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BEST OF THE ARTS 2020

Six bright spots in dance this year

Though live performing is virtually at a standstill, dance hasn’t stopped moving in 2020.

Addie Tapp and Patrick Yocum in Jerome Robbins's "Glass Pieces."
Addie Tapp and Patrick Yocum in Jerome Robbins's "Glass Pieces."Liza Voll/Boston Ballet

As with all the arts, the dance world has been devastated by the pandemic. The art form is fueled by the kinetic energy of bodies in motion, an energy that soars over the footlights to engage an audience with an impact not just artistic, but visceral. The loss of that communal experience between performer and audience has been reverberating painfully for months, and has come with dire economic losses, closures, and cancellations.

Yet, still, there is dancing. From the beginning of the pandemic, dance companies, presenters, independent artists, and teachers pivoted with remarkable grace and speed to create new ways of experiencing dance. Here are some of the bright spots of 2020.

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Before the crash: a shining “Glass Pieces”

Jerome Robbins’s “Glass Pieces,” which Boston Ballet presented in February as part of its “rEVOLUTION” program, is a work that doesn’t just make you happy you’re watching dance, it makes you want to join in. Set to music by Philip Glass, it opens, against a gridlike backdrop, with dancers in rehearsal clothes hurrying past one another like Manhattan pedestrians; soon, though, walking turns into dancing. In the slow, soprano-sax-saturated pas de deux, the opening-night pairing of Addie Tapp and Patrick Yocum was superbly austere and inscrutable — yet it was hard to take your eyes off the shadowy backdrop of women shuffling across the stage in simple, enigmatic steps. The finale, to the pulsing funeral music from Glass’s opera “Akhnaten,” finds the men hunting in gangs, as if looking for women; then the women join them for a joyful, dizzying zigzag of a finale in which the universe seems to be dancing.

Boston Ballet enjoys a total command of Robbins’s idiom, and this was easily the best performance I saw on stage in the first two months of 2020, something to remember as we look forward to the time when dance can return to the theaters. — Jeffrey Gantz

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Jacob’s Pillow’s archived gems, and amplified Black Voices

On March 31, the internationally acclaimed Jacob’s Pillow announced it would cancel its summer festival for the first time in 88 years. The festival’s switch to digital content last summer opened up a treasure trove of classic performances, Pillow Talks, and master classes by artists from around the globe. Through the organization’s Dance Interactive site, dance lovers could spend days trawling through extraordinary clips of artists performing in a range of movement styles, from 1930s excerpts of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers to the contemporary urban dance theater of Ephrat Asherie to renowned performers representing cultures from around the world. But the festival also responded to the power of the present moment, brightening its spotlight on the rich history of Black artists at the festival. Building on its ongoing “Black Voices” video series, the organization created a new playlist of 20 videos called “More Black Voices” that featured videos — four brand new — by 20 notable Black companies and performers. (www.danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org) — Karen Campbell

A new Cambridge commons: Starlight Square

In August, Cambridge transformed a Central Square parking lot into an outdoor venue for presenting safe, socially distanced live performance. The open-air multi-use space also became a kind of public commons that hosted community classes, farmer’s markets, pop-ups, even flu clinics. Over the summer, the space began offering Boston-area performers a place to share their work. Nearby Dance Complex partnered with Starlight Square on a free summer dance series that launched in August and kept going through October, selling out most shows. For the first time in five months, performers had a substantial in-person platform for sharing their work, albeit with masks and socially distanced. Dance Complex director Peter DiMuro told The Globe, “I feel like we’re reintroducing ourselves to audiences in new ways. ... It’s like being an adolescent on a first date. We need to learn how to be in this new relationship.” — K.C.

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An expansive world of dance online

For dance lovers and movers the delicate silver lining of our shrinking in-person world has been an explosion of virtual content, from independent ventures to online series to performances by internationally acclaimed companies. Companies like Urbanity Dance and Jean Appolon Expressions, as well as organizations such as Dance Complex and Cambridge Community Center for the Arts, have committed to providing public classes and performance opportunities online. And Boston’s big international presenters — Global Arts Live and Celebrity Series Boston — created virtual programs that incorporated not just dance, but the chance to hear movers and creators talk about process and meaning. All of this ensured that anyone with a smartphone or computer could take a free class or be moved by the art form’s unique, expressive power, even with stages and studio doors closed. — K.C.

A mesmerizing “Tsukiyo”

Helen Pickett’s “Tsukiyo” was on Boston Ballet’s “Carmen” program, canceled in March. Five months later, however, the Ballet made dress-rehearsal video of most of that program available to subscribers, and the online audience got to see a mesmerizing performance from Soo-bin Lee and My’Kal Stromile.

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“Tsukiyo” — “moonlit night” in Japanese — is a 10-minute duet inspired by the 10th-century Japanese tale “The Story of the Bamboo Cutter,” in which an infant girl found inside a stalk of bamboo turns out to be an otherworldly being from the moon. Set to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel,” in which a hypnotic violin cantilena plays over repeating piano arpeggios, Pickett’s scenario begins when a young man discovers a moon goddess emerging from the mists. Even more than Misa Kuranaga and Yury Yanowsky when Boston Ballet debuted “Tsukiyo” in 2009, Lee and Stromile were at once awestruck and enamored, dying to touch each other but not sure how until finally she nestled into him. Lee in particular was extraordinarily expressive in the articulation of her hands and feet, and in the way, halfway through, she began to look apprehensive, aware that the moon was about to call her back. Let’s hope Lee and Stromile eventually get to do it on the Opera House stage for a live audience. — J.G.

My’kal Stromile of Boston Ballet performed a solo choreographed by Helen Pickett, as part of her "Home Studies" triptych of dances filmed for streaming.
My’kal Stromile of Boston Ballet performed a solo choreographed by Helen Pickett, as part of her "Home Studies" triptych of dances filmed for streaming.

Boston Ballet’s big pivot

When COVID-19 forced the cancellation of live performances in March, the company was preparing to open its “Carmen” program, anchored by Jorma Elo’s reimagined title work. It was a crushing disappointment, but over the next months, the company regrouped to figure out how to safely reconvene, working with infectious-disease specialists, upgrading ventilation and filtration in the company’s studio building, plus purchasing new equipment for live streaming. With dancers furloughed, Boston Ballet helped facilitate independent projects, such as Pickett’s trio of new pieces for three of the company’s dancers. With safety protocols allowing dancers back in the studio and on the payroll since September, the company has launched its first virtual series, BB@yourhome, plus the first free television airing of its landmark “The Nutcracker,” providing access to thousands who could never have afforded Opera House ticket prices. — K.C.

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Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com. Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.