Two weekends ago my friend Jessica and I made our annual pilgrimage to Jacob’s Pillow, the summer dance festival 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 study with masters of their craft during the summer months, and a renowned performance venue for the most cutting edge professional companies from around the world. Every week features two new shows in the beautiful wooden theaters on the small, tree-filled Pillow “campus.” Many innovative companies have their U.S. debut at the Pillow, and many return year after year to wow audiences anew. While the caliber and originality of these performances is enough to woo any dance enthusiast, 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 fresh air and the starry 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, perform 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 and the NYC-based tab company, Dorrance Dance. Both were equally awe-inspiring in their own completely unique ways. Dorrance impressed me enough to score a spot alongside Trois Etage in my own personal rankings. 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 brought to the movement. As a viewer, 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.
Equally intensely captivating, but more easily relatable and emotionally enjoyable, Dorrance Dance on Sunday was admittedly my favorite of the two and another favorite show of my life. 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 tap into unprecedented dramatic and technical heights. Dorrance’s performance at Jacob’s Pillow was a series of solos and group pieces set to Toshi Reagon’s live blues band. Reagon’s music was particularly soulful, and the relatively small theater made it feel all the more personal. With this excellent musical backdrop, the dancers (Dorrancers?) pulled off literally jaw-dropping feats of rhythm and 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, easy to discern and enjoy. I literally sat on the edge of my seat, 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. I don’t know much about tap, but as I understand it, the emotional range these 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 the full-company hoedown that brought the show to its exuberant climax, I actually found myself fighting back tears for a good several minutes. I’m used to getting emotional when I witness extreme achievement in a ballet-based technique; 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 be able to attempt. But here I was, watching a 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 am convinced 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. I think it must be the greatest thrill in the world to achieve the ability to let loose a talent that you spend hours honing every day and move an entire audience to laugh, weep or feel an impulsive need to stand up and dance with you. My own inevitable envy aside, I could not have been more thoroughly entertained or impressed.
One quick 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 you have just admired 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 be sure to see a dancer and Pillow administrator or two (or five). It really is just like camp. (Even better, this year we finally discovered the Saturday night after-party in the dance studios, where we drank and danced until well into the morning.)
My only regret is missing Tanglewood, 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. If you haven’t been to the Pillow yet, I highly recommend the tradition to anyone.