Pigeons perform, but don't take a bow, at Jacob's Pillow
Lee, Mass. — Wendy Perron and Yoshiko Chuma represent contrasting forces in that large, loose confederacy of nontraditional dancers known as postmodernism. After sure-fire opening bills featuring Pilobolus and Mark Morris, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival ventured to commission works from these two choreographers as the third program of its eight-week summer run in the Berkshires. The risk wasn't as dramatic as it might seem. Perron and Chuma, like everyone else these days, are bent on entertaining the audience; the framing of more sober or rebellious messages holds a lower priority. If they are any more far out than, say, Morris, it's because they're not as predictable. They're not into big touring in big theaters, and they don't keep a ready repertory of safe works to perform, although Perron's funny duet with David Van Tieghem, ``Divertissement,'' with dialogue taken verbatim from domestic squabbles seeping through the floorboards in a New York apartment, has served for a year or so.
Both Perron and Chuma did what might be called production numbers - in postmodern fashion, of course. They weren't exactly ``A Chorus Line,'' but they did involve long lists of collaborators in each case. Perron's ``Arena'' featured circusy costumes in Weimar cabaret style (designed by Eduard Erlikh), and a d'ecor (credited to Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid) that consisted principally of a white trapeze and two dozen fantail pigeons. Chuma's ``The Man Who Never Wasn't'' featured the Lenny Pickett Orchestra in an original score by Pickett, and took place against the bare barn doors that form the back wall of the Pillow theater, augmented by black and white wing pieces painted to look like bare wood (by Thomas Burckhardt). I found the antics of Wendy Perron's avian performers more interesting than those of the dancers in ``Arena.''
Perron is a tall, beautiful woman who minimizes her fine technical training with a bland expression and a virtuosic ungainliness. She corkscrews and angles her body, scuffs her feet, flaps her hands or wraps them around herself, and avoids anything that might look like formal choreographic patterning. She and her dancers, Lisa Bush, Kumiko Kimoto, and Michael O'Rourke, do a series of turns that might have been modeled on examplary circus acts and then eroded by many rainstorms and pigeon droppings: a duet where the partners twist around each other at arms's length; a laborious set of acrobatic stunts that have no climaxes.
Meanwhile, white doves, then black ones, are released from the wings and fly around the stage at will. A net curtain keeps them from descending on the audience. They cluster on the floor, sometimes watching the dancers noncommittally, sometimes scurrying after each other in courtship circles. They fly up above the stage and perch where only their tails are visible, or sit decoratively on the trapeze. At the end, when the dancers came forward for their bow, all the pigeons rushed upstage in counterpoint.
Yoshiko Chuma and the School of Hard Knocks dedicated their piece, a celebration of life, to performance artist Charles Ludlam, who died recently. Where Perron makes awkward movement to play down the beguiling effects of conventional dancing skills, Chuma's eight performers are either trained or not trained in dance and move in a variety of sometimes awkward ways, but look beguiling anyway. I think one reason is that they throw themselves fully into what they're doing, while Perron's style is to hold back and never go the limit.
While saxophonist Pickett and the band play an eclectic score that jumps around in weird fusions - Dixie/rock, atonal/gospel - the dancers splay energetically around the space. Singer Gayle Tufts supplies torchy accompaniments and wisecracking repartee. Chuma, in a black satin outfit that looks like a tutu crossed with a cocktail dress, dances a snappy solo that I think ends with her conducting the band in several grandoise cadences. Donald Fleming does a series of stretchy gestures in place while Jimmy Justice sings some words that are so drawn out you hardly remember what each one started out to be by the time it ends. Fleming times his movement patiently to coincide with it.
The piece ends with an exuberant singing-dancing chorus led by Harry Whittaker Sheppard, in which we're advised to ``Go where you want to go, do what you want to do.'' The back doors slowly slide open to reveal floodlit Berkshire woods outside, and Sheppard remains, gesturing, dancing, after everyone else has gone.