BECKET — In a recent interview, teacher/director/choreographer Cleo Parker Robinson commented that humans “don’t cry enough…and we don’t laugh enough.” She thinks dancing is a form of medicine that can help bridge these gaps. Certainly, the program his 52-year-old company, the Colorado-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble, brings to Jacob’s Pillow this week offers a powerful dose of dance, that metaphorical elixir of life.
The evening also features a sample of the band’s history, as well as the history of modern dance, in choreography by iconic figures that include, besides Robinson, Katherine Dunham and Donald McKayle. The new generations of dancers also have their place at this leading table.
Dunham’s “Ragtime” – the brief excerpt from the 1972 production of Scott Joplin’s non-ragtime opera “Treemonisha” opens the program with an adorably old-school bang. Four well-dressed men enter, jubilant, carrying high chairs and giant smiles. Four women join in, waving small feathered fans, and the romp begins: male/female couples quickly form, executing light steps with a mixture of innocent joy and frank sensuality. It’s a hoot.
Robinson’s “Mary Don’t You Weep” is an excerpt from her “Spiritual Suite”, which was inspired by the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his brother; the latter – like King, a preacher – died in his sleep at age 19. Nikki Giovanni’s reserve poem “The Women Gather” is delivered in voiceover before Eric Gale’s powerful, bluesy/funky rendition of the titular African-American spiritual dance rumbles, its grip and infectious strut . In short, a preacher, played by Davry Ratcliffe, rushes onto the stage, arms outstretched, as if pleading, then contracting into a shell, hands drawn back to his center, as in private prayer. . The main event, however, is the choreography of the three grieving women who alternately cross the stage, supporting each other, arms clasped behind each other’s backs, or bound by outstretched hands, or seated on chairs, feet shaking all the time. . The solos are filled with percussive contractions and floats suspended on one leg, the other leg piercing the air above the dancer’s head, his torso leaning precipitously to the side or arching deeply etched into the back. The opening night trio of Chloe-Grant Abel, Samiyah Lynnice and Topaz von Wood were extraordinary, fierce and rigorous, determined.
2017’s “Crossing the Rubicon: Passing the Point of No Return” was the great McKayle’s last piece, and the company honors his legacy — and the dance’s dark subject matter — by dancing it with unwavering focus. Like McKayle’s dance, Anoushka Shankar’s sitar and percussion-fuelled score was inspired by the traumatic experiences of refugees driven out by war. Kenneth Keith’s evocative lighting design (adapted by Trey “Trezie” Grimes) bathes the scene in dark shadows or strikingly captures a long diagonal of travelers weaving their way across the stage with a repetitive sequence and hauntingly silent, thrusting one leg forward, their hips following a moment later, making semi-circles, over and over again. Yoojung Hahm and Tyveze Littlejohn are searing in their long, compelling duet that begins ritualistically, the two dashing side-by-side or, mirroring, climbing legs in expanded staccato. Meanwhile, the precision of the ensemble throughout the dance – including later in the long running, breathing and jumping sections – is striking and essential to maintaining the frame of the performance. While the performers, after all, are meant to indicate the exhaustion of being constantly on the run, their physical prowess as trained dancers, combined with their artistic integrity, underscore McKayle’s thesis here: how humanity, even in the midst of struggle and horror, is ultimately a beautiful resistance to the ugliness of war.
Garfield Lemonius’ 2017 “Catharsis” is an abstract study in the kind of less tense, yet still real, everyday concerns that we humans seem unable to shake. This piece also features a central pas de deux which highlights, through the alternating sharing of the weight of the duo, the power of emotional support. Hahm, here with Corey Boatner, are largely magnificent in their virtuoso choreography, creating one indelible image after another, but at times Lemonius’ choreography veers away from organically constructed phrases and relies on an ambitiously acrobatic partnership which seems conspicuous, unsuited to this ostensibly reflective dance. . The ensemble work, often lively, is also strained from time to time by overloaded phrases, which the dancers valiantly strive to execute: often they do it successfully, however exceptional they may be, but sometimes you have to cut round corners.
How deliciously fitting that this program of this company, founded by a woman, ends with a piece choreographed by a woman (ex-company Nejla Y. Yatkin), for seven women. Even better than the dance, 1998’s “Daughters of Salomé” overturns the usually misogynistic portrayal of Salomé as the killer of heartless men. Although the second part of the dance relies too much (for me) on women walking around with their hands on their hips gazing at the audience, as well as an awkward fusion of dance genres, the first section is a finely constructed spectacle featuring a rainbow of strong women. In addition to Abel, Lynnice and von Wood, the equally formidable Caeli Blake, Jasmine Francisco, Gabriela Maduro and Lauren Slaughter step in and out of the group to perform gripping solos inspired by Graham or Horton. It’s a testament to Yatkin’s choreographic chops that the chorus-group staging is beautiful enough to command attention while keeping the soloist center stage. Dance is both a celebration of individuality and the vital power of a community.
If you are going to …
What: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Ensemble
Where: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Now until Sunday. 21st of August
Information: Tickets starting at $55. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org