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Dance Review

Sara Mearns leaps thrillingly over the lines with ‘Beyond Ballet’ at Jacob’s Pillow

Sara Mearns and Honji Wang performing “No. 1.”
Sara Mearns and Honji Wang performing “No. 1.”Christopher Duggan

BECKET — In her show “Beyond Ballet,” presented this week at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Sara Mearns, a star principal dancer with New York City Ballet, joins a long line of big-name ballet dancers who’ve leapt over any perceived dividing lines between ballet and modern dance. Sometimes Mearns has skipped over that line, à la Isadora — in recent years she’s performed some of Duncan’s iconic solos — or slithered over that line, à la Merce: in April she danced in “Night of 100 Solos,” the worldwide Cunningham centenary celebration.

Mearns, who gobbles up space with a thrilling largesse, a glistening musicality, and a formidable, clarifying technique, is an authentic mover regardless of what she’s dancing. This doesn’t mean she’s now a Duncan or a Cunningham expert — she’s not: these things take time and deep immersion. But she’s interested in exploring their movement, and is thus interesting to watch.


Mearns takes on yet another modern dance icon here: Martha Graham, whose 1933 “lost” solo “Ekstasis” was reconstructed (or “reimagined”) two years ago by Virginie Mécéne. Mearns’s humility is apparent in the fact that she doesn’t attempt the famous Graham contractions, or at least not very often. While I imagine that the sharply sucked-back pelvis one would see in a Graham-trained dancer would add to the elusive drama, Mearns is nonetheless marvelous in the solo, glamorous as she juts out a hip in her long sheath-like costume, sinuous as she twists and then untwists herself in the dance’s thematic circles of the torso and series of traveling turns.

In the program’s other solo, from Christopher Williams’s in-process “Daphnis & Chloé,” choreographed to Maurice Ravel’s 1912 score, Mearns manages to tell a ministory within the short excerpt. Costumed by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung in a flowing tunic-topped confection, Mearns conjures a captive-yet-free spirit: she mime-dances about the stage, either perching in back attitude, her arms and hands extended beseechingly forward, or softly lunging, eyes downcast, her curved arms a lovely shield.


In Liz Gerring’s 2017 subtly playful “Duet,” Mearns and fellow City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder tackle the choreographic puzzle pieces with deadpan aplomb. The title notwithstanding, the two are often apart, each running through disparate, Cunningham-like phrases — cool balances on one leg, swift direction-shifts — as if preparing backstage before a show. The randomness is pierced here and there with a sudden thrilling confluence of unison.

A similar sense of a separate-yet-together relationship binds Mearns and choreographer Jodi Melnick in Melnick’s new “Opulence into part 2.” As in “Duet,” the work’s purposeful arbitrariness is compelling rather than confounding. Mearns and Melnick are at times in their own worlds, at other times in friendly physical conversation with one another. Wearing sneakers and blue belted jumpsuits designed by Kaye Voyce, they noodle and pause in Melnick’s wonderful eccentricities in which limbs often move with a Twyla Tharp-like looseness but are punctuated with delicious specificities of say, little wiggles of the fingers — details that reward careful watching.

Though “No. 1,” a 2017 duet choreographed by Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang for Mearns and threatens to topple into a cliché — another ballet vs. contemporary dancer “battle” — the work avoids stereotype. Wang faux-awkwardly struggles to assume various ballet positions, then gapes longingly as Mearns, wearing a classical tutu and pointe shoes, moves fluidly through a series of barre exercises. Because of Wang’s own skill (she’s a fabulously fleet and articulate hip-hopper, but is also clearly and beautifully trained in ballet) the setup is at once funny and moving. The juxtaposition of the tall, blond, and white Mearns, in comparison with the shorter, German-Korean Wang, is possibly a quiet comment on outmoded ideas of what a ballerina “should” look like. But in the end what remains is the image of two women, each a powerfully beautiful dancer, sharing the stage and their gifts with us, but more importantly, with each other.


SARA MEARNS: BEYOND BALLET At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets $20-65. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

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