BECKET — "glacier," the hourlong work by the New York City-based choreographer Liz Gerring, should be required viewing for any dance composition student. The 2013 dance, performed this week at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, is a marvel of construction and deconstruction, of simplicity and complexity, of morphing dynamics.
But while the bones of this piece could be a primer on how the many parts of a dance can coalesce into a whole body, I don't mean it's pedantic. The steps and phrases, as performed by the Liz Gerring Dance Company, come together compellingly; despite the obvious craft that goes into a dance like "glacier" there is no map's legend that explains why.
The why is in the eye of the beholder. There is little to cling to here in terms of decorative bells and whistles (well, one of the dancers does whistle a few times). The production elements, however, are sophisticated in their simplicity, elegantly complementary. Robert Wierzel's handsome production design creates a cool ambience, both on the backdrop — where three white panels hang like windows whose translucence hint at visions beyond but don't reveal them — and on the white marley floor. The costumes, by Márion Talán, are a casual mix in a neutral palette. Most subtle is the lighting, by Wierzel and Amith A. Chandrashaker, which shifts evocatively, with catlike stealth.
The dancing is likewise "stripped," a straightforward force that, once unleashed, never seems to wane. The spirit of Merce Cunningham beckons, both in the "random" groupings that create pockets of seemingly unrelated but visually stimulating motion, and also in the movement, in particular the planed austerity of the arms and the erect body carriage, as well as in the tilts and the long, eerie, perilous balances. An arabesque is held (and held), then the dancer bends the standing leg (fondu) and straightens it, again and again, before repeating the sequence on the other leg. A leg is lifted straight out to the front, traced to the side, slowly, at a 90-degree angle. The dancers must have nerves of steel and, I suppose, a willingness to shed ego should they topple. Gerring's terrific cast of eight — Brandon Collwes, Joseph Giordano, Molly Griffin, Julia Jurgilewicz, Tony Neidenbach, Brandin Steffensen, Jake Szczypek, Claire Westby — are unblinking in the face of it all.
The Cunningham comparison here is not an accusation of derivation. Gerring, who received this year's Jacob's Pillow Dance Award, given to artists who exhibit "exceptional vision," is clearly following her own muse. In any event, John Cage is conjured, too, in Michael J. Schumacher's score, composed of natural, industrial, electronic, and acoustic sounds (and that whistling). Aside from the dirgelike snippets from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, there is no meter or melody to keep the dancers on pace. Thus their "musicality," the way the dancers remain highly attuned to one another, is especially thrilling.
There are very few curves in this composition; a torso is more likely to be parallel to the ground than arching against the air. Indeed, there is little that could be called "soft" about this dance. The "trust" falls (a motif that recurs, regardless of whether anyone is there to catch the dancer or not) and drops to the ground are quiet, but with control. Effort is purposely shown: Jumps aren't landed heavily, but they don't float; dancers bound rather than spring. They wear no masking smiles, but mostly expressions of concentration; sweat drips down, particularly from the men's faces; tops are dotted, then drenched with perspiration.
Though the actions of "glacier" seem inevitable (in a good way), they aren't predictable. If we've been paying attention, the way this piece deserves, we're a bit spent by the end, too.
LIZ GERRING DANCE COMPANY
At Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets: $25-$35.