Two weekends ago my friend Jessica and I made our annual pilgrimage to Jacob’s Pillow, the summer dance festival tucked away in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. Jacob’s Pillow is both an overnight dance camp (“summer intensive” for those of you…you know who you are), where serious students of every genre of dance come to stay and study with masters of their craft during the summer months, and a renowned host of the most cutting edge professional companies from around the world. A different company or two arrives every week to perform in the beautifully-constructed wooden theaters on the small, tree-filled Pillow “campus.” Many companies have their U.S. debut at the Pillow, and many return year after year to wow audiences anew with their innovation and technical prowess. While the caliber and originality of these performances is enough to woo any dance enthusiast to Jacob’s Pillow, the opportunity for escape is what truly draws us New York City transplants back year after year. Only at the Pillow will you find professional dancers performing avant-garde choreography in an idyllic mountain setting where the freshness of the air and the starriness of the night sky endow the whole atmosphere with a feeling of magic.
Two years ago Jessica and I saw the Paris Opera Ballet off-shoot, Trois Etage, at Jacob’s Pillow. I fell instantly in love, convinced I had never seen anything more stunning. This year we saw two recently-formed companies: the Israeli L-E-V on Friday night and the NYC-based tab company, Dorrance Dance, on Sunday. Both were equally awe-inspiring in their own completely unique ways. Dorrance left me emotionally moved and impressed enough to rank them a favorite alongside Trois Etage. I was less moved on a traditional emotional scale, but perhaps more engrossed, by the wondrous L-E-V.
Former Batsheva Dance Company member, Sharon Eyal, took several of her fellow dancers with her when she left Batsheva in 2011 to form L-E-V with the famous Israeli rave producer, Gai Behar. L-E-V’s performance at Jacob’s Pillow this year was its U.S. debut. The dancers performed an incredibly striking piece built on a quality of movement that was at once otherworldly and mechanical in a physical sense, yet extremely forceful, sexualized and detailed in an expressive sense. I sat riveted through the hour-long performance that seemed to slip away in what felt like no more than thirty minutes. The often sharp and inhuman quality of the choreography did nothing to detract from the purely animal vigor that the dancers overwhelmingly poured out through their bodies. As a viewer (though perhaps in particular as a viewer in the first row), I felt a more visceral awareness of the fundamental sensation of being alive than I (or, I suspect, any other member of the audience) had ever felt from a performance before. The show was hard to categorize and understand when I left the theater (repeating “wow” over and over again to myself and my friends), but contrary to certain critics (overheard in the audience and as seen in the New York Times), I would say this show was anything but rote or robotic. My Pillow companions wholeheartedly agree.
Equally intensely captivating, but more easily relatable and emotionally enjoyable, Dorrance Dance on Sunday was admittedly my personal favorite of the two and another favorite show of my life. Like L-E-V, Dorrance was unlike anything I had ever seen before; however, Dorrance’s unlikeness was far more straightforward. While it is difficult to find the words to describe L-E-V, the originality of Dorrance very clearly lay in the presentation of the genre of tap dance. In fact, when Michelle Dorrance founded the company in 2011, her key objective was to push beyond the traditional boundaries of the genre and explore unprecedented dramatic and technical heights in tap shoes.
Dorrance’s performance at Jacob’s Pillow was a series of solos and group pieces, featuring up to 9 dancers on stage at once, tapping in sync. The show was set to a live blues band led by Toshi Reagon. The live music aspect is very close to my heart and the hearts of many other professionally-trained dancers, who listened to live piano music everyday in ballet class and a live orchestra when we performed the Nutcracker every Christmas. Toshi Reagon’s live music was particularly soulful and well-suited to the dancing, and the relatively small theater made it feel all the more personal.
With this beautiful musical backdrop, the Dorrance dancers (Dorrancers?) pulled off literally jaw-dropping feats of rhythm with more energy and FUN than I’ve seen in a long time. Admittedly, I may have been all the more impressed due to my unfamiliarity with tap technique, but the dancers were nonetheless very clearly at the top of their game. They displayed a level of vigor equal to that of L-E-V, while striking emotional keys that were, in contrast to the mysterious power of the Israeli company, easily discernible and extremely enjoyable to absorb as a member of the audience. I literally sat on the edge of my seat, leaning forward, gasping and exclaiming involuntarily throughout the entire performance. (I didn’t even feel too obnoxious; everyone around me was doing the same thing.) I had never realized that tap could so effectively convey such a full range of feeling, from the usual campy excitement seen in many of the group pieces, to a quiet, bluesy melancholy that came out in several solos. As I understand it, the emotional range these tap dancers displayed was, if not unprecedented, at least unusual to the art form. And they pulled it off with perfection.
Even the more typical pieces – characterized by the rousing energy one often finds in tap – were particularly excellent. During a full-company hoedown that brought the show to its climax of joyful exuberance, I actually found myself fighting back tears for a good several minutes. Now, I’m used to getting emotional when I witness the extremes of achievement in a ballet-based technique that has something to do with my own dance background. I feel a heavy sense of loss in my life as I see others achieving the beauty that I once had the joy of striving to attain every day and that I will never again come remotely close to achieving. But here I was, watching an almost completely unrelated discipline of dance that I have never attempted for a day in my life, and I felt the same desperate envy of the work these dancers had put into their craft and the incredible reward they were reaping from their efforts right before our eyes, as I have felt watching the loveliest of sugar plum fairies.
I guarantee the “Dorrancers” were having more fun on stage than anyone who has not dedicated themselves to a craft so completely can ever dream of having. It can be only the greatest joy in the world to achieve the level of proficiency required to let go, let loose your talent and move an entire audience to laugh, weep or feel an impulsive need to stand up and dance with you. Every tap dancer on stage leveraged this power to the best effect. My own inevitable envy aside, I could not have been more thoroughly entertained or impressed.
One more note on another remarkable element of the Pillow: it is a small space holding a relatively small number of people. Almost inevitably, you will run into the very dancers that have just held you spellbound in the theater as you make your way across the campus. Grab a drink or sandwich at the outdoor pub, or just wander around the grounds for a while, and you will run into a professional dancer and Pillow administrator or two (or five). It really is just like camp. And to top it off, this year we finally discovered the Saturday night after-party, complete with DJ and complimentary wine, that takes place in one of the dance studios! Everyone was there. We drank and danced until well after the party moved to the pub and ended our Saturday in the best way possible.
My only regret is missing Tanglewood this year, which was a great addition to our Pillow weekend last year. But, between swimming, alpine sliding and exploring mountain towns in between performances, we kept ourselves plenty entertained in the Berkshires. And hey, there’s always next year! If you haven’t yet been to the Pillow, I highly recommend the tradition to anyone.