Flouting Genre Boundaries and Stereotypes of Stereotypes (and Just Creating a Fun Time!): Bad Boys of Dance and Mimulus at Jacob's Pillow

Okay, here are my reviews, finally. Sorry it took so long!

The word Dance can be political, as I’ve discovered lately. A certain TV show combined with a current local exhibit (which is, sob sob, no longer local) have caused a bit of a stir here over what constitutes dance, and who, if anyone owns its definition. I thought when I left my job at night to go to my ballroom studio or a ballet performance I was leaving the world of politics behind :) Don’t get me wrong: I’m very glad people are becoming more aware of diversity in dance and are thinking and speaking more critically about it, but if you’re a lover of both ballet and Latin, you can feel kind of caught in the middle sometimes.

Anyway, this is all by way of saying how wonderful it was to get away for a couple of short days and head up to Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest dance festival in the country now celebrating its 75th Anniversary with a host of diverse dance programs ranging from ballet to social to hip hop to world dance. The festival, which this year includes 21 companies from four continents and 10 countries, takes place in the idyllic Berkshire Hills on a farm that dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought in 1931 to house his Men Dancers, a company he created to showcase male talent, foster respect for dance as a suitable occupation for men, and combat stereotypes of male dancers as effeminate (which we know nothing about these days right!! — oh and thanks so much you guys for those excellent comments on my homophobia post!). The farm also served during the 1850s as a safe house on the Underground Railroad. With this history, it’s only fitting then that the festival, the only one to be declared a National Historic Landmark, encompass as it does the virtues of democracy, internationalism, and diversity. For a powerful, personal account of the history of the land and the festival from the perspective of one of last year’s dancers, go here.

So, I saw Mimulus, a Brazilian social / contemporary troupe on Wednesday night, and Rasta Thomas‘s Bad Boys of Dance, created with a nod (but just a nod!) to Shawn’s Men Dancers, on Thursday.

Okay, first Mimulus:

(images taken from Jacob’s Pillow site).

So fun! Their program, entitled “Do Lado Esquerdo De Quem Sobe” which translates from the Portuguese to “On the Left-Hand Side of Those Who Go Up,” was a splendid blend of social Latin and “contemporary” dance. Since I know there’s some confusion over what “contemporary” means — and I don’t profess to know myself — I’ll just say that to me it’s ballet without toe shoes or the themes and ‘pyrotechnics’ of classical ballet (like the 10,000 fouette turns performed by women or big walloping barrel turns all around the circumference of the stage done by men). And, to me, contemporary is not “modern” because modern has a certain look and feel to it — perfectly parallel, almost inwardly pointed toes, Martha Graham-ish arms appearing to emanate directly from the back as if they’re wings, etc. etc. Modern is interesting, but it has a certain quality about it to me that is dated, the same way modern art or modernist literature (Picasso, Matisse, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, etc.) has a time period. Although… the woman who taught our modern dance class at the Pillow taught us a routine she learned from Urban Bush Women, which is not dated… So, okay, I don’t really know anything about all of this nomenclature, but contemporary dance to me (and the way I’m using it here) means updated, modernized ballet that can easily be blended with other dance forms like social Latin (as in Mimulus) or jazz and hip hop and gymnastics (as in Bad Boys) to create new movement that contemporary audiences can identify with and relate to.

Okay, back to Mimulus… I love this company, from their name to the title of their program to their blend of dance styles! A “mimulus” is a genus of fauna known as the “monkey flower,” which, supposedly when squeezed, resembles a monkey. It is also, in medicinal folklore, a remedy for fear, any fear, so long as it’s named. The title of their piece, as they explain, refers to “those who go up the hills, who go up through history, who go up the body” (the heart, they point out, is located on the left side of the body). It has literal meaning: on the left-hand side of Ituiutaba Street in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, there is a group of sheds in which company members gather each day to practice, and to follow “the pulse of the city, stretching and shrinking in its confusing occupation of urban spaces.” The left also has political meaning, as the group aims to “construct and deconstruct, subvert, re-read dance and life.” Slavery was abolished in 1888 in Brazil, making it longer-lasting there than elsewhere. Social dance and music served to integrate newly freed slaves into the culture, which was then already a blend of Portuguese and indigenous peoples, resulting first in Choro, an eclectic, urban form of music and dance, then Samba (yay!!!), the national dance, a mix of African, Latin, and European. I feel like, ironically, and maybe I’m totally wrong about this, but from the people I’ve met and films and videos I’ve seen, it seems that, though slavery lasted longer in Brazil than here and elsewhere, there’s more integration there. Here for example, whites are not integrated at all with Native Americans, who remain confined to their reservations..

