Opening Day at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival - Phrenic New Ballet and Grupo Corpo
July 22, 2004
Opening day at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival (June 23, 2004) was a perfect congruence of art and nature and intellectual and social satisfaction. To get to the site of America's most celebrated summer dance festival, you drive up a switchback road called Jacob's Ladder. Modern dancer Ted Shawn founded the festival in 1933, naming it after the gigantic, gently sloping rock situated on a serenely wooded plateau in Massachusetts' Berkshire Mountains. The Pillow, with its biblical allusions and legendary artistic first events, is now a National Historic Landmark. During the lunchtime warmth in a clearing shaded by trees and dotted with picnic tables where Pillow participants take their meals, the festival's director, Ella Baff, greeted the students, the already gathering audience and the two companies that were dancing that night.
She welcomed the four-year-old Phrenic New Ballet from Philadelphia, making its debut at the Pillow with the traditional free performance at 6:30 p.m. on the Inside/Out Stage, and Grupo Corpo Brazilian Dance Theater. In its fourth appearance there since 1999, the popular, ballet-trained, torso-torqueing Brazilians had sold-out all its 8:00 p.m. performances in the 600 seat Ted Shawn Theater a short path away. Later Baff told me she chose Phrenic to open for Grupo Corpo, partly because their music "would contrast so well." Grupo Corpo's music is more organic and springs from Brazilian pop and ethnic origins. "And," she said, "it will be interesting to see two companies that are ballet trained and yet so different in look and intent."
Phrenic New Ballet at Jacob's Pillow on the Inside/Out stage
Photo courtesy of Marta Fodor
At 5 o'clock about 60 people attended the Pillow Talk, a frequent event that this time featured dance critic and historian Lynn Garafola and the Pillow's Preservation Director, Norton Owen on the opening of the traveling exhibit, America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures. Afterwards at the Pillow Pub we picked up food and cocktails to take down to Phrenic's performance.
The combination of luscious duck wrapped in a tortilla, the rum and tonic, the descending sun, and three beautiful women on pointe shoes blending ballet and hip-hop to Fat Boy Slim was heady. It was also a testament to the multi-tasking, multi-valenced lifestyles we now lead and to the necessity for even the most classical of artworks to explore, if not embrace, our current culture. Phrenic makes multimedia ballets with movement that deviates from the classical canon, in this case using hip-hop as the basis for the opening dance, Les Trois.
Phrenic co-director and Penn Ballet member, Christine Cox choreographed the work with Renee Harris, of Puremovement and Rome and Jewels fame. She danced it with Penn Ballet colleagues Heidi Cruz and Tara Keating. Cox's pointe work, her juxtapositions of accepted beauty and ballet verticality against the rough and streety horizontal lines of hip-hop left an overarching impression. Ballet reigned, but hip-hop revolutionized its look and gave the modern-day viewer a touchstone. The piece ended in break dance, as if to say this is how the classical (or society) might deteriorate or break down.
Die Menschheit is German for "humanity" and its choreographer, Penn Ballet member Matthew Neenan, like Cox, and former ballet member Amanda Miller and videographer Tobin Rothlein, is a founding director of the four-year old Pennsylvania Ballet breakaway troupe. Keating, Cruz, Cox and Neenan, along with James Ihde and Meredith Reffner from the ballet, and former ballet members—the recently retired Edward Cieslak, and Francis Veyette, now with the Kansas City Ballet made up its cast.
Gold, green, red, or purple costumes marked each of the four couples dancing to Mozart's Six String Quartets. With metronomic precision, they made ever expanding permutations of the opening movements, sometimes wheeling in from the four corners to meet kaleidoscopically in center stage, sometimes breaking into duos or quartets, but always coming back to their formations as four couples. Each phrase either began classically and ended with a surprise - a leg that might be expected to point back up above the head, instead got a turnout and a bend. Or, it might begin in an unorthodox way - a lift from a low bend, for instance, and end on a diagonal.
Phrenic's crisp performance was like the first sip of a great champagne brut before the Beluga caviar evening given by Grupo Corpo. Grupo Corpo has been thrilling audiences the world over for nearly thirty years, but has only become well known in the U. S. in the last decade. They danced two forty minute pieces, giving the audience their money's worth for the single ticket price of $55.00, a little less than what an ounce of Beluga brings.
