Variations on the theme of movement

The opening gala last Sunday at Jacob's Pillow seemed more like a well-heeled picnic than the 53rd opening of a summer dance season. But, though the mood was fun, it was far from frivolous, what with the talents of Merrill Ashley and Marge Champion on stage. The $75-a-seat tickets (a gala is, after all, a fund-raiser) bought a lunch alfresco, with a performing juggler, roaming dancers, Japanese drummers, championship rope-jumpers, and scores of helium-filled balloons. Everything was a variation on the theme of movement, dance in its largest sense. And all this before the actual show began.

The Main Event, as it was called, consisted of three separate performances: one by members of the New York City Ballet, one by the Pilobolus Dance Theatre, and a tribute in dance and on film to the late Gower Champion, on whose birthday the gala fell.

The first piece, ``Come Rain, Come Shine,'' was danced by the electrifying Merrill Ashley, along with the equally vibrant John Meehan, Judith Fugate, and Mehdi Bahiri. Ms. Ashley is the kind of dancer who evokes an ovation with a simple turn of her head or kick of her long legs. Her gift is that perfect blend of original style and technique that equals stardom. Francis Patrelle's choreography, set to songs sung by Judy Garland, was a poignant, stylish, emotional exploration of modern romance. And, yes, it had a happy ending!

``Day Two'' by the Pilobolus Dance Theatre was a kinetic, frenetic, energetic, acrobatic exhibition of the sort of tribal modernism that is all the company's own. As with ``Come Rain, Come Shine,'' the theme was relationships. But where the New York City Ballet's language is sophistication, Pilobolus speaks in primitive tones -- seeking to define, rather than untangle, relationships. The dancers move as units, interlocking their bodies to create new forms, such as a human wheel in which two dancers flip over one another in languid slow-motion. For their curtain call, the group's six members slid across the stage on a wet plastic surface.

The tribute to director-choreographer and multi-Tony-Award-winner Gower Champion was, in the best sense, a family affair. Those on hand included Mr. Champion's former dance partner and wife, Marge; son Blake, an actor and dancer; and son Gregg, a producer and director. The most moving part of the tribute was when Marge and Blake danced together to ``When You're Dancing,'' a song from ``Hello, Dolly!'' Film clips of Marge and Gower performing together and of Gower dancing alone reaffirmed his contribution to modern dance, especially on Broadway, but felt in all areas of choreography. His movements of 30 years ago are as fresh now as they were then -- in other words, timeless.

A young dancer who will be spending the summer at Jacob's Pillow described the 53-year-old school and performance center as an ``artistic summer camp without the counselors.'' A quotation from Champion sums up the theme of this year's gala as well as Jacob's Pillow's reason for being: ``If you can do it with your eyes, don't move your head. If you can do it with your head, don't move your body. If you can do it with your body then -- dance.''

And at Jacob's Pillow they can, they do, and they did.

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