Matthew Neenan’s 2018 dance “A Million Voices” opens the triple bill performed by the Los Angeles-based BODYTRAFFIC at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, reminding us instantly of how terrific this contemporary dance company is. Set to songs by the iconic singer Peggy Lee, the dance is winkingly hip and charmingly nostalgic, retro in all the right ways. It’s also well-constructed, exceptionally danced, witty yet earnest, and curiously soothing. The program notes that Lee’s music, “in response to the political climate of her time, reminds us that even during dark times, life is worth enjoying.”
Indeed, the cast of eight dancers offers up snapshots of individuals experiencing some of the universal joys of life. (Along with the ups, however, there are a few downs; this is life, after all.) Dancers fall in and out of love, dream big dreams, fret, and play. Like whimsical figures emerging from a Chagall painting, they become a circus troupe, high-stepping like elegant elephants; or they conjure a human train, their lower legs moving rhythmically like wheels and rods.
Although they tell their tales in the most abstract way — through dance — their eloquently-trained bodies speak volumes. And Neenan’s choreography, based in ballet, contemporary, and modern, is an uncannily seamless mix of performative and pedestrian movements: a smart correspondent with the lyrics, rather than a rote follower. Neenan’s staging is likewise expert; one moment the dancers are scattered about the stage, moving or pausing individually before joining, on a dime, into a tightly-knit group phrase. Duets form organically, as if pulled into sharp focus by a movie camera, the rest of the group still in the frame, but now receded. It’s all superb, although particular sections stand out, such as Ty Morrison’s slightly melancholic, delicate yet expansive solos, and the endearing, on-again, off-again duet, set perfectly to “Is That All There Is?,” and performed with deadpan yearning and sincere love by Jordyn Santiago and Joan Rodriguez.
The other ensemble piece, Micaela Taylor’s 2019 “SNAP,” is an exuberantly eccentric call to action, mining aspects of the human condition. The task? For individuals to, as the program states, “’snap out of’ social pressures to conform,” and buck the potential isolation of modern life.
Although some of the production elements felt out of balance on the Pillow’s outdoor stage, the piece, set to SHOCKEY’s thickly-scratched, sometimes piercing score (with delicious bits of James Brown in the mix), the dancers morph easily between Taylor’s blend of rubbery-kneed playfulness and funky, staccato-accented movements. The perils of social disharmony are briefly enacted — two men end up in a faux fistfight — and just as quickly discarded: The heartfelt message is clear, that violence is a waste of our time and spirits.
The famously “bucolic” setting of the Berkshire Hills serves Brian Brooks’s 2021 hushed “Notes on Fall” beautifully. This now-passive, now-passionate, deceptively difficult duet is set to four sections from Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path” and performed with unwavering focus and full command by Tiare Keeno and Guzmán Rosado. (Brooks’s choreography is composed of a tricky combination of loose contact improvisation and smooth, weighted-yet-silent descents to the floor.) Again, though the work is abstract, the dancers, through their bodies, through Brooks’s movement, seem to be telling a tale familiar to many humans: Whether it’s companionship, friendship, or love, our close relationships are at times work, at times works-in-progress, but sometimes, if we are fortunate, they are works of art, too.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets start at $25. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.