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Ballet star Taylor Stanley explores new territory at Jacob’s Pillow

Taylor Stanley in "Redness," choreographed by Shamel Pitts, performed in "Dichotomous Being: An Evening of Taylor Stanley."Danica Paulos

BECKET — As a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, Taylor Stanley has achieved a level of stardom that allows for the kind of artistic exploration that infuses “Dichotomous Being: An Evening of Taylor Stanley.” In a way, the show, premiering at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, was begun in 2018, when Stanley caught many by delighted surprise with their performances in the postmodern choreographer Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway,” commissioned by City Ballet.

Observers were struck by Stanley’s quality of movement throughout that dance, which revealed deeper nuances within this already notably sensitive dancer. It was a watershed moment; Stanley has called this role, this expansion of movement possibilities, a “gift.” And so, with Abraham serving as artistic adviser to the project, Stanley stars in a program that, with recent or new works by choreographers Jodi Melnick, Andrea Miller, and Shamel Pitts, scratches this new itch of artistic exploration. The past, however, is present here too, in excerpts from George Balanchine’s 1957 “Square Dance” and Talley Beatty’s 1947 “Southern Landscape.”

The program is composed of three solos for Stanley and two group works. Aside from Esteban Cortazar’s colorful costumes, and a few arresting choreographic images, Miller’s “Mango” (an adaptation from “Sky to Hold,” the 2021 ballet she made for City Ballet) was, for me, the only weak point in the evening. Taylor, Ashton Edwards, Nouhoum Koita, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez give it their all, but the choreography feels shapeless and clichéd. It’s thrilling that Edwards performs their role, fabulously, on pointe, when dancing on pointe has traditionally been restricted to female dancers. But many of the role’s movements are still reminiscent of the in-need-of-saving trope that women in ballets have long been subjected to.


At the other end of the stylistic platform is Melnick’s “These Five,” the brand-new piece she created for Taylor, Cemiyon Barber, Allysen Hooks, Marcella Lewis, and Ned Sturgis. Set to James Lo’s often fey score peppered with birdsong and raindrop-like sounds, it’s an odd, yet utterly absorbing dance. Melnick’s phrases include casually precise sequences that conjure both the shruggy wit of Twyla Tharp (she danced for Tharp) and the random austerity of Merce Cunningham. It’s just shy of being too incongruous, and that’s part of its deliciousness.


In the same way that Balanchine’s “Square Dance” joined, with an easy charm, the folk/social dance forms of American square dance with classical ballet, so too does the simple yet majestic environment of the Pillow’s outdoor stage seem the natural setting for Stanley’s performance of this excerpt, a curious, precious specimen which Balanchine inserted into the ballet years after it had premiered. It’s a beautiful opening to the show, and, in the way they command, gently, quietly, immediately, the stage, a testament to the kind of subtlety Stanley excels in. A huge tour jeté is landed without a sound, a whipped-into pirouette opens up, like a sigh, into a back attitude; or, after a series of open, erect walks, Stanley folds into a private, carved shell.

It’s not a given that even someone with Stanley’s formidable ballet chops can manage the “Mourner’s Bench” solo from Beatty’s “Southern Landscape,” his full-length modern dance about African-Americans’ experiences at the end of the Reconstruction period. It’s an extremely difficult dance, steeped in long balances on one leg or core-challenging sequences in which the dancer lies, prone, on the titular bench, arms extended out and legs hugging the underside. Stanley, who was coached by PHILADANCO! artistic director Kim Bears-Bailey, is a revelation, however, exuding a sober, unaffected, singular focus.


In Pitts’s “Redness,” the program closer, Stanley alternates between tying themselves into, and unwinding themselves out of, contorted positions or traversing with a kind of awkwardly staccato intensity. Like “These Five,” the piece isn’t “easy,” that is, providing viewers with a more familiar kind of flow to the experience, but like Melnick’s dance, Pitts’s is nonetheless compelling. More so, given Stanley’s riveting performance, it’s full of power, but also, full of the most difficult thing of all for a performer: vulnerability.

One definition of “dichotomy” is division. I hope, selfishly, that Stanley will continue to also dance in ballet roles; I hope they will find that what they’re discovering about the possibilities of movement, within other genres, can enhance their already exceptional balletic gifts. Maybe, what began with “Runaway” wasn’t the beginning of a division opening up in Stanley, but a melding of their whole being.

DICHOTOMOUS BEING: An Evening of Taylor Stanley

At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets starting at $25. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com.