hands; he stacks them up and admires his handiwork.

We see a range of relationships amid the intermittent jostling horseplay, frisky steps, and yelling. “I love. . .,” Kravitz says, and gray-haired Françoise Bal-Goetz puts a hand over his mouth before he can say more. Bal-Goetz and Renard might be mother and daughter. Later, Renard (now wearing a different dress) and Benjamin Houal are introduced as the young girl and the young writer. Toward the end, now stripped to briefs and a top, tall Warrand in her high heels is partnered from behind by Darrell Davis in a slow, tender duet that Gallotta has described earlier. “Un petit souvenir qui occupe tout ma memoire,” says one of the passersby. And indeed, the two-like all the others-might be re-enacting a remembered moment. Davis-his glasses on, his jacket off, his shirt untucked-runs his hand down Warrand’s leg as if her skin were silk. We hear a muted telephone conversation between a man and a woman. After this, the whole group helps to dress Warrand in her original costume, so they can reprise some of their opening chorus.

The pace throughout Des Gens Qui Dansent is leisurely, and the atmosphere calm-low-keyed, but rich with life. Once in the middle of the piece and once at the end, a film is projected of Henry Miller talking on what might be his deathbed. He’s tough, cheerful. “I’m alive to the end,” he says.

Note: At Jacob’s Pillow all summer is an entrancing exhibit that Norton Owen has put together. Longtime Voice readers have never forgotten the weekly joys provided for many years by Jules Feiffer’s cartoons. On view in Blake’s Barn, there’s a fine selection of his characters: the glum couples; the baffled, politically conscious folks; and the eternally optimistic, eventually wilting modern dancers. What most of us probably didn’t know was that Feiffer’s love of dancers carried over into wonderful, nimble watercolors-both of known dancers like Fred Astaire and imagined ones. A dance to summer, if ever there was one.