Jacob’s Pillow opened its 76th season this week by revisiting a master work by a master choreographer.
Garth Fagan’s “Griot New York” drew back the curtain on the 10-week season with a subtlety that was almost painful. The piece, with music by Wynton Marsalis and sculptures by Martin Puryear, is a slow, simmering dance that requires patience. Its yawn-like unfolding insists that we pay attention to the eight tales that make up “Griot.”
The title of the piece, as performed by Garth Fagan Dance, is a reference to a West African storyteller who preserves history through song and dance. Fagan’s dancers do the same, surveying the African experience and how it has been channeled into urban life in America. Some of it is pretty, some is not.
In “City Court Dance,” the performers breeze by each other in street clothes, stepping high and proud. A giant head by Puryear hovers in the center of the stage as the jazzy music is bright and winsome.
That scene contrasts with “The Disenfranchised,” where the ensemble shuffles and stumbles with their heads bent and their stomachs clutched. Upstage, a Puryear staircase that is too narrow to ascend provides a stunning visual for this bleak section.
In and around these cityscapes are images that hark back to another time. The formal “Bayou Baroque,” where the dancers wear black with frills and rotate in a staid minuet, speaks of the European influence instilled in the south.
“Sand Painting,” in which the dancers zigzag like the patterns on kente cloth, pulls the mind back to their African roots.
In this section, as well as the finale, “High Rise Riff,” the stunning versatility of Fagan’s dancers is realized.
Fagan’s technique, a sudsy mix of ballet, modern and African dance, is singular. The dancers can fly flat out like gazelles, hop straight up from a still pose or ripple their muscles, from shoulders to hips, like they were made of liquid.
Two of Fagan’s superb dancers — Norwood Pennewell and Nicolette Depass — link “Griot” together.
Their duet “Spring Yaounde,” is a romantic and sensuous pairing that offers the most rewarding and meaty part of “Griot.”
As they rolled their heads, from foreheads and chins, the intimacy was certain.
These two, both long and lean, are meant for each other. After years of dancing together, they mirror each other with a sensitivity that most life-partners can only dream of.
“Griot” is not perfect, however. The changes between scenes are long and distracting. And Puryear sculptures, like the giant head and the bent spatula, don’t add anything to the dance. They are simply there, leaving the audience to wonder why.
Also, on opening night, the dancers were quite shaky at the start of “Griot,” leaving a bad first impression. Happily, they found their centers before intermission.
Making up for the flaws is the Marsalis music. It’s supreme as its range speaks to the many levels of the human experience.
The only other disappointment was attendance. This was the smallest house for opening night in decades. After years of enjoying full to sold-out houses, the Pillow is obviously hurting from the weak U.S. economy. The arts are always the first to go.