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Sculptures in motion: Henri Oguike Dance Company’s White Space.

International Style

By Jo Page

Henri Oguike Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., through Aug. 19

At the end of one of her brief, athletic poems, the Polish poet, Anna Swir writes, “My body, you are an animal/for whom ambition/is right/Splendid possibilities/are open to us.”

Henri Oguike Dance Company, making their United States debut in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow last week, shows us the splendid possibilities of bodies in motion.

Henri Oguike’s choreography and eight dancers have garnered high praise and various prizes in the United Kingdom where Oguike started the company. Lots of London voices—in Time Out, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Guardian—have weighed in with accolades. But it is hardly a “British” company. The dancers are from all over the place—Japan, Portugal, Finland, the Netherlands, Paraguay. Oguike himself was born of Welsh and Nigerian parents. So what links this diverse lot of dancers isn’t an affinity for Merce Cunningham’s or Mark Morris’ style—Oguike’s is frequently, favorably compared to both—but a brightly cerebral physicality, the brain and body both candidly alive and at work.

White Space, set to excerpts from Scarlatti’s keyboard works, is a sextet of dancers in white, five girls, one boy, at first apparently genderless bodies responding to sound, three in skirts, three in tights, framed in Mondrian-esque projections on the back screen. It’s all strangely both very fast and very sculptural, bodies shooting through space phrase-by-phrase with the harpsichord in the short keyboard pieces. Then the sculptural takes on the emotional and the girls move through short couplings with the boy—it’s not a pas de deux or trois, but pas de multiples, each of the dancers coyly, competitively, playfully, but never wistfully, engaging, separating, re-engaging—at Scarlatti speed.

Expression Lines is a solo—Saturday danced by the choreographer—that is mostly an homage to the Malinese guitarist Ali Farka Toure. Toure, called the “bluesman of Africa” because of his cross-mixed American blues and Arabic-influenced Malian sound, wrote “Niafunke” as a tone-poem to his hometown. Oguike’s choreography embraces the contrasts of sky and sand, action and stillness, intensity and contemplation embodying the haunting yearning of Toure’s piece.

After Tiger Dancing, the third piece on the program, was over, the annoying woman in front of me asked her son, “Didn’t they seem just like tigers?” and he answered, as if she had asked if it were snowing outside, “No.”

No, despite its name and the program note’s allusion to the Blake poem (“Tyger, tyger burning bright . . .”) tigers are just the starting point. The rest is all human. Though Oguike is cited again and again as a choreographer who embodies musicality, he also embodies the body. In both White Space and here, there is an energy beyond the athletic pursuit of making music visible; there is sexual energy—playful, fierce and nimble. In the classic children’s story, “Little Brave Sambo” the tigers turn to butter. In Tiger Dancing they turn, sublimely, into flesh.

Though what came before it could scarcely be considered an amuse-bouche, Second Signals is clearly meant to be—and succeeds at being—the program’s piece de resistance. Taiko is Japanese for ‘big drums’ and that’s exactly what we see when seven dancers paired with three drummers take the stage. Taiko drums have a history spanning not simply centuries but vital ritual use: scaring the enemy, awakening the rain gods, calling the townsfolk, inspiring sacred chanting and now, dizzying the audience. If it does nothing else, Second Signals hammers home the truth at the margins between divisions—we’re all part of each other and nothing much is only itself. So the dancers make sounds, the musicians make dance. This has to mean that boundaries are meant more for exploring than for breaking.

Let’s hope Henri Oguike explores U.S. boundaries again very soon.

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