Magic and whimsy at Jacob’s Pillow: ‘Chalk and Soot’

08.18.14
Brooklyn Rider
The Berkshire Eagle

By Eli Newberger

Take the allusive poetry of painter Wassily Kandinsky (who knew?), the emotion-charged contemporary music of Colin Jacobsen, the burbling plasticity of his string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the deadpan faces of vocal virtuosos Shara Worden (soprano) and Gabriel Kahane (baritone, doubling on harmonium), and give choreographer John Heginbotham both a Jacob’s Pillow Creative Development Residency and the 2014 Dance Award.

Put them together and what do you get? A kaleidoscopic, gripping, immensely pleasurable multisensory experience that grabs and holds your attention while challenging everything you thought you knew about the big and little beings around you, intimate relationships, and the traditions of masque, music, and dance:

Word frames of uncertainty and tension, as in Kandinsky’s poem, “Sounds":

“A woman, who is thin and not young, who has a cloth on her head, which is like a shield over her face and leaves her face in shadows. With a rope the woman leads the calf, which is still small and unsteady of its crooked legs. And sometimes it doesn’t. Then the woman pulls the calf by the rope. It lowers its head and shakes it and braces its legs. But its legs are weak the rope doesn’t break.

“Eyes look out from afar. The cloud rises. The face. Afar. The cloud. The sword. The rope.”

A company of six dancers with striking, geometric, and androgynous bodies, whimsical expressions, long limbs, one uncannily resembling an adolescent.

A show so rich in gesture, intense paired and group interactions, dramatic leaps, crawls, carries and tumbles, and music so exciting and rhythmic that you cannot resist your jaw dropping or feet tapping; poetic verses so allusive and provocative that inferences flow like wine; and complexities of story and swirls of emotion that sweep you from your chair to a meta-level of delicious observation, listening, and identification.

At the outset, the string quartet (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins, Nichoas Cords, viola, Eric Jacobsen, cello), performed in a wide semicircle, their backs to the audience. A brilliant harmonium player and vocalist, Gabriel Kahane, played toward the right, facing in and sustaining the emotions of the dance with apposite gestures and facial expressions.

Colin Jacobsen’s original music was colorful, accessible, and delightfully salted with auditory puns, from the arching bassoon solo that begins “Rite of Spring” played on bowed violin, to the sung and bowed major 7ths that introduce the wild sacrificial scene during Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” and the jumping rhythms of his “Petrushka.”

Each of the players gave committed, textured performances, attending sensitively to the dancers in front of them, and during Act II, around them. They gave new meaning to the ancient integration of music and dance, pioneered in modern times by Sergey Diaghilev and his colleagues in the Ballets Russes, and in the present day by Mark Morris, with whom John Heginbotham collaborated before forming his own company, and, importantly, by The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Act I began with an off-stage violin playing eerie, high harmonics. Electronically generated percussion sounds intruded overhead. A wisp of cello wafted above the silence, and then, after a pause, a tall woman wearing a below-the-waist shift emerged. Formally, she held her arms outward, crossed them, and made unrecognizable hand signs.

A man entered, seated himself at the keyboard, and stared vacantly ahead, in silence. A second dancer, childlike in stature, joined the first. They moved toward the stationary man and beckoned toward his keyboard.

Suddenly, the silence was broken by the sounds of slurpy kissing and electronic “tuh” sounds, of the kind a seven month old infant might make. A female, electronically distorted voice talked overhead. The childlike dancer made a cutting motion across her wrists, covered her eyes, and fell to the floor, lying on her side, totally still. Another dancer entered, hands covering her eyes to the high electronic sounds of a woman keening “Oooooh, Ooooh” and then, “Ma, ma, me, me, me, me, me, me.”

The spare instrumental background and economy of movement gave extra power to this desperate seeking of love and connection. As well, the dancers’ loose black tops adorned with simple white stripes – chalk over soot – appeared devoid both of gender identification and color. What was going on? Your reviewer wondered if this weren’t a tableau that packed in a teenager’s confusion about sexuality, her contemplation of suicide, and her fantasy about her mother’s reactions were she to carry it through.

Please turn to Wassily Kandinsky’s woodcut, “Chalk and Soot,”  and note the mask-like image that projects an existential sadness. Although the title of the work refers specifically to an actor’s makeup – in tradition composed of inexpensive raw materials – the facial painting appears only partly to protect the person from the unbearable emotions that lurk deep beneath the chalk and soot.

Then, as the lights dimmed and a haze of fog arose, a violinist entered alone, plucking a soft pizzicato rhythm. The cellist followed, with an echoed pizzicato that rose to repeated notes, an ostinato that accelerated higher and higher as an amplified, invisible female voice keened again. After a scampering passage in the violins, performed with impressive virtuosity, she sang astounding, high, perfect major 9th intervals. The musical mood was of tense expectation and worry, and even as the onstage musicians were themselves integrated into the choreography, it was the invisible singer who proclaimed Stravinsky’s motif for impending tragedy.

