BECKET — In the big family that is the dance world, ballet dancers can trace their sweat lines all the way back to the 16th century. Though the modern dance branch is younger by far, its lineage is distinguished, much of it descended from the American modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis and their famous Denishawn school.
As with many families, dance has its share of schisms; the separation of Shawn and St. Denis, however, was fruitful. Shawn set out on his famous solo mission to educate the public about the male dancer. The testosterone-spiked choreography he created for the group he led — the Men Dancers, who often performed bare-chested — was his counter-argument to the notion that dancing was largely a feminine pursuit. This week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, festival founder Shawn’s priceless legacy gets a gleeful celebration in “The Men Dancers: From the Horse’s Mouth.”
Created by Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham, this program is the latest incarnation of their “From the Horse’s Mouth” series, in which some dancers deliver brief anecdotes while in the background other dancers noodle about, sometimes sketching patterns, sometimes erupting into a boisterous phrase.
Wonderful bits of archival footage and still photographs of male stars are projected upstage. More party than performance, this version boasts a rotating cast of 25 male dancers that includes legends — notably Lar Lubovich, Arthur Mitchell, Gus Solomons Jr., Robert Swinston, and Chet Walker — alongside whippersnappers such as Trent Kowalik, the 17-year-old Tony Award winner for “Billy Elliott: The Musical.” There are hoofers and hip-hoppers as well as those trained in ballet, jazz, modern dance, flamenco, and classical Indian dance.
Dancers are taught from an early age to “speak” with their bodies, but here oral stories take precedence, usually drawing more attention than whatever dancing is going on. One at a time, the dancers sit in a chair downstage and chat; the result is part talk therapy, part shop talk. Many of the anecdotes are quite funny. Mitchell, cofounder of Dance Theatre of Harlem, talked about his debut as a young dancer with the New York City Ballet: When it was time to put his costume on, he found, to his horror, that it didn’t fit. He ran to tell the bad news to George Balanchine, who said, calmly, “My dear, you’ve got them on backwards.”
Threads of inspiration and aspiration are woven into the mini-narratives. Most dancers are brought up with an appreciation of that precious lineage, and the great effort it takes to earn a toehold in the field. Swinston ruminated both on his early fortune — as a young student, he earned a coveted scholarship to the Pillow’s summer school — and his later success as a dancer with, and assistant to, Merce Cunningham.
Mitchell said that “Papa,” as Shawn was known to his students, would be proud of all of these men who have certainly benefited from the work of the original Men Dancers. Surely their success is what Shawn hoped for; what he couldn’t have known is that his efforts on behalf of male dancing would go so far: These days, men can dance wearing their male chromosomes on their sleeves, or, if they like, they can dance in skirts. The important thing is, they dance.