“The Vinegar Works” began with an in-joke for PBS viewers: a recitation of Edward Gorey’s ghoulish alphabet poem “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”) spoken by Alan Cumming. He’s the host of Masterpiece Mystery, the popular series whose title sequence is based on spooky images from Gorey’s mind and pen.
That piece was part of the Trey McIntyre Project’s farewell appearance at Jacob’s Pillow. After a ten-year run, McIntyre, who first made his name as an independent choreographer with leading ballet companies and modern troupes, is dissolving his full-time ensemble to spread himself around again. The Project’s swan song was a two-part concert that epitomized the breadth of material he has mined to make dances. “The Vinegar Works,” drawing on Gorey’s creepy themes and imagery and accompanied by a Shostakovich trio, was paired with “Mercury Half-Life,” an homage to the iconic 70s superband Queen.
The Gorey pieces (was there ever a more appropriate surname?) were performed by black-and-white-clad dancers in whiteface, employing Gorey-inspired props and puppets to reflect, without literally narrating, several of the macabre master’s most popular tales, including “The Beastly Baby,” featuring a nasty globular infant, and “The Deranged Cousins,” performed by a trio in pointe shoes, a nod to McIntyre’s taste for boundary-bending ballet.
Shostakovich’s prickly Piano Trio No. 2, played live by teen laureates from the Music Institute of Chicago Academy, accompanied the Gorey vignettes. And for me, the music and the visual design were what resonated. The dancing itself, technically assured as it was, seemed more like a recap of the Project’s work than a novel statement in its own right.
Courtesy of the Trey McIntyre Project
Not so part two of the evening. “Mercury Half-Life” was an exuberant explosion as thrilling and eclectic as its musical score – 15 classic tracks by Freddie Mercury and Queen. From the quirky rhythms of “Bicycle Race” to the thumping brashness of “We Will Rock You” to “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” sweeping symphonic arc, the songs brought the dancers to life, and vice versa (reminding us, not incidentally, of Queen’s stylistic innovations and Mercury’s amazing four-octave vocal instrument).
Inspired by the rhythmic whimsicality of the music, the dancers responded with movement that at times seemed almost spontaneous, giving flight to the music with a kind of staccato fluidity – keeping the beat while rising above it. Again, the design employed contrasting chromatics, this time putting the performers in crisp white clothes that flashed with bright-red trim and linings.
HIP-HOP, REAL AND UN
If that program exemplified the range of the McIntyre Project’s work, last week’s contrasting concerts embodied the scope of the Pillow’s devotion to modern dance in all its variety. The festival’s smaller Doris Duke stage hosted “Unreal Hip-Hop,” a showcase that illustrated the variety and global reach of that form, which has grown from sidewalk breakers and clubland DJs into the mainstream. It also epitomized what Scholar-in-Residence Maura Keefe called the Pillow’s “tradition of [uniting] theatrical dance traditions and vernacular forms.”
The Pillow has gradually embraced hip-hop since informally hosting a breaking crew back in the 1980s, presenting its first formal hip-hop performance in 1997, and now including hip-hop technique in its rotating roster of summer training programs. And “hip-hop technique” is an issue that interests Keefe, who referred in her pre-show talk to the conundrum confronting performers of the “choreographed hip-hop” we were about to witness: “how to recreate specificity out of what once was spontaneous” without losing the sense of freedom and impulse.
All three of the acts on the bill were said to hark back to the “old school” hip-hop that arose on the streets and in the clubs before being commodified by MTV. The program opened with a solo from Israeli-born Ephrat Asherie, whose electrifying performance definitively demolished the still-common notion that “girls can’t break.” Appearing at first with a boyish look, and accompanied by an ironic recording of her two brothers discussing their strange little sister, she took command of the stage, and the genre, finally shedding her hoodie and do rag and (literally) letting down her hair.
Ephrat Asherie. Photo by Jamie Kraus
Jennifer Weber’s Decadance company is specifically dedicated to demonstrating that women can be more than backup dancers for music videos, and can more than keep up with the boys. Demonstrate they did, while at the same time testing and exploding notions of hip-hop’s musical limits. The soundtrack for “4” was Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” remixed with an increasingly electronic feel by DJ Boo, who also performed live at his console. The result was an eye-opening and breathtaking leap into new regions of cross-disciplinary exchange.
The Wondertwins, Billy and Bobby McClain, ended the evening with a variety turn called “Broadway to Hip-Hop.” Billed as a “vaudeville,” their act consisted of short snippets of dance and mimed shenanigans performed to numbers ranging from “Moon River” to R. Kelly. They seem to specialize in a species of popping that resembles a finger-in-the-socket jolt of electricity, and for me, that was the closest they got to old-school hip-hop. Most of the piece seemed so slick, so self-consciously cute – and so glitteringly costumed – that I could see it as a sideshow in Vegas, far removed from any street-level antecedents.
In between these two performances, I caught Inside/Out, the Pillow’s free outdoor series of concerts by young dancers. This one was a showcase of students in the tap program led by Michelle Dorrance, who is not only a tap-dancing phenom but a passionate devotee of eclecticism. How eclectic is she? Her own two-week run of performances here, beginning July 16th, features guest artist Ephrat Asherie.
Meanwhile, this week’s headliners at the Pillow are the ever-ingenious and athletic Hubbard Street Dance company and Compagnia TPO, from Italy, in a family-friendly “interactive spectacle of light, animation, and movement.”
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