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Jacob’s Pillow — A Festival In Every Way

The Ted Shawn Theatre. (Christopher Duggan/Jacob's Pillow)

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BECKET, Mass. — Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival last weekend asked its Facebook followers to describe their first experience “at the Pillow” in one word. Peaceful, exhilarating, mesmerizing, luscious, read the responses. Transcendent, magical, enchanting, heavenly, life-changing, wow.

Saturday night, as dance lovers mingled among charming summer camp-like barns and theaters for the season’s penultimate weekend, those sentiments were in the air, along with a palpable, spoken sadness that the summer — and the festival — were coming to an end. Additionally, I felt, as I do every year, disbelief and regret that so few young folks — and let’s go the Boston Ballet route and define “young” here as under 40 — were in attendance. Along with Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow is simply one of the richest, loveliest, yes, magical experiences New England has to offer.

The 2013 season wraps up next weekend with a restaging of Martha Graham’s 1984 interpretation of Vaslav Nijinksy’s “The Rite of Spring,” in celebration of the centennial of that “original iconoclastic dance” (Aug. 21–25). While unlikely as shocking as in 1913, I’m certain it’ll be gripping. Sadly, it’s just about sold out.

But In the smaller Doris Duke theater, 2012 Jacob’s Pillow Dance award-winning choreographer Kyle Abraham’s company Abraham.In.Motion will perform the feature-length “Pavement,” an energetic work set to a soundtrack ranging from Bach to Sam Cooke and inspired by the film “Boyz n the Hood,” the writing of W.E.B. DuBois, and Abraham’s upbringing in Pittsburgh.

This kind of range, the intimate spaces, the picnics, the setting of cabins and crickets and summer air that seems to loosen even the tightest ballerina bun — all of this helps make the festival what it is: a place to discover an up-and-coming company or choreographer, or to see dance illustrati in a new light, or trying something new.

Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan in "Restless Creature." (Christopher Duggan/Jacob's Pillow)

Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan in “Restless Creature.” (Christopher Duggan/Jacob’s Pillow)

While introducing “Restless Creature,” an evening of duets with New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan and much-touted highlight of the season, festival director Ella Baff also alerted audience members of an exhibition of Whelan’s photographs in the campus’s Blake’s Barn, still on display if you go.

Executed in Instagram, the images show dancers in rehearsal backstage, getting made up. “I like to show the secret side of our world that people don’t usually get to see,” Whelan says in an accompanying video.

“Restless Creature,” too, lets audiences in on what happens before the curtain. Co-commissioned by Jacob’s Pillow, the program is comprised of four duets, each created by and performed with a rising contemporary choreographer outside of ballet’s inner sanctum — and Whelan’s wheelhouse. The concept — with its intimate setting, the understated lighting and sets, just two dancers onstage, and four new physical dialects to master — leaves Whelan unusually exposed and vulnerable. (Incidentally, she’ll be bringing “Restless Creature” to Boston March 28 and 29.)

Speaking with the New York Times about how she selected the choreographers, she said, “I was completely intrigued by how different from myself they were … I wanted to feel what they felt, in my body.”

Some of those transmogrifications are more natural than others. “Waltz Epoca,” with Joshua Beamish, makes the most of Whelan’s precision and angularity. “Ego Et Tu,” with Alejandro Cerrudo, was the audience favorite for its breathtaking, perfectly executed lifts that seemed to defy both gravity and the time-space continuum, but dancing alongside the Spanish-born Hubbard Street choreographer, Whelan’s classical training and enviable erectness seemed a gulf.

Alejandro Cerrudo and Wendy Whelan in "Restless Creature." (Christopher Duggan/Jacob's Pillow)

Alejandro Cerrudo and Wendy Whelan in “Restless Creature.” (Christopher Duggan/Jacob’s Pillow)

I almost wish I hadn’t read that article before the performance, because for me, it cast Whelan’s difference from the choreographers almost as a failing rather than a foundational tension from which to create beautiful work. After the physically imposing Kyle Abraham burst onstage in “The Serpent and The Smoke,” whipping his arms wildly like a vertical whirling dervish, Whelan’s litheness and incomparable control seemed to render her smaller than her accomplishment.

But these differences, and Whelan’s grace and gameness and physical mastery, especially at a stage in her career when most ballerinas recede, also make the performance what it is.

The final duet, with Brian Brooks, an up-and-coming choreographer originally from Hingham, illustrates Whelan’s faith in her collaborators.

Titled “First Fall,” the work reads like a prolonged contact-improv session, with endless lifts and supports, and then, a series of what are essentially trust falls: Whelan gracefully positioning herself before Brooks, then swiftly falling, face up, straight as a (very elegant) board, onto his waiting back. Prone, he catches her each time on his back, then sinks carefully to the ground, absorbing her fall, her weight.

And isn’t that at least one model of dance? The choreographer finding ever new ways to position the dancers, lift them, cushion their falls; the dancers needing to interpret, to trust, to adapt.

“Restless Creature” will embark on a nine-city tour next March, with stops in Princeton, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Boston, New York, Louisville, Chapel Hill and London.

Kris Wilton is an arts writer and editor whose writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, Photo District News, Art New England, Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Village Voice, among other publications.

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