BECKET — What do you get when you cross a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater (the groundbreaking collective of dancers and choreographers which, in the 1960s, made its mark by essentially rejecting everything associated with “traditional” dancemaking and performance) with a longtime leading member of New York City Ballet (a temple of one of the oldest traditions in the dance world)?
Instead of a punch line, the result is “THE DAY,” an hourlong work premiering this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Choreographed by Lucinda Childs — that former Judsonite — for Wendy Whelan — that famous former New York City Ballet principal dancer, this meeting of these artistic minds is hardly far-fetched after all: Not only because cross-fertilization is by now an old story in the field of dance, but also because Childs and Whelan had each already moved away from the centers of their respective orbits to explore other spheres.
“THE DAY” was conceived by Maya Beiser, the celebrated avant-garde cellist who performs onstage with Whelan. The piece is divided into two sections, titled after a pair of powerfully beautiful compositions — “the day” and “world to come” — created for Beiser by David Lang. The latter was composed first, a response to the Sept, 11, 2001, terror attacks, specifically to the thousands of people who perished in the World Trade Center towers. It’s a layered work for live cello and recorded cello, and sung incantations (also live and recorded) of breath sounds. Along with the multilayered cello, “the day” includes lines of recorded text, each coming every six seconds, and each — crowdsourced by Lang from Internet searches — the end of the sentence that begins “I remember the day I . . .”
With a sleek set design by Sara Brown, subtle yet dramatically sharp lighting by Natasha Katz, the stage becomes a haunting landscape filled with ghosts. Those victims of Sept. 11, of course, are ever-present in our memories, but also ghosts of Childs’s and Whelan’s past work hover. Throughout the work, black-and-white photos and films are projected onto the entirety of the backdrop (this design is by Joshua Higgason); the way that a large, filmed, shadowy version of Whelan dances and turns is a reminder of the way that, in Childs’s 1979 postmodern masterpiece “Dance,” artist Sol LeWitt’s film of the dancers’ cellular twins played behind the dancers onstage. And the more balletic of Whelan’s dance phrases include repeats of enchaînements that remind me of George Balanchine’s “Agon,” one of the many ballets that Whelan left her indelible stamp on.
Even the ghost of Martha Graham appears, with Karen Young’s otherwise simple, flattering costume design including a piece for Whelan, made of white stretchy fabric, that conjures Graham’s famous costume for her 1930 solo “Lamentation.”
Overall, it’s a handsome, contemplative, often-affecting work. It’s dulled occasionally by some futzing with the props which include thin sticks or poles of different lengths, and a “ghost” straight out of a child’s Halloween party. The stilted way Whelan must retrieve and return them, that too-cartoonish (for this work) ghost, and the overworked use of the tunic/cape weaken the otherwise restrained atmosphere. More clumsy are the off-notes sounded in the visuals — those banal “talking heads,” yes, but far worse is the slo-mo imagery of a cello falling and breaking apart to cacophonous recorded sounds that connote the unimaginable din of those collapsing twin towers.
Beiser is a strong but not melodramatic presence who lets Lang’s music sing and cry and speak with clarity and passion. Whelan’s refreshingly unmannered dancing — a clean, disciplined, service-to-the-steps beauty — is as present as ever. If she’s occasionally a touch too reticent, the austerity is surely an homage, a reminder, to all that the world has lost.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Aug. 4. Tickets $20-65. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.