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Dance review

Jessica Lang Dance’s ‘Wanderer’ is a wonder at Jacob’s Pillow

Kana Kimura and Clifton Brown performed with vocalist John Boehr.
Kana Kimura and Clifton Brown performed with vocalist John Boehr. Christopher Duggan

BECKET — In “Die Schöne Müllerin,” Franz Schubert’s great song cycle set to poems by Wilhelm Müller, the hero, a wandering miller, decides that he cannot recover from a blow to his heart, and drowns himself in a brook.

In her 2014 evening-length dance “The Wanderer,” set to the Schubert lieder and performed this week and next at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, choreographer Jessica Lang has given form to not only Schubert’s miller, but to that brook as well, which, after all, the miller considers his “friend.” Other characters include the Girl (the mill-maid who captures his heart), the Hunter (the one who poaches the Girl), and the Others, a small Greek chorus-like ensemble.

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With “The Wanderer,” Lang has created a true work of art. The piece’s striking milieu, as conceived by Lang and designed by Mimi Lien (set) and Nicole Pearce (lighting), looks stunning, feels right, and is cleverly useful. Five white thin-trunked and -branched trees are attached to the sky rather than to the earth; their unmoored roots are actually long, stringy ropes that are dragged and draped to create new pathways or boundaries throughout the dance.

Among Lang’s many canny choices is her staging of the singer who performs live — on Thursday night, the baritone Steven LaBrie, accompanied by pianist Tyson Deaton, both excellent — so that he too becomes one of the main characters, really a doppelgänger to the Wanderer. For the first half of the dance, LaBrie sits or stands up on the upstage platform; some of the dance’s most heartbreaking moments occur when LaBrie, now on the stage proper, and the Wanderer, performed by Clifton Brown, are near each other, LaBrie giving gorgeous voice to Brown’s burgeoning anguish.

Because “The Wanderer” relies on dance solely, without mime, it’s more aptly called dance theater rather than a story ballet, but as is customary with Lang, the movement is based on a straightforward ballet vocabulary that her dancers perform with clarity and ease. The phrases for the Others — the terrific and captivating Randy Castillo, John Harnage, Eve Jacobs, and Jammie Walker — are also infused, seamlessly, with panther-like but weighted low movements.

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The Hunter, danced with delicious arrogance by Milan Misko, is the only one who uses ballet in an emptily bravura way; though obnoxious, he makes his point and gets the Girl.

The Girl’s movement, performed by a fey Laura Mead, is upright and airy, its pristine quality like the character’s remote naiveté. As the Brook, a sage-like Kana Kimura is trapped by her inability to ultimately intercede in the Wanderer’s fate; while her metaphoric stream can help to ferry him along during his journeys on earth, she cannot alter what will happen to this mortal when he throws himself into that stream. Her movement is also largely balletic, but her final solo — in which frustration and grief are unleashed in a powerful storm — is full of contractions, thrusting limbs, and big drama à la Martha Graham.

The Wanderer’s choreography is a combination of much of that: Earthly, he joins the Others in some of the floorwork; then airborne, with strong yet breathy coupé jetés. Brown partners both Kimura and Mead deftly and with a sweetness that inflects his entire performance; though the Sturm und Drang of the Romantics is considered excessive by today’s cool standards, Lang and her performers — and the audience, by extension — float somewhere in between the centuries. We mourn this Wanderer’s demise like we would any other beloved.

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Dance review

JESSICA LANG DANCE

At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets: $19-45. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org


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