At Jacob's Pillow, bad boys are really good
BECKET -- The lights dim, the trumpet fanfare begins the familiar strains of the "Le Corsair" pas de deux, and Rasta Thomas flies out of the wings in a brilliant series of soaring grand jetes. But when he steps aside to allow his partner to enter with her own flamboyant variation, the ballerina is a no-show.
"Cut, cut! Where's the ballerina?" Thomas demands. Jacob's Pillow executive director Ella Baff steps into the spotlight, gently reminding Thomas, "It's bad boys of dance, Rasta. Boys."
It's an adorable little shtick that sets the tone for an evening designed to celebrate male virtuosity, hearkening back to the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival's very beginning, when founder Ted Shawn's Men Dancers transformed the way Americans viewed masculinity in dance.
Thomas's fledgling company, which he calls a creative dance lab, made its debut at Jacob's Pillow in celebration of the festival's 75th anniversary, and these bad boys are really very, very good. The ballet-trained Thomas, known most recently for his pyrotechnics in Twyla Tharp's "Movin' Out" and his portrayal of the title role in American Ballet Theatre's "Othello," is joined by three similarly versatile and virtuosic dancers: Bryan Arias, Robbie Nicholson, and Bennyroyce Royon.
All have ballet technique to burn, complemented by a virile, muscular athleticism that seems equally at home in jazz, popular dance, and martial arts. They have remarkable flexibility, with easy splits and kicks to the ears, and are as secure walking on their hands and turning back flips as spinning through fouettes. This was absolutely dazzling dancing.
The program's weakness was the choreography, which tended to be more lighthearted flash, dazzle, and spoof than substantive or contextually memorable. Despite the variety of choreographers, many of the works looked like they came through the same mill -- ballet colored by an expansive embrace of other influences, quickly shifting dynamics, some macho posturing, cute gestural asides, and a pervasive dose of melodramatic reaches and contractions. Most really didn't develop with cohesive form and structure.
But Royon's world premiere quartet "Take 4" was dynamite. It featured edgier music (by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Herbert), and a provocative setup, beginning and ending in stark squares of light. The four dancers came alive as if someone had just wound them up, and they exploded into movement that pushed at the edges -- jazzy, hip-hop-flavored isolations, corkscrew turns, capoeira-influenced floorwork, and an unapologetic in-your-face bravado.
The most variety came in the form of two tall and lanky twins from Argentina, guest dancers Martin and Facundo Lombard. These two personable lads got the crowd clapping and yelling during an impressively tight hip-hop routine, full of pop-and-lock isolations and limber contortions. Then remarkably, they were back out two numbers later in a spit-and-polish tap routine. In "Swinging & Improv" and "TapNGo," light, crisp footwork spooled into smooth turns, graceful slides, and some bright, flashy heel-and-toe exchanges.
In contrast, they filled the pause before the evening's finale with improvisations that showcased the raw energy and rhythmic invention of jazz tap. The crowd couldn't get enough of them. But they finally yielded the stage back to the bad boys, whose "BBD Remix," choreographed by Brandon Perry-Russell, had them dressed for MTV and cutting loose in their flashiest street-style moves.