BECKET — Dancing Argentine cowboys — who knew?
Ella Baff and dancer-choreographer Gilles Brinas know. Among Baff’s last duties after 17 years as director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance was planning this year’s festival. This week Che Malambo, Brinas’s all male company, performs an evening of Malambo, a traditional dance that celebrates the South American cowboys known as gauchos. Could be I’m among the last to know: This many-flavored dance, with hints of flamenco and tango but also tap and step, has been around for centuries.
At the heart of Malambo is zapateo — footwork whose rapid-fire rhythms are meant to invoke the sound of galloping horses — which the men who traveled on the expansive South American pampas used as a dance duel of sorts. The “competitors” would mirror the intricate movements of their challengers’ feet and try to top their fiery steps.
Although Malambo has retained its competitive roots, it has also evolved into an exhibition form. Brinas, a French former ballet dancer, incorporates both tradition and evolution in his group’s evening-length shows. His cast of 14 repeatedly throw down the gauntlet, their chests forward and puffed like cocks looking for a fight. The air is thick with testosterone, but also with theater. The men are handsomely and simply costumed in sleek black, and lighted in Brinas and Joshua Paul Weckesser’s now-moody, now splashy lighting design. We are seeing a stylized, perhaps subtly tongue-in-cheek portrayal of the Latino Marlboro Man.
There is a “southern” style of Malambo — considered to be “softer” both physically and philosophically, it’s often performed barefoot — and a “northern” style usually performed in flamenco-style boots, which is largely characterized by the foot’s lightning-quick brushing, tapping, and stabbing actions. In this, the group’s Pillow premiere, they mostly perform in the northern style. Because the dancers’ torsos are held erect throughout, the hips usually initiate directional shifts, and those swivels are at times as speedy as the feet. Brinas’s men execute the pivots and footwork with exquisite — and mystifying — clarity. In theory, their feet should be a blur, but each moment is articulated.
In a few particularly astonishing scenes, the men whip and wield “boleadoras,” lasso-like weapons with leather-encased stones at the ends. When the stones click against the floor, the surprising lightness of the sound belies the potential danger. The men circle them like manic jump ropers, the lassos whistling and glowing eerily.
Beyond the clip-clopping of their flamenco-style boots, the dancers also provide percussion for themselves and one another with bombos, large drums they strap on and take off with brisk agility. The men’s arms circle in wide, fleet arcs, the drumsticks looking like long, spiky sixth fingers.
In this ultimately overlong first section, the dancers maintain an air of relentless intensity. Much of it is exciting, the men’s prowess stunning, but after a while the lack of an arc to the proceedings makes even the most extraordinary displays suffer from repetition. There are a few “Riverdance”-like tropes — far too many “ta-da!” finishes and melodramatic lighting, clichés that neither dancers nor audience deserve.
In the second act, the virtuosic displays continue, but Brinas keeps his spectacular show from becoming a spectacle. The men dance with a power and passion that builds into a kind of ecstasy, and, after teasing us with their fierce solemnity in the first act, they give us a little love. Early on in the second half, they smile, and they keep on smiling.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets begin at $39. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org