Grupo's 21 dancers take to the stage like honeybees to flowers, flitting and swooping lightly without a care about missing their landings - which they never do. Although Nazareth had its world premiere in 1993, it was a new one for me. Long-time Grupo Corpo designer Freusa Zechmeister's costumes perfectly matched the insouciant music by contemporary Brazilian composer, José Miguel Wisnik. He based the music on works of Ernesto Nazareth, a fin de siècle composer popular for his "amaxixadas" polkas and the inventor of the "Brazilian tango." His sometimes calliope-like sounds and ragtime piano plinks give it its early 20th Century tang, but Wisnik's percussive beats and midi-studio mixes extend it beyond the Millennium.
Grupo Corpo at Jacob's Pillow
Photo courtesy of José Luiz Pederneiras
The Maxixe (ma she she) is the basis for several of Nazareth's sections. It was a dance from Brazil, which, like the Lambada, had its own music. It swept Europe in the early part of the last century and like the Lambada, it was a dance craze both adored and deplored. People couldn't stop denouncing it and couldn't stop dancing it, especially in Paris, where scandal to a Parisian was like candy to a kid. In Brazil, even today, sexy people are sometimes nicknamed "Maxixe."
While the dancers don't overtly do this dance, they are so uninhibited, so blithely entitled to their corporeal authority, you have the feeling of sexual release watching whatever they are doing.
In the six works I have seen so far, Zechmeister's costumes are brilliant, witty and mutable. In Nazareth, the black and white bodices for the women conjure keyboards, accordions, squeeze boxes, perfectly capturing the huggableness of the dancers and this dance. Zechmeister designs all her costumes in layers to be stripped off in the wings throughout each dance and then reconstructed for a panoply of coverings before the dancers reenter. Even the headdresses' flapper-feathers can be tucked down at times. This multiplies the impression that there are far more than 21 dancers and makes it more difficult to distinguish between the individuals.
No amount of costuming can disguise certain Grupo dancers who stand out even beyond this technically astonishing troupe. Danielle Pavam, Edgar Dias, Joao Vicente are some that did in Nazareth.
In 21 Everson Botelho's birdlike reeling was gorgeously trance-inducing. And throughout this tri-partitioned, mathematically inspired work, Diogo (say Jiogo) de Lima's equine head snaps took air out of my lungs. In a duet with Jacqueline Gimenes, she reclines on the floor, her rigid arms giving him enough ballast to lean into her and kick his legs behind him and up toward the fly space. Three times.
Numbers and their divisibleness into 21 derive from Marco Antônio Guimarães' percolating composition as performed on CD by the Brazilian percussion band, Uakti, and is what drives this choreography.
I first saw this dance at Brooklyn Academy of Music and realized that it doesn't really start for me until the second section when Janaina Castro, in a chartreuse body suit, begins walking across the stage in the opposite direction of the rest of the company. All are walking as if on the sands at the bottom of the ocean, with what appears like some effort - you can imagine them wearing flippers. She keeps walking, oblivious as wave after wave of dancers slowly pass her by. I do not think choreographer and Grupo founder, Rodrigo Pederneiras likes to make overt political or social statements. But this is certainly one he can't deny: The individual going against the community. As the dance builds in color and subtly vernacular dance quotations, the image lingers and, to me, makes the point that our multicultural society began with individuation - and that the possibility of multiculturalism mathematically increases with each act of individuation. The final moments are a riot of color and ethnic fusions that celebrate our samenesses and differences.
No dance company ignites me like them and yet leaves me strangely mute with awe. There simply is nothing as good as Grupo Corpo. Except more of them, of course.
Grupo Corpo will appear at Brooklyn Academy of Music in October, 2005.
Phrenic New Ballet will perform at The Arts Bank in Philadelphia, August 11-14, www.phrenicnewballet.org.
Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival continues through August 29, with a mix of headliners from around the world and American favorites. For a full schedule, go onto www.jacobspillow.org. Box office: 413 243 0745
Merilyn Jackson has been a featured dance critic for The Philadelphia
Inquirer for eight years. Other publications her work appears in include
the New York Times, Dance Magazine, and Pointe Magazine.
This article is Copyright 2004 ExploreDance.com/Merilyn Jackson.