BECKET — Humor and dance are such unwieldy bedfellows that rarely does the union work — unless you are Doug Elkins, master of this particular relationship. Through Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow, his group, Doug Elkins Choreography, etc., is presenting two works. One, “Hapless Bizarre,” is Elkins’s newest dancedy. And lo, the alchemy of Elkins’s intelligence, cheekiness, and stagecraft has beaten the odds again.
For “Hapless,” the Elkins team of excellent dancers, designers, and dramaturgist is joined by a clown, Mark Gindick, who indeed helps ratchet up the slapstick factor, but in Elkins’s world, he’s less a duck among swans than a duck among slightly savvier ducks. He desperately wants to join the crowd (and get the girl), but those hipsters, in Oana Botez’s fun, attractive paisley-patterned costumes, are quirky outliers, too.
While the others do have their sport with Gindick, the clown does justice to the dance. We don’t mistake him for a trained dancer, but his earthy fluidity allows him to more than keep up. The joke is not “Look at that clown who can’t dance!” but “Look at that clown who thinks he doesn’t fit in but really, aren’t we all just a bunch of clowns? (And isn’t it wonderful?)”
So Gindick may not be joining American Ballet Theatre anytime soon, but Deborah Lohse might just run away to join the circus someday. She uses her elastic facial features and luxurious legs in ways both comic and sensual; the two share a cavorting duet in which they wrap around and atop each other with a kind of animal energy. It’s as if Lohse is schooling Gindick in the ways of the flesh (what a hoot to see Gindick go from his “who? me?” babe-in-the-woods innocence to a kind of Austin Powers “yeah, baby!” knowingness) before sending him off to his heart’s desire, the sweet dynamo Cori Marquis. In any event, I’m a bit surprised Lohse didn’t actually bite him.
Oh, but they are all delicious, Elkins’s dancers, and for their part likewise do justice to all of the clowning around. The antics are inspired by the likes of Buster Keaton, sure, but Twyla Tharp too, by way of her 1976 “Push Comes to Shove” — lots of high jinks involving bowler hats — and even Nijinsky is given a nod, with at least one little “Afternoon of a Faun” quote.
In the second dance on the program, the 2012 “Mo(or)town Redux,” Elkins again mines other dance legends (the work, a distillation of Shakespeare’s “Othello,” takes many cues from José Limón’s iconic “The Moor’s Pavane”) but he also takes a risk: This choreographer known for his hilarious dances follows up one of those hilarious dances with a rather melancholy one. No, “Mo(or)town” isn’t the tears of a clown, but Elkins tries a little tenderness, and moves us, more than a little.
As with the Limón version, the cast consists of four dancers and a handkerchief. Donnell Oakley (Desdemona) is beautifully liquid throughout, and with Kyle Marshall (Othello), the two are more effervescent than acrobatic in Elkins’s extensive, quicksilvery partnering; they are warm and dewy-drunk with love. The post-scarf-stealing duet between Marquis (Emilia) and the powerful Alexander Dones (Iago), however, is grappling and harsh, heated by lust. The parade of Motown hits that make up the score is at first amusing, but soon, the growing drama underscores the pain within those popular songs. Othello/Marshall’s “Grapevine” solo is a little slice of devastation; Desdemona/Oakley’s murder, a few moments later, is the whole pie.
The secret ingredient that holds it all together? Elkins’s sincere, rather than cynical, heart.Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the costume designer for “Hapless Bizarre.”