Houston’s Suchu Dance at Jacob’s Pillow
By NANCY WOZNY
It all started with a glance at the calendar, when I realized that every member of the Wozny household was headed for a more exotic locale than Cypress, except myself. The urge to dance binge came upon me big time. Within a few minutes of posting a Facebook status announcing I was in the mood for a dance fest, the lure of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the nation’s longest-running dance festival, became a reality. Plus, where else to have the best dance nerd vacay is there?
My mission was simple: see a lot of dance. With two companies per week on the big stages, free outdoor shows (weather permitting) four days a week, rehearsals and classes open for viewing, and let’s not forget the staggering amount of dance watching available (over 6,000 titles) in the Pillow Archive, I had all I needed and more.
At the Ted Shawn Theatre, I caught Jean-Claude Gallotta’s witty Des gens qui danscent (people who dance), performed by his sassy French company, Groupe Emile Dubois. Houston native David Roussève’s bittersweet Saudade combined storytelling with vignettes of movement theater performed by his global dance company. Jason Samuels Smith and A.C.G.I. (Anybody Can Get It) wowed the crowds with their stunning virtuosity. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal proved they can pass as Italians with ease in Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata (seen here two years ago at Dance Salad).
Watching the Merce Cunningham Dance Company just hours before Cunningham’s death proved the most poignant experience. Sounddance (1975), the oldest dance on the program, felt the freshest. Robert Swinston (in Cunningham’s role) bursts through a wall of gold draped fabric, galvanizing our attention with a fierce authority. As the piece winds
Merce Cunningham Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow
to its powerful conclusion, Swinston gets sucked back through the curtain, a powerful metaphor for the passing of this titan of modern dance. Whether we are dancers, watchers or writers, an era has ended, and all of us, children of Merce, should be proud to have shared these decades together.
I had the opportunity to watch a DVD of Cunningham’s first performance at the Pillow in 1955 and was reminded what an incredible dancer he was in his youth. The Pillow Archives, directed by the esteemed Norton Owen, are a kind of dance history heaven. I fully intended to immerse myself in Ted Shawn and his men dancers until I noticed that I could watch what happened at the Pillow last week. After watching the entire season thus far, I was ready to settle into some history, which finally did include a good deal of Shawn (the Pillow’s founder), Ruth St. Denis, and vintage ballerinas Tanaquil Le Clercq and Alexandra Danilova. I also stumbled on a program from a 1979 performance of Houston Ballet, staring Thomas Boyd, now HB’s technical director, and Janie Parker. A handy video kiosk helps orient the overwhelmed visitor. And if one is still overwhelmed (as I was), Owen and his team of two capable interns are there to answer your every question.
Watching dance against a background of the Berkshire Mountains on a stage nestled in the woods is nothing short of breathtaking. Even the mosquitoes seemed to behave themselves for these marvelous outdoor shows. I had a chance to see the competent students of the Nutmeg Ballet Conservatory performing a well rehearsed “Garland Dance” from The Sleeping Beauty, Rebecca Lazier’s lyrical ode to Balanchine’s Serenade, My Serenade, set to a cranked up victrola playing Tchaikovsky, and students from the Contemporary Traditions program at the Pillow, who danced snippets of a new work by Aszure Barton and a larger work by Forsythe veteran Helen Pickett. I was enchanted by the bits and pieces of Barton’s work.
Good news, Houston: SPA presents Aszure & Artists next April. Rain brought Pam Tanowitz’s sly dance, Inside/Out, inside. The fact that I had to watch it via simulcast dripping wet didn’t effect my enjoyment of Tanowitz’s sharply crafted dance in the least. Known for her witty fusing of ballet and modern dance technique, Tanowitz deserves every ounce of the fuss she has been getting lately. The Peggy Spina Tap Company also performed indoors, and showed of a fusion of its own, between modern and tap. (FYI, Houston’s own Suchu Dance performed on this very program last season.)
Although I fully intended to avail myself of the morning open classes at the Pillow, the 8 a.m. time didn’t quite flow well with my swim time under the Berkshire skyline. Plus, I had some precious dance talk sessions with my pool mates. It’s marvelous to be somewhere with an entirely dance literate population. For official Pillow Talks, Scholars-in-Residence provide context, comments and history in their pre-show lectures. I did manage to visit Tero Saarinen’s rehearsal with the Pillow students and pronounce him my new favorite choreographer.
No trip to the Berkshires is complete without some side trips. Saturday open rehearsals at Tanglewood are a must if you want to see James Levine in a golf shirt and sweat pants. Come early for the lecture. I also made it to Tanglewood on Parade, which featured such rock star conductors as Levine, Leonard Slatkin, John Williams and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The fireworks weren’t too shabby either. Next time, I will have to step up my picnic chops; there’s some serious action on that Tanglewood lawn. I managed to sneak into two plays at The Williamstown Theater Festival, Sam Shepard’s riveting True West, and Noah Haidle’s world premiere of What is the Cause of Thunder. (Haidle is the playwright who rocked the boat last season at Stages with Mr. Marmalade.) Sol LeWitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective at Mass MOCA is one monster of an exhibit and not to be missed.
Some tips for traveling in the Berkshires. The roads don’t make much sense, but resist the temptation to bring this up with the natives. The intersection concept is a bit murky there, tread lightly. In Massachusetts-eze, the words, “Do not Pass” translate into “You bet it’s OK to pass any and all slow driving Texas women.” Still, small prices to pay to be in one magnificent panoramic cultural mecca.
As for my time at the Pillow, I have returned with my dance battery fully charged. My only regret is having to depart before Rachel Maddow comes to speak this week. No matter, I can watch it next summer in the Archives. Dance feels like a big place there, one to linger in and savor. The place may have been named for a mammoth rock, but it’s all about movement. Ella Baff, the Pillow’s executive director, has it right when she ends every curtain speech with the feisty command, “Let’s dance.” Words to cherish.