Picture a traditional dance class in a conservatory studio: a group of young dancers, mostly female, mostly white, in leotards and leg warmers, stretching and practicing pliés at the barre to classical piano accompaniment.
Now picture this: 24 young dancers, half of them male, mostly black or brown, in tank-tops and high-tops, practicing steps drawn from a mix of contemporary styles, performed to the beat of a classic hip-hop track.
This is the scene I encountered recently in the Rose Studio at Jacob’s Pillow Dance, the nationally recognized festival/school/dance center in the Berkshire hills. Participants in Movin’, a two-week training program in the emergent genre known as commercial dance, are rehearsing “Cinderfella,” an original work created collaboratively by the program’s guest choreographers. It’s brutally hot in the long, whitewashed room where Dominique Kelley, running the troupe through a routine, shouts to be heard over the roar of overhead fans.
“Okay, one more time, and remember—high, high, low, high. Five, six, seven, go.”
It’s a brief, four-bar combination, a small moment in the larger piece, but the reach-squat-reach moves need to be in perfect synch. Kelley watches, corrects one dancer’s position, turns to the group. “Good. And again.”
Movin’ is part of this year’s School at Jacob’s Pillow professional advancement program, which also includes units on ballet, contemporary and jazz/musical theater. This is the rotating “guest slot” that features specialized and/or exotic dance forms. Previous years have explored styles ranging from tap to flamenco, hip-hop to hula.
Commercial dance embraces music videos, film work, corporate promotions, TV ads and other “product-oriented” platforms in the media “industry.” As such, it calls for proficiency in an array of contemporary dance forms. Applicants to the competitive program—more than 200 auditioned for the two dozen places—are expected to already have strong performance skills in at least three dance styles. The program puts them through intensive training in a cross-cultural gumbo of forms that include jazz, African, modern, hip-hop and even ballet. There are also seminars on the “business” of dance, covering contracts, agents and audition-room savvy.
During a break, Kelley tells me that, unlike other dance programs, this one includes an emphasis on a dancer’s physiognomy as well as physique. “That’s the difference between stage and film,” he explains. “In the commercial world they want a nice close-up. So we like them to be mindful not only of their fingertips and their feet, but also to be very aware of their face,” its movement and expressiveness, as a part of the physical whole.
Kelley is one of six guest choreographers—three each week—in residence during the program. He’s a busy professional, a dancer and choreographer who has appeared in numerous Broadway shows and created moves for artists as disparate as Miley Cyrus and Flo Rida. During his residency here, he works daily with the male students “about what it is to have strong masculine characteristics. In hip-hop and street jazz, pop performances and musical theater, it’s important to always have a dichotomy of being soft and hard.”
“Cinderfella” on Stage
“Cinderfella” is a five-minute interpretation of Dana Dane’s 1987 gender-switched retelling of the fairy tale, set in ghetto Brooklyn. It’s part of a public performance that caps the two-week session on the Pillow’s Inside/Out stage (one of 200 free events this summer). As the afternoon rehearsal nears its end, program director Jeffrey Page conducts a run-through of the number. “Remember,” he cautions, “you’ll be on the stage all the time, hanging out at the back or on the sides, so even when you’re not ‘onstage,’ you’re still in character.”
As the run-through begins, we see Cinderfella, danced by 18-year-old Xavier Santafield, abused by his cruel stepdad and taunted by nasty stepbrothers. A fairy godfather appears, dresses him in sharp new gear, changes his skateboard into a Volvo—a chassis of four male bodies—and ushers him into the Princess’ dance party.
At which point, Page stops the run to work a particularly tricky group sequence. Then it’s, “From the top. This is the last time I’m going to see it before tomorrow’s performance,” he adds, “so I want it pulled out.” Throughout the piece, the whole troupe is in motion almost all the time, spiking dynamic horizontal moves with vertical explosions. As it ends, Page immediately announces, “Okay, once more and we’re done.” This elicits a few stifled groans from the profusely sweating young dancers, but they get up and do it again, pulling out their last reserves of energy.
Outside, I chat with Santafield, toweled-off but still panting. Just out of high school in Dallas, Texas, he’s on his way to college in modern dance. He reports the program is “really, really hard work, working from nine a.m. to one a.m. sometimes. It’s really challenging, but it’s a great challenge.” Besides the instruction in technique, he says the key lesson he’s learned here is “mainly about character—how to be yourself on stage within the context of the choreography.” Just as important, he says, is “knowing what to do in front of the camera—which way to place your head, which way is the light shining on your face, a lot of stuff.”
The emphasis on dancing for the camera, as opposed to stage work, is a key element of the instruction. The session has included several video shoots of made-up commercials, produced in semi-real-world conditions, including 5:30 a.m. calls for cast and crew. The shoots placed the students in rotating roles as both “talent” and technical assistants to the Pillow’s video documentation unit in a unique “cross-learning” interdepartmental collaboration.
The Greater Conversation
Jeffrey Page is the “star” faculty member. A Pillow alumnus himself, he’s an Emmy-nominated choreographer probably best known for his work with Beyoncé, including an MTV Best Choreographer award for his work on her “Run the World (Girls)” music video. Page is conducting today’s installment of the festival’s cutely named twice-weekly seminar, Pillow Talk, and a screening of that post-apocalyptic extravaganza is part of his show-and-tell. But the main thrust of his talk revolves around the question “Just what is commercial dance”?
On the one hand, he says, “It’s simply branding, taking a product and selling it.” He quickly adds, “Am I being shallow, talking about selling a product? No, because it’s part of a greater conversation. It’s a collaborative thing, the thing that you do after your ballet technique, your hip-hop technique, your jazz technique—how does it accumulate? It’s where dance doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s part of the greater conversation, a greater vernacular of the world. That’s how it affects us all and why it’s important.”
Page’s practical goal for this fortnight is “to take someone who moves like a ballet dancer, a modern dancer, and bring them down a bit. I don’t compromise anything, just widen the palette, find the roundedness and the funk inside them, so they understand how to move in a different way. At the end of the day you have a dancer who is grounded, who is technically proficient, who knows how to attack rhythm and who knows how to sit back inside of the funk and let it ride.”
This program, as Director of Education J.R. Glover tells me later, falls directly in line with the Pillow’s founding purpose. Always an innovator and iconoclast, Ted Shawn created Jacob’s Pillow, she says, from “the idea that the Pillow is a place for all dancers and all dance forms,” with a then-unheard-of emphasis on non-Western traditions and experimental modernity. She sees Movin’, with its multicultural motifs and real-world focus, as a natural continuation of Shawn’s vision of 81 years ago. “Truly, we’re just building on what he began.” •
Jacob’s Pillow Dance: ticketed and free performances and events through Aug. 25, Becket, jacobspillow.org, (413) 243-0745. Info on The School at Jacob’s Pillow at jacobspillow.org/education/school.