- Summer Romances
We naturally think of dance in romantic terms. In a pas de deux, as Susanne K. Langer was not the first to point out, “two people . . . appear to magnetize each other”; “a kind of romance,” as George Balanchine and Francis Mason explained to novice ballet fans, “even when it is performed on a bare stage with no surrounding story.” The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, in the Berkshires, occupies a rustic campus recalling summer camp, where many adolescents first vividly connected dancing—the slow, social variety—with romantic awakening. The Pillow’s natural setting feels Romantic as well as romantic, natural beauty alerting our active perception to the powerful feelings dance can express to our imaginations and evoke in our bodies. Summer 2015 brought to the Pillow some excellent performances of works that explore romance and also use Romantic music—specifically Schubert and Chopin, with a smidge of neo-Romanticism from Arvo Pärt—to demonstrate how dance can objectify aspects of our erotic nature.
The remarkable modern dance choreographer Jessica Lang has a lyrical imagination anchored by things. Her Lyric Pieces, a 2012 commission for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, used big, sturdy, black paper rolls that variously unfurled into walls dividing the stage space, coiled into cylindrical stepping stones, or snailed into consoles or other architectural ornaments against which ballerinas reclined, like goddesses in a temple pediment. In her 2013 staging of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater for Glimmerglass Opera, a huge, rough-hewn piece of timber rose and descended from the flies, often intersecting with an equally gigantic log angled from the floor. This colossal furniture variously alluded to the Cross, the table of the Last Supper, or a communion altar, and a five-yard sheet of white fabric played, for example, Mary’s veil, a communal prayer shawl, and an altar cloth. Lang’s big props never overpower her choreography; rather, they create terms and limitations that help her define the movement she wants her dancers to enact, and the kinds of space in which that movement will unfold.
In The Wanderer, her hour-long 2014 work that came to Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires for a two-week summer stay, Lang’s combination of ballet with modern dance—she danced with Twyla Tharp, yet has developed her own hybrid, highly musical style—enchants from the opening moments, when her four-member corps, called the Others, execute unison combinations of sideways jumps, whirls with arms raised, little leaps, and energetic kicks. The piece, a constant pleasure to look at, exemplifies many of Lang’s virtues, qualities increasingly rare in modern dance: love of music, clarity of narrative action, and a trust in the audience’s attention span that encourages her to develop dance sections into truly expressive emblems of feeling, character, or the mysteries of human life, in this case the twists and turns of romantic love.
All this, Lang says, somehow grows out of the things: The Wanderer evolved from her wish “to make a tree completely out of white string.” Set designer Mimi Lien has conjured a copse of four bare trees from smooth [End Page 117] white rope, their branches descending from the light rigging and twining into thin trunks that spill yards of excess rope onto the floor, enough to define, momentarily, the trees’ roots, a brook’s continually shifting path, the walls and roof of a little house or tent, and other landmarks of the dance’s imaginary topography. Lang uses Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, sung beautifully by baritone John Boehr (accompanied by pianist Tyson Deaton), who begins the ballet above the stage in a white horizontal space cut into the black back wall. Eventually he joins the dancers, at one point leading a ritual procession around the black floor’s white perimeter; Lang makes him essential to the design but peripheral to the action. Just as the trees are simultaneously imaginary and convincing, the ballet’s tragic fairytale—a Wanderer’s pursuit of a Girl who finally rejects his love—has genuine poetic feeling, an imaginary garden with real toads in it.
In addition to creating human characters—the Wanderer (Clifton...