BECKET — On Thursday — Independence Day — the stage of the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance was adorned in the representative colors of the United States. Not red, white, and blue, but black, white, and brown, the lovely palette of the dancers of choreographer David Roussève’s Los Angeles-based company REALITY. “Halfway to Dawn,” the evening-length dance/theater piece the group is presenting all week, pays homage to a largely unsung American hero, Billy Strayhorn, the African-American musician and composer whose longtime collaboration with Duke Ellington resulted in a cornucopia of additions to the great jazz canon. The works became well-loved and well-known, while their author struggled to be recognized.
Even the small sample of Strayhorn’s compositions that serve as the score to “Halfway to Dawn” — 14 songs, three co-composed with Ellington — illustrate his significance. The private life of the man behind the music was noteworthy too, and provides the layers that help make Roussève’s work more than just a retrospective or revue. Though a private man, Strayhorn, who was born in 1915, was open about his homosexuality in an era in which such love dared not speak its name. Strayhorn was also an active participant in the push for civil rights; Martin Luther King Jr. was a friend.
All of this (as well as Strayhorn’s penchant for drinking and smoking) is presented, not in the scripted straightforwardness of a biopic, but in the winding poeticism of dance. There is text from David Hajdu’s biography “Lush Life,” although it’s not spoken by the performers but instead projected onto the backdrop that often serves as a video screen; when the dancers do use their voices, they’re often whooping or laughing.
And, of course, they dance. How wonderfully they dance. The choreography is continuously lush, composed mostly of a sensual, flowing, easy-feeling melding of jazz and modern dance. The dancers’ bodies seem always a-curve, torsos and arms frequently describing circles in the air, or whole bodies eddying down and pooling out into soft rolls on the floor. In addition to their diversity of color, the cast of nine is, like a good jazz combo, a group of highly individualized performers. Roussève gives his dancers — Bernard Brown, Raymond Ejiofor, Dezaré Foster, Jasmine Jawato, Kevin Le, Julio Medina, Samantha Mohr, Leanne Iacovetta Poirier, Kevin Williamson, all soloists in their own right — ample opportunities throughout the evening to shine like single stars in the sky. They reward him by coalescing into a connected cosmos when called to do so. What’s thrilling about the unison work in this piece is both how musical and scrupulously rehearsed it is — the group moves as a metaphoric “one,” a corps de ballet — but at the same time, in addition to the range of body types, there are tantalizingly subtle differences of attack and execution.
There is a lot of unabashed fun in the dancing, and though Rousséve wisely avoids any kind of linear storytelling, there is a good deal of loneliness too, and pain. The projections include stylized, slo-mo images designed by Cari Ann Shim Sham — wisps of smoke, a burning cigarette, clinking champagne glasses — but also the terrible footage of civil rights demonstrators being sprayed with fire hoses. “Halfway to Dawn” almost always walks the tightrope between fantasy and fact with poignant balance: When the dancers are playing, a good time is had by all; when they cry and scream and point in horror at the screen, there’s nothing theatrical about it. Their reactions are as stark as those black and white images. This reality is too real to support those glossy champagne flutes, which become cheesy, rather than ironic, in contrast.
There are a few other hiccups; the piece does feel unnecessarily stretched out, with ideas that have already been aptly depicted reintroduced but not necessarily furthered. And though the biographical facts projected in large type throughout are illuminating windows into Strayhorn’s life, the text sometimes overshadows this often-gorgeous portrait of this obscured artist.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $35-$45. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.