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Dance Heginbotham’s Pillow program explores dance and music, humor and heartbreak

Amber Star Merkens and John Heginbotham perform "The Understudies."Danica Paulos

BECKET — A good dance class accompanist can be hard to find: It’s a calling. John Heginbotham, a former longtime dancer with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and now a choreographer with his own eponymous company, knows from good accompanists. (Morris’s choreography is celebrated very specifically for its musicality.) For Dance Heginbotham’s performances this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Heginbotham and Ethan Iverson, a former music director and class accompanist for Morris’s group, have put together a program of three dances with original choreography and music created by the two.

The opening piece, the 2015 “Easy Win,” is an abstract frolic inspired by Heginbotham’s and Iverson’s experiences dancing in and playing for Morris’s ballet classes. With Iverson playing eight delightful, vividly-titled pieces on solo piano, seven dancers move on and off stage, in and out of groups, form lines, or circles. Though this is definitely an often purposely kooky depiction of a ballet class, the atmosphere captures the ways in which dancers are deeply interested in and even obsessed by the minutiae (usually). In “Jumps for Harriett,” dancers jeté over and over, others mirroring or following, or, if necessary, leap over another dancer who happens to be lying on the floor.

The myriad of details, and the repetition, are necessary to the development and maintenance of one’s technique; but dancers are still human (and Heginbotham’s choreography is often funny), thus, in the “Slow Grind” section, we see dancers wilting like flowers in need of water, even nodding off while standing around. They revive, and class continues, with the dual sense of exhaustion and ebullience — endorphins, baby! — that almost always accompanies the end of dance class.


Still, a friend once remarked that for non-dancers, watching dance class can be like watching paint dry, and even this whimsical sketch of a class — and even for me, a fellow obsessee — seems to sputter and run out of gas occasionally.


I’m sincerely sorry to report that “Dance Sonata,” the new piece Heginbotham and Iverson cooked up for this Pillow evening fails to get anywhere (for me, anyway) at all. Iverson is joined by formidable musical colleagues — violinist Pauline Kim Harris, drummer Vincent Sperrazza, and bassist Dylan Stone — in a succinct performance of his lively, jazzy four-part sonata. In his program note, Heginbotham says that “If ‘Easy Win’ is the ballet class — the warm-up — for a performance, ‘Dance Sonata’ is the show.” The piece however, seems more like the sketching, marking, and noodling dancers do in rehearsal lulls, individually, rather than a series of movements and phrases that coalesce into a defined work. The dancers have lots of fun skimming through simple jazzy/contemporary/balletic movements. Looking gorgeous in Maile Okamura’s swank, detailed costumes, the dancers are given lots of kick-ball-changes, chassés, grapevines, and the like. Much of it looks hastily put-together; filler to keep the dancers busy. But kudos to the skilled, dedicated dancers in both dances in Thursday evening’s performance: Paige Barnett, Justin Dominic, Christine Flores, Lindsey Jones, Courtney Lopes, Mykel Marai Nairne, Weaver Rhodes, and Macy Sullivan.

Christine Flores and Dance Heginbotham dancers perform "Easy Win."Danica Paulos

Happily, “The Understudies,” the duet Heginbotham dances with the incandescent Amber Star Merkens (another colleague from the Morris company) is, simply, beautiful, in its beautiful simplicity. Accompanied by Iverson and Harris, playing Iverson’s sweetly melancholic “Adagio,” these two seasoned artists conjure a couple perhaps facing the decision of whether to hold on or to let go. They stand side-by-side, so close that their arms seem Velcro-ed, but their feet inch out, bit by bit, until they are leaning, in opposite directions, far away from one another. It’s heartbreaking, suspenseful, but Merkens, just in time, grabs for Heginbotham’s hand. They embrace; they shuffle together in an intimate slow dance; Heginbotham tosses Merkens’s arm over his shoulder and lifts her seemingly inert body just a bit off the floor, several times. He walks away from her, she goes to him; she walks away from him, he goes to her. They both try, they both give up, they try again. At the end (for now), the two end up where they started, side-by-side, but now lying, propped up on their elbows, looking toward the horizon. Are they looking at a sun setting on their relationship or on the glowing depth of a rising moon? It’s so moving, this story told in the wordless language of dance, the language that can say the unsayable.



At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets starting at $35. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

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