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Artistic ambition: Seán Curran Company.

Moody Contemplation
By Mae G. Banner

Seán Curran Company
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 29

Singers and dancers perform in parallel universes in Art/Song/Dance, a vaulting collaboration between choreographer Seán Curran and composer-pianist Ricky Ian Gordon. There was so much information packed into both movement and music that, often as not, I felt torn, unable to attend fully to either realm, yet unable to bring sight and sound into unity. It was like looking through two lenses of different focal lengths.

Seán Curran Company closed out the 72nd Jacob’s Pillow season last week with Curran’s dances of loneliness and nostalgia, leaving the world premiere Art/Song/Dance for last. It’s the longest, most ambitious work Curran has made for his seven-year-old company: big, moody, leaving the audience with lots to ponder.

Four couples—man and man, woman and woman, woman and man—dance in an atmosphere that sometimes feels like a city park at midnight, and sometimes like a Broadway stage with a row of blazing colored footlights. The costumes are street clothes, but intensified, especially the women’s strappy summer dresses in polka dots or lush, jewel-colored flower prints. Gordon, an accomplished composer whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Audra McDonald and Kristin Chenoweth on the Broadway end and Dawn Upshaw and Renée Fleming on the opera end, has put together a cycle of a dozen poems: blues by Langston Hughes and James Agee, a lament by Edna St. Vincent Millay, and some lyrics of his own. Art songs with a Broadway sheen, they circle the theme of losing home, losing love, searching, and maybe finding one’s dream at last.

The composer enters first, sits at the baby grand piano and establishes the twilight mood with his solo, Desire Rag. Gordon plays in a chordy, jazzy style, with a distant nod to Gershwin.

He brings a contingent of four singers to the collaboration, including Diane Sutherland, whose big-voiced Finding Home sets the dancers on their lonely rounds. Couples meet, circle, and part, not in sorrow, but in fear of connection or rejection. Someone’s always left alone to take another stab at it, to start a new dance.

Some poignant moments: a woman switches back and forth between two men to Hughes’ lyric, Poor Girls Ruination, which melds into his tender Dreamkeeper; a woman alone dances with a chair to Agee’s Open All Night, as she watches a couple swing by; two men waltz briefly, hug lovingly, and part; two women kiss, but one runs away in dismay.

Sometimes, Curran uses literal, childlike gestures, like fingers making rainfall. Sometimes, he reaches back to his early training in Irish step dancing to pull out a reel or a cross-step. Mainly, he’s traveling this path of loneliness, sorrowful but hopeful.

Beside the dancers, unseen in a parallel universe, a tenor performs Gordon’s Song of Solitude, (“on any given day, half the universe is in tears”). But, for all his sadness, Curran is resilient. He and Gordon close the circle with Hughes’ Joy and a reprise of Tina Landau’s Finding Home, in which the dancers, arms up like Broadway hoofers, but lyrical, like lovers, stand to the side and acknowledge the singers. Then, their fingers make that rippling fall—rain coming down.

The program opened with Sonata (We Are What We Were), set to the wonderfully jagged rhythms of Leos Janacek. A rich, slow Czech folk song pierces the darkness—a cry of remembrance for days of yore.

Sonata is a beautiful, quiet, orderly dance, all pattern and clarity, traditional, yet embracing Curran’s necessary man-man and woman-woman partnering. He’s telling us this is how the world goes, now, and probably did in the bygone days when we wouldn’t admit it.

In his Schubert Solos (Better To Be Looking At It Than To Be Looking For It) and Better To Bend Than To Break (a world premiere), as in all his dances, Curran shares some qualities with Mark Morris. Both construct simple folk-based movements that come forth organically from the dancer’s being. You watch, and you always feel you could do it, too. The moves fit the shape of the music in a four-square, honest way. Gestures often are literal, everyday, not “artistic.” And, self-mocking comedy pokes through.

