BECKET — Eskimos have many ways to describe snow; this is poetic. Brazilians have a multitude of terms for race; this is controversial. One of those words, “nêgo,” can be an affectionate term among chums, or something more derogatory. It’s also the original title of the world premiere choreographed by Sonia Destri Lie and performed this week at Jacob’s Pillow by her Brazilian-based Companhia Urbana de Dança; for this visit, however, the piece is being called “I. You. We . . . All black!”
If the change was, as reported in a recent New York Times article, because of the Pillow’s concern that the original title could be misunderstood, you gotta love Lie’s sense of humor with this grammatically challenged stand-in.
With its second Jacob’s Pillow visit, the 10-year old hip-hop dance company seems to be hitting its stride. Honoring the spirit of the genre’s history of impromptu street performance — which depends upon the (often) lone dancer’s ability to captivate his or her audience — one of Lie’s tenets is to preserve her dancers’ individualities as movers, even while corralling them onto the more formal world of the stage. Last year’s Pillow appearance demonstrated both the charming, infectious glory of this and the occasional pitfalls. Unique performers, yay! Ragged ensemble work, nay.
This time out, however, the group is professionally tauter: The physical content is well rehearsed, losing nothing in power but gaining much in clarity. The dramatic context is elevated, too. The program, like last year’s, consists of two dances by Lie (with contributions by the performers), one — “. . . All black!” — that explores the serious theme of racism abstractly, the other — “Na Pista” — a frolic of loosely woven sections largely designed to let the dancers shake those distinct booties. Though the pieces are discrete, the design elements are by the company’s in-house team, which connects the evening. Maybe the cast of eight men and one woman, exploring the two-sided coin of vulnerability and wariness in “. . . All black!,” are the same revelers in “Na Pista,” now shrugging off their inhibitions.
Underscoring its sociopolitical genesis, “. . . All black!” is dramatically evocative, even suspenseful at times, without being weighted down. Lie has a subtle touch. She maneuvers her dancers on a line that skirts darkness — the presence of that one woman is sometimes rife with sexual portents, violence a near possibility — with constantly evolving moods. The dancers likewise morph; they can land from jumps with an aggressive stomp or with catlike feather-feet. They are ever immediate, capitulating themselves into sideways hurtles, not quite knowing where on the stage or on their axes they’ll land, or into another’s body. The riskiness is real, and they are fearless. It’s thrilling.
Both dances wander a bit (it seems to be a trait of Lie’s), particularly the 2012 “Na Pista,” but it’s such a fun time we can live with a little superfluity. The dancers play musical chairs with that same breakneck bravado from earlier, or toss out showy little solos, or, if they’re lucky, canoodle a bit with that woman, Jessica Nascimento, here the queen of the party. Cross-pollination in theatrical dance is nothing new; it’s as de rigueur for a ballet choreographer’s work to be a “mash-up” of ballet, modern, and hip-hop movements as it is for a hip-hop dance to be spiked with balletic pirouettes and modern floorwork. The mash-up is often terrific but sometimes worrisome: In the same way that Lie considers her dancers’ je ne sais quoi, are we in danger of meld becoming melt in dance styles? So far, Lie’s movement mix has an authentic flavor; but lest we forget the dance lineage of these performers,“Na Pista” is loaded with classic breaking. Sit back — or on the edge of your seat — and enjoy.