After a series of pairings in which the dancers each cupped a hand behind them and followers dipped their heads into the cups and shuffled ahead, suggesting multiple images Kandinsky’s calf being led, several dancers stood still at the margin of stage left, with their hands to the floor, shifting forward so only their extended legs and lower backs were visible to the audience. The strong metaphor of condemned beasts in stalls was strengthened by intense swirls of musical lamentation. But at the same time, a leavening of whimsy attended the herding abstractions and the bottoms-up postures of the beasts. They reminded one of the Saturday morning cartoons of one’s youth and the affectionate portrayals of animals in YouTube clips and Facebook posts.

“Exit,” – another strangely-moving Kandinsky poem – was danced to a text that read in part, “You clapped your hands. Don’t lean your head toward your joy. Never, never” The music featured a stomped riff (a repeated rhythmic pattern) in a bright major tonality. This shifted through changes of rhythms and syncopated hand-clapping to pizzicatos in the strings, then anxious tremolos beneath the words, “Again he sighed. He sighed.” This was quite an engaging mix of meanings and feelings.

After the intermission, Act II also began with darkness.

But the striking appearance of singer, Shara Worden, totally changed the mood, and, indeed, the visual center, from Act I. After the string quartet (now in a close formation, facing the audience) and the harmonium emerged into light, there she was, standing behind a wooden lectern hung with a black, velvet drapery resembling a formal gown.

Her scalp shaved an inch above her ears, her hair parted severely into a tight black bun, her shoulders exaggerated by a pole that extended beyond her elbows and a bright shirt that wrapped tightly around her waist, hiding her arms, Worden appeared to represent some species of puppet.

The dance proceeded with the viola expressing a stately theme to the text of Kandinsky’s poem, “Look:

Why are you watching me through the white curtain? I didn’t call after you, I didn’t ask you to look through the white curtain at me. Why does it hide your face from me? Why can’t I see your face behind the white curtain? Don’t watch me through the white curtain! I didn’t ask you. Through closed eyelids, I see how you watch me, when you watch through the white curtain. I’ll pull back the white curtain and see your face, and you won’t see mine. Why can’t I pull back the white curtain? Why does it hide your face from me?”

A warm, sweet, major tonality sounded in the strings. The dancers stood still, then moved forward in lunges to create a circle, accompanied by a pizzicato rhythm. A mysterious blue-gray vertical diamond appeared on the barn door at the rear of the stage.

Exactly what species of puppet Sharon Worden symbolized was disclosed in a moment of high drama before long. There was, surely, a specific significance to the recurring white curtain image in “Look.”

After dance metaphors of circus celebration, exhaustion, death and funerary ceremony, apposite to the poetic themes of personal display, voyeurism, powerlessness, loss of identity, and alienation, Worden emerged from behind the lectern wearing not a black skirt but harlequin pants, and toddled along in tiny steps. She was a puppet. No, not just any puppet, but Petrushka!

Take a look at the marvelous opening scene of this 1997 production of “Petrushka,” (choreography by Michael Fokine, costumes by Alexandre Benois) from the Bolshoi Ballet and note the puppeteer’s parting of the curtains to reveal his puppets at 7 minutes 15 seconds.

The central puppet’s costume certainly resembles Shara Worden’s. (Fair warning: It will be difficult to just take a look! This a beautifully danced and filmed performance, worth taking the time to appreciate.)

Note, too, the harlequin pants in a Benois design for Alexander Nijinsky as Petrushka, whom many believe danced his most memorable role in the work.

Your reviewer regrets that he could find only two brief movie segments of Nijinsky’s performance of Petrushka. Notwithstanding, they project lively and expressive images of the master’s facial expressions and movements.

Shara Worden, whose splendid voice and impressive range were matched with infallible intonation on the most vexatious chromatics, sang these allusive words to the poem, “Still,” Her finely-attuned articulation and sense of the meaning of the poetry gave urgency to the stunning, emotion-drenched, often acrobatic dancing around her.

“You, meditative swallow, you who don’t love me. Self-consuming silence of rumbling wheels that chase and shape the figures. You, thousands of stones that weren’t laid for me and sunk down with hammers. You hold my feet in a spell. You are small, hard and gray. Who gave you the power to show me the glittering gold? You, speaking gold. You wait for me. You invite me: you were built for me. You, soulful mortar. “

More delights and conflations of seriousness and whimsy followed, when suddenly, released from standing behind the lectern, Worden pulled her arms and elbows from the confines of her shirt, revealing her as a living, breathing human being, with genuine limbs.

But before long, a controlling puppeteer – in the form of Gabriel Kahane, the harmonium master and singer— grabbed Worden from behind and lifted her up. Worden instantly transformed from woman into a diagonal, rigid object before Kahane carried her off to stage right.

This was some shocking, unexpected, brutal ballet, choreographed for non-dancers. Totally contrary to the gracious lifts we so admire in classical choreography and the expressive male sensibilities of the Nijinsky legacy, it was, to say the least, confusing. What, indeed, was John Heginbotham asking us? Should women, or women playing puppets, ever be treated this way? Must we break all the rules of performance politesse? Talk about Mark Morris being the bad boy of dance! You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But when the rest of the crowd laughed, you joined in. And as with everything else that transpired in this evening of magic, you wondered about it afterward.