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Mimulus and Circa Open Jacob’s Pillow:  Give ‘em Enough Rope

The Jacob’s Pillow 80th anniversary dance festival opened with two spectacular performances by Mimulus Dance Company, from Brazil in the Ted Shawn Theatre, and Circa, from Australia, in the Doris Duke Theatre. The two troupes share more than just their home in earth’s southern hemisphere. Both companies also toe the line of the definition of concert dance, typifying Pillow director Ella Baff’s wide embrace of dance genres. 

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Por Um Fio (By a Thread), the hour-long piece by Mimulus, begins ominously, with a steady low drone and a dark stage, a single lightbulb suspended from above. Dancers emerge, one by one, from behind two scrims embellished with scrawlings and ribbons and set at an angle. A female dancer stands impassively under the light bulb while a man sews a cord through her shirt, as other couples emerge, partnering and gliding across the confined space on the stage delineated by the scrims and a square of light. The couples inventively and incessantly entwine themselves, the women’s legs coiling around their male partners, the men winding and twirling the women, sometimes leading them by the head, and even more alarmingly by the neck, in loose strangleholds.

Thread, rope, and ribbons crop up throughout the hourlong piece, which was inspired by the Brazilian outsider artist Arthur Bispo Do Rosário, who produced his work over a 50-year period of confinement in a psychiatric institution in Rio De Janeiro, using bedsheets, clothing, and other found materials to create elaborate embroideries and writings. A couple plays cat’s cradle and another uses a rope as an extension of their hands the while smoothly swirling together in steps reminiscent of samba, tango, and other Latin social dances. In the background a woman remains rooted to the floor, swirling her head as a red thread wraps around her neck, suggesting strangulation or suicide.

There are moments of levity – the inclusion of a Brazilian version of the Talking Heads song Pyscho Killer; a segment in which three men compete against each other to show who who can carry the most partners – and there are segments of heightened tension, as when nearly a dozen of those bare lightbulbs, now hovering just a foot or two above the floor, begin to swing, and several couples dance fast and furiously around them, avoiding the delicate pendulums with split-second precision.

The choreography is brilliant, inventive and engaging throughout, and the dancing is virtuosic; even those who are not fans of Latin ballroom dance can’t help but be riveted by the precision, grace, and skill onstage. Regardless of the mood of individual segments, the ominous tone persists throughout the piece, as the tonal drone underlays all the many songs that comprise the score, becoming more prominent as the dance reaches the end of its rope, so to speak, with a man spinning a woman round and round, as a rope wraps around her torso, binding the arm that her partner is not spinning her by to her side – an image that reads a lot like a straight jacket. 

Rural Intelligence ArtsJust as riveting, if a bit lighter in tone, is the Pillow debut of Circa. Baff gave her introduction with a caveat to her catch phrase, concluding, “Let’s dance – sort of,” but even those skeptical that a circus arts troupe deserves to perform on the stage of one of the world’s most esteemed dance festivals may come away thinking that this inclusion is entirely appropriate.

Circa’s performers are individuals in size and demeanor; each one’s personality shines through as they flip, split, bend, balance, and fly. They may seem to defy the principles of biomechanics with both fast-paced and slowed-down feats of flexibility and derring do, but not the laws of physics. Gravity is always a factor, as the performers intentionally splat themselves on the (albeit well padded) stage, or let you see the efforts behind their routines, as when lithe, limber, and strong Lewis West climbs his way up the body of Freyja Edney, who shares those same attributes (as do all the members of Circa). By the end of his ascent West is standing on Edney’s head, and then on one of her outstretched arms, before she contorts her way to the ground with West surfing her body until she’s flat on the floor.

Circa holds the audience spellbound, in sequences that range from pyrotechnic tumbling routines, with performers flying out from the wings and across the stage, tossing and catching each other in endlessly inventive ways, to freak-show moments, as when Scott Grove, a rare specimen of strength and grace, flexes, manipulates, and articulates his impressive musculature to seem as if he is telescoping his neck or blowing himself up like a balloon. Each of the seven performers has a solo to show off his or her individual skills; Emma McGovern’s aerial dance even echoes the Mimulus work, Por Um Fio, as she ends up at one point suspended above the stage by only the rope around her neck.

The audience’s engagement is palpable, and audible, too, as they gasp with every spectacular feat. We cringe as McGovern does her own bit of body surfing on West, walking all over him in glittering red stiletto heels. We collectively hold our breath as Casey Douglas holds the length of his body suspended perpendicular to the floor on an ever-growing, precariously balanced stack of blocks. Glance at your row-mates as Edney executes her multiple hula hooping routine; they’re all wiggling in their seats, unconsciously trying to keep those hoops spinning along with the sprite-like performer onstage.

As with Mimulus, there’s an emotional current that runs through the evening’s choreography, propelled in part by the evocative score, which ranges from Leonard Cohen to Jacques Brel to Sigur Ros to Gavin Bryars. It ends in warmth and satisfaction as these charismatic performers line up at the front of the stage, and this time defy expectations by not executing one last bout of pyrotechnic tumbling, but by simply standing, smiling, and exposing themselves as not superheroes, but humans who have trained long and hard, like dancers, to do amazing things.
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Mimulus and Circa at Jacob’s Pillow
Through Sunday, June 24

Photos: Top, Taylor Crichton; middle, Justin Nicholas; bottom, Karli Cadel.

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