It’s a mad, mad whirl

The world of dance — the superstars and the unsung — converges this year at Jacob’s Pillow. Dance wr

BECKET, Mass. — The world of dance — the superstars and the unsung — converges this year at Jacob’s Pillow.

Consider the first few programs planned for the 10-week festival. Garth Fagan Dance will open with his masterpiece, “Griot New York.” This versatile company will be followed by French choreographer Heddy Maalem’s anxious take on “Le Sacre du Printemps,” performed by 14 African dancers hailing from all over the continent. And then international personality Rasta Thomas will team with Lar Lubovitch for the 40th anniversary of the choreographer’s company. And in between, in the adaptable Doris Duke Studio Theatre, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will stage two weeks of its riveting “Chapel/Chapter.”

That’s just for starters.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance festival

WHERE: Jacob’s Pillow Dance, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Mass.

WHEN: June 18 to Aug. 24

MORE INFO: 413-243-0745 or at

The season is a boon for dance fans. But for dancers and choreographers, a booking at Jacob’s Pillow can be a catapult to celebrity.

Thomas, who is already known in every corner of the globe, launched his own company there last year. Now his Bad Boys of Dance, which has been acclaimed by the Boston Globe as dazzling, has been hired for a five-week, six-day-a-week run in Germany.

In contrast is Maalem, who is unknown to American audiences. He is thrilled to be crossing the Atlantic for his Pillow debut.

“I already like it,” said the choreographer.

What’s not to like? Under Artistic Director Ella Baff, the Pillow is committed to doing whatever it takes to accommodate artists. Few leave dissatisfied. And even if they are, they still garner the international attention the Pillow guarantees.

“I owe a debt to Ella Baff,” said Thomas, whose company combines ballet, modern, tap and hip-hop. “She gave us the opportunity to test what we wanted to do.”

He was happy to return the favor by fitting in a week at the Pillow between a trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, where he’ll dance at a gala, and his German engagement. He’s also delighted to once again work with Lubovitch, a choreographer whom he deeply respects. Lubovitch will be restaging “Little Rhapsodies,” a trio to Schumann’s “Symphonic Etudes.” The choreographer tailored the dance to Thomas’ crack talent.

“He’s a master,” said Thomas. “He is one of the few choreographers that knows where I should be, how I should be . . . He can pull things out of me that I didn’t even know I had.”

Maalem is pulling out surprising images too, inspired by Stravinsky’s throbbing “Sacre.” Strangely, the choreographer hears the rhythmic and ritualistic score with an African pulse.

“I was traveling through Africa, visiting Lagos [in Nigeria],” said Maalem. “At this moment, I get the intuition that Stravinsky’s music and the sounds of this city possessed a strong link.”

Still, colleagues discouraged Maalem, who also incorporates film of Africa taken by Benoit Dervaux, from meddling with the score.

“People told me, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a masterpiece, it’s a monument, a totem of the occidental art, don’t touch it.’ I was just listening to my heart and the music,” he said.

Going with instinct has served Thomas well, too. Rather than following the pack of ballet prodigies by joining one of the major companies of the world, he struck out on his own. He has danced project-by-project with the Kirov Ballet, The Joffrey Ballet, The KBallet, Complexions, American Ballet Theater and the Beijing Central Ballet. He also starred on Broadway as Eddie in Twyla Tharp’s “Movin’ Out.”

“I found that the directorships at the big ballet companies don’t offer the balance I want. They know how to stage ballets, but few directors know how to direct me.”

Throughout, Thomas said, he has had many mentors. In addition to Lubovitch, he names Mikhail Baryshnikov, Arthur Mitchell, Bruce Marks and Peter Boal. And despite directing his own ensemble, he remains independent. He is now hoping to squeeze in a guest appearance with Christopher Wheeldon’s new company, Morphoses.

With Bad Boys, which will soon be working with Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Thomas is striving to change attitudes toward dance.

“We want to be the boy band of the dance world,” said Thomas. “We want to be commercial, popular at first. Then we can be creative, artistic, adventurous. We want to be a bridge between the people who think they don’t like dance to people who do. We want to close the gap.”

Maalem, on the other hand, simply hopes to create a dance that rings true, by capturing just the right movement for the moment. The best way to reach the ideal, he said, is “to be direct.” He also aims “to be myself, no tricks.”

Ultimately, he wants his audience to join him in “contemplating the world,” an appropriate plea at a very worldly venue.

Categories: Life and Arts

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