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Playtime: Conny Janssen Danst at Jacob’s Pillow.

Photo: Ben Rudick

Jump Around

By French Clements

Conny Janssen Danst

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., July 24

 

It’s good to see work that makes good on its goals, but a little disappointing when the goals aren’t all that profound. Rebound, by Conny Janssen Danst, is one such show, performed last week in the Doris Duke Studio Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow.

Rebound addresses how we acquire and relinquish power, but coasts for too long on the ingenuity of its visual elements. That’s mostly forgivable, because this work is handsome. Its dancers, all men, are chiseled and a little scruffy; the set recalls a high-end Italian sofa; and the musical score incorporates work by Aphex Twin and Keren Ann. Everything feels clean, and yet ready to be soiled. If you didn’t know this dance was made in the Netherlands, you might have guessed it in three tries.

Conny Janssen, the group’s artistic director and choreographer, is from Rotterdam, where her company was founded in 1992. Like another citizen of Rotterdam, architect Rem Koolhaas, Janssen has a knack for synthesizing unlikely elements. In Rebound, her movement slickly merges contorted ballet with stuff you might’ve done the last time you were at a club. Turn your head and scratch behind one ear. Try to shake your ass. Stare at the ground and wait to get rejected, or to reject someone.

Rebound has the most striking set of the Pillow’s summer so far. Designed by Thomas Rupert, this thing is enormous, and, at first, a little claustrophobic. Its three separate walls, ten feet high, are covered in countless bolts of white vinyl, for the effect of quilted upholstery. The longest wall, at the stage’s back, has two large cubbyholes, while running through the two perpendicular walls are several horizontal slabs at head- or hip-height.

Before the work’s opening, the speakers emit a slow, electronic shoosh. Two men huddle inside their cubbies, while others stare at each other from across the way, mumbling incoherent, possibly insulting things. “Padded room” must hold the same connotation in Europe as it does here, because these guys look fit to be committed. Then, the tallest dancer—Dutch people are tall!—makes a slow descent from his window. Using a few toes, he gently brushes the floor, testing things out. Once there, he waves his hands in front of his face, testing his own perception. Meanwhile, another wiry fellow, a Spaniard, watches from his slab’s high perch, munching from a plastic container of dried fruit. Like the movement, which deals here with one idea at a time, the score is quiet for now, committing to only a few notes.

In an instant, when the lights turn purple, the vinyl doubles as an enormous canvas, and soon, as the walls turn green, the music grows to a roar, whereupon all five break into fantastic unison. Later, when a dancer stops to glare at his mates, everything glows the red of a seedy bar. And for a duet full of lean aggression, the walls hum in a golden, empathetic yellow. Such effects are key to developing sensory impact. In another, occasional lighting cue, a grid of tiny diamonds scans slowly across the back wall. The effect is exciting and a little scary, like finding yourself at night beneath a police helicopter’s roving spotlight.

Oh, right, the trampoline. It’s built into the back wall, and, in its first (fairly late) appearance, it magically slides forward to catch a dancer who has moved to sit on nothing. They do some fun stuff with it, as when two facing men lock arms and launch into revolving, double-helix leaps. The designers have thought to mike the trampoline, so that every landing makes a springy, slightly revolting crash, and the slightest foot-shuffle feels consequential. For better or worse, the choreography doesn’t overdevelop the trampoline’s presence, and you’re left to wonder if it’ll return. (It doesn’t.)

Overall, there’s not much here on which to hang a thesis. After a false ending—to a selection from Aphex Twin’s melancholy Drukqs album—three men watch as one harasses another, who can’t figure out what the fuss is. In a combative but loving way, he declines to engage his aggressor. Soon, the two are sitting side by side, each gently forcing one shoulder in front of his mate’s, as in, “No, I’m more macho.” But other humorous sequences require more indulgence. By now, the choreography no longer feels inventive, just fashionable.

Just before the work’s conclusion—in which the guys return to their original, cubbyholed mumbles—the opening dancer realizes the fun in being relaxed, and invents a sweetly post-modern version of the hustle or the electric slide. He reels in fish, points like a matador (here the Spanish fellow grunts “Olé”), slaps his butt, plays a drum set. Things really get going when they all join in. But soon enough, they’re back to apathy and distrust. Man, I know the feeling.


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