BECKET — Depending on its trajectory, a thread can bind or it can unravel. In his assemblages of disparate objects and his elaborately constructed robes, the late artist-cum-schizophrenic Arthur Bispo do Rosário lived within those extremes: He was a weaver of materials while his mind often spooled away from reality.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the Brazilian company Mimulus celebrates the curious life and work of Bispo do Rosário in “Por Um Fio” (“By a Thread”). An hour-plus-long dance, it is itself a tapestry that vividly renders a line between ease and struggle, sanity and the loss thereof. Choreographed by artistic director Jomar Mesquita and the company’s dancers, it has a movement vocabulary heavily inflected with the playfully sexy push and pull of social dances such as samba and tango. The physical and emotional weightiness of contemporary dance takes us out of the realm of exhibition and into the world of dance theater.
The score — a medley spicy with dancehall beats and spiky with husky, lived-in voices — is subtly freighted by a constant droning, both ominous and sad. Baby Mesquita’s patched and layered costumes and scenic designer Ed Andrade’s hanging panels are the piece’s most direct references to Bispo do Rosário’s creations. Tumbleweeds of tangled wire hang from above, while Rodrigo Marçal’s lighting design creates shadows and corners that make the stage feel at times like a dark alleyway, momentarily turning the panels into pitiless walls. Wonderfully, different lengths of thread are pulled from the panels, then snaked, now into the eyelets of a woman’s blouse, now around a neck. A dancer is laced up to the panels, like a fly caught in a spiderweb.
Indeed, in the series of duets that make up much of “Por Um Fio,” intertwining and entrapment are twin physical metaphors. The women in particular — less embraced than manipulated — are often indifferently tossed and turned about, their male partners pushing them into an extravagant arch by the palm of his hand against her forehead, or propelling them into a turn by his hand on her neck.
Occasionally, however, the women flick their legs up sharply between the men’s legs, missing a crucial mark by just enough to serve notice.
There is great drama in the choreography, but the tone of the dance never dips into melodrama. The solid men crouch into delicious grand pliés with women cocooned in their laps, or suddenly pitch a woman above, so that she hovers over him, her body tucked up and fetus-curved. Though the group sections are often the same duet mirrored by two or more couples, each duo is wrapped in tense intimacy; the atmosphere ranges from a steamy, smoky dance club to a wild Walpurgis Night.
Throughout the dance, lone figures move surreptitiously on the edges or in shadowy recesses, while the other dancers whirl and toss, thrust and lunge; these background creatures work like the darker corners of memory, shrouded until we can no longer avoid turning our gaze to them.
The heart of “Por Um Fio” beats most palpably in the central figure performed by company veteran Juliana Macedo, who moves her strong, long limbs with a generous looseness. The beautiful duet she dances with Mesquita is cloaked with an aura of fatefulness, and manages to be both poetic and show-stopping, limning a tightrope walk between control and abandon.