BECKET — As it happens, the Mark Morris Dance Group isn’t performing at Jacob’s Pillow this year, but Dance Heginbotham, a Morris offspring, is. John Heginbotham, who danced for Morris for many years, has heard his own call to choreograph: His infant company, born in 2011, returns to the Pillow this week with a program of two works that indicate its heritage, though the child’s own unique characteristics are visible under the bonnet as well.
Given Heginbotham’s performance qualities — as a dancer he is warm, sometimes goofy, and always honest — it’s not surprising that a line of quirky humor informs both “Twin” (2012) and “Closing Bell,” which premiered at the Pillow last summer.
In “Twin,” the oddity is oblique rather than overtly farcical; for a good portion of the piece, five deadpan-faced dancers both listlessly and hypnotically run through purposely dull routines of chassés and step-ball-changes or prance around the perimeter of the stage in a pack. At times they look glibly competitive, or subtly wary. They jog about and bounce in parallel so often that one fears for the state of their calves.
Though “Twin” is abstract, there are references to the title: in Maile Okamura’s attractive, geometric costumes, in aspects of Nicole Pearce’s lighting design, and in the way the lithe and long-limbed Kristen Foote and Lindsey Jones mirror each other, sweeping across the stage like twitchy gymnasts. As the dance progresses, the shadowy presence of a sixth dancer, Michael J. Clark, adds a hint of drama — and a welcome dose of depth — to “Twin,” which otherwise meanders on the surface for too long.
Though they don’t physically interact with one another, an invisible, perhaps otherworldly, connection seems to exist between Clark and BJ Randolph, who is costumed all in white with a long, sheer skirt and short-sleeved top, in contrast to Clark’s formal, dark suit. “Twin” ends with Randolph rolling on the diagonal, downstage right to upstage left, where he ends right in front of Clark, who remains passive. Do these two represent Life and Death? Good and Evil? Randolph stands, rises on demi-pointe, and exits into the light streaming from the wing, leaving us to decide whether he has disappeared into paradise or purgatory.
The mood is entirely different in the lively, madcap “Closing Bell”: Clark, Randolph, Allysen Hooks, and Evan Teitelbaum might be characters escaped from the Tim Burton School of Ballet. Flexed-footed, thuddingly landed assemblés are among the coy sight gags full of deliberate missteps and badly timed entrances. The cast’s timing is impeccable, and their commitment strong: These zombie-geeks are endearing. Though Heginbotham delights in mining the “ballet as neurotic comic relief” vein, he also uses ballet seriously, as part of a vocabulary that borrows from many genres. It’s not unexpected — nor a bad thing — to see traces of Morris here and there, say, in those swooping groups of jogging dancers from “Twin,” or in the easygoing airiness of the grand jetés and tour de basques of “Closing Bell.” And surely it is a fine thing if Heginbotham’s use of music — particularly in “Closing Bell,” in which the choreography deliciously captures every nuance and accent of Tyondai Braxton’s composition — seems both a legacy of, and homage to, Morris’s trademark musicality.
It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child; Morris and the Pillow are part of Dance Heginbotham’s first steps. Heginbotham’s young dancers, too, are cutting their performance teeth while Heginbotham cuts his director’s teeth. It’s the circle of life, dance-wise, and none of them will ever forget these first chances; it could be that those of us at these early performances will never forget that we saw Dance Heginbotham back when. And the beat goes on.