U.S. Debut of Carte Blanche at Jacob’s Pillow: Frosty Moves from Norway
Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Ella Baff is a dance-world star-maker. Each year she travels the globe, reaching out to artists unknown in the United States, extending invitations for them to perform at Jacob’s Pillow. Each spring, in the Festival calendar, she presents the results of her search to her audience, extending an invitation for them to see something new. These two constituencies figuratively join hands at the Pillow, and Baff earns her audience’s trust every season by introducing them to stellar dance troupes, such as Norway’s Carte Blanche, which makes its U.S. debut this week through Sunday, July 3, in a spectacular program of two transfixing works by choreographer Sharon Eyal of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company.
The evening opens with Killer Pig, set on the company’s six women, who first appear clustered in a cool cone of light on an otherwise dark stage. The dancers look powdered into a glowing whiteness, uniformly white hair pulled back from their taut faces. They wear odd, softly shimmering white costumes with v-neck, sportsbra tops and loose, high-cut bottoms open in the front like a bikini to reveal the dancers’ six-pack abs, as well as similarly well defined calves and thighs.
Those muscles come into play in a work that demands strength, speed, precision, and extreme flexibility, as these otherworldly amazons rhythmically, rapidly snap in and out of moves, performing standing splits, low-down lunges, fast shimmies and hip thrusts, moving in rapid-fire tip-toe steps throughout most of the piece. The driving beat of the electronic score drives the choppy movement, and the lack of narrative allows the audience to concentrate on the disjointed, transfixing choreography. Formidable presences, the dancers project a frosty demeanor, in part due to their mechanized motion, but also because their faces remain blank— but not in that neutral dancer way; they present an aggressive, superior attitude in their audience-directed stares.
The second piece, Love, draws from a similar movement vocabulary and staccato style; indeed, a sequence by Jennifer Dubreuil Houthemann involving standing splits on both legs, followed by a standing backbend, all held for just an instant, seemed to come straight from Killer Pig. But this piece, which also includes the troupe’s six men, has a bit more warmth, if only because the stagefloor is lit red, the dancers’ black costumes reveal a hint of lace at the hem of their black short-shorts, and there is more personal interaction among the dancers, whose faces are held in a somewhat softer, though still fixed, blank expression. The movement is not all disjointed abstraction – in a striking section striking, one after the other the dancers adopt a fist-pumping, hip-swiveling rock & roll-ish phrase until they’re all doing it in unison, like rabid fans at concert when the band plays its chart-topping anthem. Yet still, this gesture that signifies joy in the real world is intentionally robbed of its emotion in Love by its lock-step execution.
Both pieces share a sense that even as the dancers spin off from the group and perform different movement sequences—solo, in pairs, in trios, or in varying subsets—they are all part of one organism or perpetual motion machine, linked by the pounding beat and destined to regroup in unison or in counterpoint. But the mood of Love shifts at the end toward humanity and individuality; the men leave the stage and the women perform solos that highlight signature sequences they have danced throughout the piece but that may have been lost in the crowd. There’s a sweetness in the way each finishes her solo and all turn slowly to watch the next one take her place in the spotlight.
Amidst the nonstop, layered swirl of movement, Eyal creates distinct brilliant moments: the surprisingly touching end to Love, set to the haunting tune From a Shell by Lisa Germano, seemingly set on endless repeat; the calm in the fury, as when the women of Killer Pig break out of their fast-paced rhythm to stride toward the audience in smooth, ultraslow unison; uncomfortable sequences, as when a dancer plants herself at the edge of the stage and ferociously, mechanistically swivels her shoulders and hips in opposite directions for just the right amount of time too long, or when a dancer bounces into a split and continues to bounce there, her torso rotating from side to side.
Eyal’s sharp, demanding choreography pushes the dancers of Carte Blanche to the limit, and without exception they demonstrat the prowess and mettle to meet the challenge. In Carte Blanche Baff has once again fixed us up with something bold, new, and exotic. The audience’s enthusiastic response ensures it won’t be a one-night stand.
Carte Blanche at Jacob’s Pillow
In the Ted Shawn Theatre
Wednesday, June 29 - Sunday, July 3