"July," a stirring dance duet whose refined physical beauty gives form to its tender, vulnerable emotions, had its premiere Wednesday night before the great open backstage door of Jacob Pillow Dance Festival's Doris Duke Theater.
Two gifted choreographers, Jodi Melnick, a former Twyla Tharp dancer, and David Neumann, a dance-theater-comedy specialist, created the absorbing work on a commission from the Pillow, and it caps a shared evening of their individual works.
The performance takes place literally down wind from the Pillow's Ted Shawn Theater where Trisha Brown, the high priestess of post-modern dance, is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of her company. One cannot but note an implicit passing of the baton, a generational shift all the more meaningful for taking place at Ted Shawn's former Berkshires farm, where so much American modern dance history has transpired.
Melnick has worked as an assistant director to Trisha Brown, creating and restaging two operas, Schubert's 'Winterreise', and Scrainno's 'De Gelo a Gelo'. And Brown's husband, the video artist, Burt Barr, contributes the luminous set design of Melnick's marvelous "Fanfare," which opens the program.
"July" begs a description of its players; it's a rare and triumphant juxtaposition of two very different dancers. Melnick's performance persona vacillates as subtly as light moving through a prism; in one moment, the slender redhead projects a tough, flinty, hard edge. Then, womanly heat arises from her long twisting torso. On third glance, she's gone -- a ghostly, fragmented figure moves instead. It's just fascinating watching this dancer, and during my third viewing of "Fanfare"'s slow unwinding in the shadows of Barr's video'ed electric fan projections, I found myself wishing it would go on all night.
Melnick shares the evening with her former SUNY Purchase classmate and longtime platonic pal, the classically good-looking Neumann. In his first outing, "Tough the Tough," Neumann is all form, edge, and boyish clowning. Trundling around the stage loaded down with folding chairs, he takes a great pratfall, absurd and laugh-out-loud funny, mostly because it's so predictable.
In "July," he's putty in Melnick's hands; mostly, he melds with her idiosyncratic way of moving that has no discernible start or ending point. She cleaves to him, he molds around her, seeing her, caressing her, often without touching her, merely by his presence.
In an extraordinary sequence, shown in the photo on the left, Neumann, on his back, offers Melnick the flat of his flexed foot. She accepts this invitation, and balances on a perch that in the real world would be not too stable, but when the muscular Neumann is behind it, she's secure. Balancing there, she crawls down his leg using her arms; he supports her, and the two rock gently, as over a wide gaping crevasse. He's her foundation, she cradles in the shell of his receptive body. The simplicity, the originality, the giving of physical form to something as ephemeral as trust between a couple -- it's what dance does best.
Whether by intention or accident, "July" augurs a return to, or perhaps a renewed version, of chivalry and respect between a man and a woman in the art form. For dance, reflecting changes in society, has journeyed far, too far for my taste, toward a flattening of gender differences. (To be fair, this prevails more in the contemporary ballet world, in which we often see crude interactions that border on the physical abuse of women.)
In "July"'s exploration of a couple that appears to be in trouble, these two handsome creatures -- she with flaming red hair, he with hair coal black -- project masculine strength coexisting with feminine mystery. Kudos to Jacob's Pillow Artistic Director Ella Baff for her vision in pairing the two downtown dance makers, thus enabling "July" to come to pass in the Duke's beautiful natural setting. I suspect that after seeing "July," couples of any sexuality will go home and be nice to each other.
Los Angeles-based arts journalist Debra Levine blogs about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.
Photo credit: Cherylynn Tsushima for Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
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