The forecast was for rain here. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival But the first roar came from inside the Ted Shawn Theater. It was in the middle of a matinee performance of the Dolan Dance, and the lights dimmed. The dancers spread out around the auditorium, banging on the floor and walls, creating a storm of surround sound.
Transforming the entire theater into drums is a familiar and fun move for this tap dance company led by Michelle Dolans. I also did it at the Guggenheim Museum. But the true glory of SOUNDspace, the first of two of the group’s pillow programs, is its silence.
The piece, performed mostly unaccompanied, was made for a dance space project ten years ago when metal shoes were forbidden on the wooden floors of the landmark St. Mark’s Church in the East Village. Dorrance’s solution was to wear leather-soled footwear or socks and tap without a tap. “SOUNDspace” has changed in the years since, adapting to less restrictive spaces, but some sections still run tapless. The rhythm of leather and wood echoes beautifully like billiard balls caroming.
But even when the dancers are wearing tap shoes, their treads are wonderfully delicate and expressive in tone and touch. Dorance’s choreography separates the rotating ankle and knee to help draw attention to these subtleties. During long belts, she maintains suspense through a sort of dance click track, stopwatch-like ticking, or bombs that the dancers embroider rhythmically. They then run back and forth around the stage like crabs, playfully adding and removing dancers and exchanging phrases that please each other.
It’s this extraordinary compositional skill, combining prescribed choreography with improvisation, gathering tap dancers into a cohesive group without sacrificing individuality, and lasting for nearly an hour, is what made SOUNDspace so exciting in 2013, just two years after Dorance Dance was formed. Ten years later, the piece still lives on as a reminder of its early promise and as a testament to its longevity.
Besides Dolans, only one other original cast member appeared on Friday (the self-proclaimed brilliant Claudia Raharjanot). The new dancers (the latest Dylan Zuch debuting this week) are working on their own. Luke Hickey is the flashiest, most thrilling, but never musical. Leonardo Sandoval adds Brazilian rhythms and sounds to his one-man band solos on body percussion. Addie Loving, who joined the group this year, is quick-witted, highly skilled, lovable and a bit goofy, and is clearly one of the tribe.
The show also featured Dorlans’ latest film, 45th & 8th, which premiered at the Joyce Theater in December. The song was written by talented vocalist Aaron Marcellus and features him performing as part of a four-piece band. Marcellus has a place to showcase his amazing technique of electronically looping his voice and building layers upon layers of soulful sounds. But while the score starts and ends funky, the quiet stormy middle section is slow and sticky, the dance sensitively following the music and slack. The dancers are having a great time while skating.
That day’s premiere was followed by another night’s programme, with Mythiri Prakash premiering ‘She’s Auspicious’. Prakash, her second generation of India and America and an expert in the Indian form of Bharatanatyam, is steeped in tradition but has her doubts. She has also collaborated with contemporary choreographer Akram Khan. Here she questions the mythology of Goddess Devi and her society’s expectations of femininity.
This piece is mostly solo and is most powerful when she uses the Bharatanatyam technique destructively. A skilled Bharatanatyam her dancer can switch between multiple characters during solos with clarity and utter composure. Prakash has the skill, but he has abandoned his composure. Her goddess or woman tries to be seductive one moment and be her mother the next, but she shows tension and freaks out. When she’s bouncing and rocking her invisible toddler, you worry she’ll rock it and die.
The addition of three musicians to Prakash makes this work even more powerful. Unusually for Indian dance, they are all women. What begins to look like a traditional solo morphs into a portrait of the goddess as an exhausted multitasker. Pulled to and fro by unseen children, cleaning up clutter, tending wounds, and preparing food, all set up in public. Now you are afraid that she will shake her body and shatter her into pieces.
This is skinny meat in fact, but the tone is more serious than funny and seems like a missed opportunity. What happens before and after becomes protracted and difficult to follow. Near the beginning, Prakash introduces some of her themes, interspersed with her personal memories in awkward narration. Towards the end, she removes her jewelery, lets down her hair, and seems to be seeking freedom more ferociously, but ends exhausted, jerking on the floor, then standing up and staring each audience member in the eye, as if she had established a more honest self-expression.
She does, but the work feels like it’s still developing. It was originally scheduled for an outdoor stage at The Pillow, but due to weather conditions it was moved to an indoor studio theater, requiring more elaborate production, especially sophisticated lighting and editing. Nature had some help on Friday as the long race drew to a close. The heavens opened and the glass studio shook with divine thunder.