Schubert Solos had all of that. Curran did little balletic turns and stopped abruptly, with an “ah, nuts” gesture. He bent a leg to check the sole of his red-socked foot (for crumbs?), got a laugh, and repeated the move as a motif that accumulated along with others: a salute, clapping his hands over his ears, smacking his shoulder, and, finally, a defensive palms-out gesture, as if to say, “Don’t hit me.” The hopeful, closing gesture was a double clap of the bases of his palms together over his head—“I’m still here.”

Almost the Real Thing

Boston Ballet
Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass., Aug. 29

We’re spoiled. For 39 years, right in our back yard, we’ve been watching the New York City Ballet dance the works of their founder, George Balanchine. Regional companies are proud to dance his works, but, for all their talent and good intentions, their interpretations too often appear as silver plate, not sterling.

Boston Ballet, a professional company of 44 dancers, now directed by Mikko Nissinen, brought to Jacob’s Pillow a full program of two Balanchine works, a contemporary Finnish ballet, a faux-romantic Lady of the Camellias by Val Caniparoli and set to Chopin, and an astoundingly lovely ballet by Mark Morris.

When Boston Ballet is good, they are very good. Melanie Atkins and Sabi Varga were superb in Balanchine’s Duo Concertant (1972) a chamber ballet to music of Stravinsky that is performed live, onstage. Set on the Boston dancers by NYCB’s Sean Lavery, Duo is a perfect collaboration between choreographer and composer and reads with more depth on the Pillow’s small stage than in the grand spaces where it’s usually performed.

Pianist Freda Locker and violinist Michael Rosenbloom are equal partners with the dancers. The first of five movements belongs to the musicians. The dancers stand behind the piano, almost unseen, absorbing Stravinsky’s beat and melody. As they learn, so do we.

Now prepared, the dancers walk naturally to center stage and begin, gradually, to move with the music—first, a pattern of legs out and back, out and back; then, calligraphic arms. The beat catches hold, and they begin to dance, fast and sharp, ceaselessly.

The movement ends. The dancers approach the musicians again and listen. The dance is constructed with the focus alternating from dancers to musicians to dancers. Atkins could be the violin as she moves fluidly. Varga could be the percussive piano. Time and again, the dancers are drawn back to the musicians to breathe in the music and let its force and shape impel them to dance again.

The dancers look like the Platonic ideal of dancers. Moving with knees bent, facing front, arms linked in art deco angles, spinning out into allegro jumps, they embody Stravinsky’s score.

After a false ending, the stage goes dark. Then, we see Atkins under a spotlight. Varga’s hands come into the light and he bows to her. The dance changes qualitatively, from play to the highest, most purified art as all four—musicians and dancers—conclude together.

Balanchine is the genius choreographer of the 20th century. Mark Morris may be the genius of the 21st. His Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, made in 1988 for American Ballet Theatre, was the other peak of the Boston Ballet’s concert.

Set to piano etudes of Virgil Thomson performed live by Virginia Eskin, Drink is a guileless work, full of Morris’ surprising entrances and exits, marked by his sudden, unaccountable shifts from group passages to brief duets or solos and back again to the ensemble.

Threads of self-mockery are woven through the dance, little jokes on the self-absorbed snootiness of classical ballet. Big piano glissandi are matched with whizzing ballet turns. Serious chords provoke dippy side-bends. There are musical/choreographic jokes on Russian and Spanish dancing.

The final passage, a wonderfully slow variation, is Morris at his most glorious. Four men step across the back of the stage, carrying four women very high and horizontal, like odalisques, while, in front, dancers move through a set of slow, serious poses. In a blink, the two groups change places as the tall carriers come forward with their treasures. Now, the men each raise a long leg in an arabesque to the front—a movement that’s usually meant for women. It’s so beautiful, you could weep. They hold that pose until they gently lay their women down and back away into darkness.

Talented and well-schooled as they are, Boston Ballet, except for these two dances, did not move me. Why did these two surpass everything else? Because they included live music, and because they sprang from our greatest choreographic minds. That’s worth remembering.

—Mae G. Banner

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