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For dance, a few big steps forward

LaTasha Barnes presented "The Jazz Continuum" on an outdoor stage at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival this summer.Cherylynn Tsushima

As for all the performing arts, to see professional dancing in the early months of 2021, you had to connect to the Internet and watch on a screen — and a surprising amount of innovation was happening there. When it got warm enough, though, the art form joyously moved outdoors, and, significantly, Jacob’s Pillow returned this summer, staging all its performances under open skies. Before we knew it, it was fall, and dancing finally made a triumphant reappearance on area indoor stages, to the delight of arts-starved audiences. In short, despite the challenges, dance took some important leaps forward.


Continuing last year’s trend, virtual projects, both free and paid, made it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to see outstanding dance from around the world, including virtual choreography festivals, live stream performances, and premieres of works newly created during the pandemic.


Boston Ballet’s first ever virtual season was loaded with outstanding performances, including a memorable rendition of George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” with Paulo Arrais in the title role, and the new filmed duet “Story of a Memory,” from the program “Celebrating Jorma Elo.” Set to the music of Tchaikovsky and Bach, it was given an exquisitely detailed and touchingly intimate performance (despite the masks) by Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mkrtchyan.

Boston Ballet's Paulo Arrais in George Balanchine's "Apollo"Brooke Trisolini/Boston Ballet

The engaging Process & Progressprogram of premieres created for the company featured works by European luminaries Nanine Linning and Ken Ossola, both choreographing their first works for a North American company. But the highlight was principal dancer John Lam’s “moving pARTS” for eight dancers. Filmed in the Ashmont and Alewife MBTA stations as a public art project for the City of Boston, the work unfurls as a metaphor for humanity’s shared journey, transforming routine movements from here to there as moments to connect, move together, and celebrate the commonalities in our differences.


In addition, Boston Ballet broadened its digital capabilities with the launch of the groundbreaking ÜNI, a free online content hub curated to offer a range of projects, including newly created virtual reality works. The hub aims to revitalize the art form and make it more appealing and accessible, especially to those who may never have stepped foot in the Opera House. A standout among the initial slate of offerings is Chyrstyn Fentroy’s “Preface,” which beautifully casts dancers on tiers of balconies.


By May, after COVID vaccinations let us breathe a little easier and consider gathering in person, live performances started cropping up at a variety of venues, mostly outdoors. Locally, Cambridge’s Starlight Square Stage, created the first summer of the pandemic, continued to be a popular venue this year for small projects.

Out in the Berkshires, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival returned to life after last summer’s COVID-driven hiatus. Organizers moved all public programming outside as its first-ever hybrid festival, Global Pillow. Most of festival programming was also available online. Tap phenom Michelle Dorrance and her uber-talented, ever popular Dorrance Dance took over the festival for five days, with an outdoor Leir Stage program featuring a Nicholas Van Young world premiere with original live music, plus a captivating site-specific premiere taking viewers all over the Pillow campus. The program by Brian Brooks/Moving Company highlighted the power of human touch, especially in the octet “Closing Distance,” which Globe reviewer Janine Parker called “a gem of a dance” in which dancers “… have so much physical contact they often seem like one being.” Parker also lauded LaTasha Barnes Presents The Jazz Continuumas well as the 45-year-old Dallas Black Dance Theatre in its first Pillow engagement, noting “the ensemble’s spectacular, virtuosic style of contemporary movement.”


Closer to home, Dance for World Community returned after a year off, unofficially kicking off the fall live dance season in September with “Re-Emergence,” a free, family-friendly event centered around four outdoor stages in Harvard Square. That same weekend, Urbanity Dance opened its 10th anniversary season with one of the troupe’s signature series of “dance crawls.” Called “Go stop listen. Still wait go,” the nearly sold-out crawls involved more than 50 dancers, musicians, storytellers, and poets sharing their artistry through mini-vignettes at outdoor locations around the South End.

And one of the more surprising dance highlights came thanks to Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s casting of the ever-versatile John Lam in his first theatrical role. Globe theater critic Don Aucoin described Lam’s impressive portrayal of Ariel in The Tempest as “…so spectacularly acrobatic that you may wish he was on the US men’s gymnastic team at the Olympics.”


With COVID precautions in place and vaccinations readily available, we were finally able to celebrate that special communal alchemy found in live in-theater presentation, and several productions were especially notable. Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic marked the first live performances at American Repertory Theater’s Loeb Drama Center since the onset of the pandemic, and the dynamite tap dancer united an ensemble of dancers and musicians for a performance that Globe reviewer Jeffrey Gantz called “so rhythmically infectious, you might be tempted to get up and join them.”


Anthony Morigerato, Ayodele Casel, John Manzari, and Kurt Csolak in "Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic" at American Repertory Theater through Oct. 9Liza Voll

Global Arts Live brought back trailblazing dancer/choreographer Raphael Xavier for XAVIER’S: The Musician & The Mover,” which highlighted connections between jazz and breaking. The show featured live jazz quartet and three dancers, including the choreographer himself, who Gantz says “…manages to look like the Baryshnikov of breaking. Xavier has said he wants to show that as they get older, breakers can get better. In ‘The Musician & the Mover,’ he does just that.”

For the Boston premiere of “Path of Miracles,” the innovative San Francisco-based ODC/Dance took the intimacy of the in-person experience out of the theater and into First Church in Cambridge. The acclaimed immersive dance and music work, evoking a journey of healing and connection inspired by the ancient pilgrimage route Camino de Santiago, featured live music by The Boston Cecilia. Together, they delivered an experience Gantz called “transcendent.”

And in a special category all its own, how fun is it to see the many “Nutcracker” productions dotting calendars all around the area? While Boston Ballet’s glorious version continues to be the gold standard, the fact that smaller and alternative in-person endeavors are contributing to the season’s offerings is a highlight in and of itself.


Karen Campbell can be reached at