MAN'S WORK At Jacob's Pillow, a varied and distinguished parade of male dancers (here, Joshua
Beamish) told their stories — and that of dance history — in From the Horse's Mouth.
A lot has changed for American men dancers since Jacob's Pillow founder Ted Shawn felt he had to replace the sissified image of the ballet danseur with brawny "tillers of the fields." As a special 80th anniversary event at Jacob's Pillow last weekend, director Ella Baff invited Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham to stage an all-male iteration of their dance collage From the Horse's Mouth, which has featured more than 1000 dancers since its premiere in 1998. Each performer sits in a folding chair and shares an autobiographical 90-second anecdote. As he is speaking, three other dancers follow written instructions they've plucked randomly from a box. The microphone is passed from hand to hand as the performers cycle through. Every once in a while the lights dim and a procession of dancers cross the stage along a diagonal lane, each performing a phrase in his distinctive style. This simple structure makes space for a kaleidoscope of reminiscence.
At the Pillow, the parade couldn't have been much more varied or distinguished. Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, sitting magisterially before breathtaking clips of his younger self twisting through Balanchine's Agon, remembered that when he was hired at the New York City Ballet he insisted that the press office not announce "Negro Breaks Barrier." John Heginbotham recalled an au naturel Mark Morris performance outdoors during Hurricane Irene. Bruno Argenta saw José Greco in a movie and left the cows of his Swiss village for flamenco in Madrid. Steven Melendez's ticket out of a homeless shelter was appearing as Little Mouse #2 in the Nutcracker. Arthur Aviles, in a red dress, and Emanuel Abruzzo, who danced with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, in pointe shoes, showed gender-bending élan that would have given Shawn nightmares. And if there was any doubt that Shawn's Men Dancers could dance, Gus Solomons Jr. insisted that when he learned Shawn's 1935 Kinetic Molpai — film of the original cast flashing on the wall behind him — in 1962, it was the most demanding thing he had ever done, and it taught him, and his modern dance colleagues, about teamwork.
In Horse's Mouth it's always hard to break away from the center-stage stories to pay attention to the dance cresting along the narrative's edges, but what I caught was compelling: somersaults and lyricism, hip-hop moves and ad hoc duets. Even the dancers' storytelling postures conveyed reams of information. Some leaned back in recall, others leaned forward confidentially.
Jack Ferver tells a story of a very different type in Two Alike, which had its local premiere at the ICA under the auspices of Summer Stages Dance. A collaboration with sculptor Marc Swanson (known for stark sculptures that combine shed antlers with glitter), Two Alike is autobiography made under duress, where fear disfigures the performer's body like a knife gouging the bark of a tree.
We meet Ferver lying on his side with his legs twined together, his arm moving like a stalled minute hand. With his dark brows over googly eyes, Ferver bears a passing resemblance to the actor Elijah Wood, and his dappled overall shorts give him the look of a rambunctious kid.