Anyway, I’m not sure I saw all the “subversion” and “deconstruction” and “re-reading dance and life” that they referred to in the program, but what I did see I loved nonetheless! What I definitely liked about Mimulus was that the combination of contemporary and Latin social dance worked so very well for me. There was just enough abstraction and enigma in the contemporary, balletic movement and the use of some of the props — giant rubber bands, shoes, plastic bags — to keep me curious and wondering what the piece was all about, while the Latin social dance — movement understandable to me and to most, I’d think — created an atmosphere of fun flirtiness, romance, harmony, elegant partnership, and just overall happy togetherness. The social dances themselves were all merged together into a unique blend of samba, salsa, tango, and even American-based swing. There would be several couples dancing this melange of Latin and American social dances, and then a balletic couple would emerge performing more abstract, lyrical movements with beautiful lifts, etc. But the social and balletic actually melted together here, rather than being on some kind of continuum. To me, this contrasted with, for example, Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe from 1973, in which a classical ballerina, dancing on pointe would be center stage, surrounded by dancers doing more swingy jazzy movement, then the poppy social dance of the time. Tharp, I thought, was saying, classical ballet is my origin, the basis for all dance, but there are other, more popular forms of dance I’m interested in as well that stem from ballet, and they can all take up space on the stage at once. But here, it was as if the contemporary was more part and parcel of the social.

The running theme of the piece was symbolized by shoes: at the beginning, there are several pairs of unfilled lyrical shoes setting on the edge of the stage. Dancers would put them on, take them off, dance barefoot, dance with one foot bare the other shoed, and one dancer (usually male) would, at points, lift a female dancer who ran along the side of the stage, creating foot impressions right onto the set! These sets were really cool too. Symbolizing Brazilian urban architecture, at first they looked like they were made of some kind of boring, mundane metal. But you soon realized, when the dancers leaned against them (either from the front or back of the stage), or walked against them, they were completely pliable, so were actually made of silver-colored styrofoam or something. At one point, dancers from the wings would throw little blocks at the dancers onstage, and when the playfully humorous “block tossing” ended, you’d see little missing squares from the back wall, creating very interestingly abstract designs. The dancers offstage were clearly running along behind the set, taking blocks from it, then running into the wings and throwing them at the dancers onstage. So, architecture, as public space, is made for, and reflects, the needs of the community, and it grows and evolves right along with it.

And, regarding the shoes: when newly-freed slaves walked for the first time as free people, the program notes, shoes were a symbol of freedom, of status. Even if shoes were not constructed to fit the wearer’s feet correctly, they hung from the owner’s shoulder, a symbol of consumption. I’m not sure if the trajectory of the shoes, unworn, then worn by some, then taken off and worn by another, then one pair shared between a couple, then taken off and the foot freed, etc. completely made sense, but it was evocative and funny and fun to try to figure out. And all of the beautiful partner dancing was a delight!

At one point, as I noted in my photo essay, a male dancer took out a plastic bag (the same kind inserted into our programs), then, with a music-less background, rubbed it, creating beats of sound for the center-stage sambista to dance to. He motioned for us to do the same with our bags. Who knew what a plastic bag could do?! To me, this said that dance in Brazil, and anywhere, stems from the people, along with sound. One doesn’t need an orchestra or stereospeakers to create music; danceable music can easily be human-made right on the spot.

Okay, on to Bad Boys of Dance, which we saw, first in snippets at an outdoor production on Wednesday afternoon, then in whole in the Doris Duke theater on Thursday night. What fun, as I knew it would be :) Like Mimulus, the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, very multi-talented group blended ballet with contemporary social dances — here not ballroom, but jazz, hip hop, capoeira / martial arts, gymnastics, and, as danced by guest artists, the cute Argentinian Lombard twins, bluesy tap and hip hop. The four-man group is led by probably the most famous contemporary dancer with ballet origins, Arab-American heartthrob Rasta Thomas. The others include Filipino-Canadian Bennyroyce Royon (a Winger contributor without whom I wouldn’t have heard of the group – thanks Bennyroyce!); Bryan Arias, a ballet dancer from Puerto Rico; and Broadway and competitive dancer Robbie Nicholson. Here are some pictures from their outdoor performance (which I posted in the album but am posting again here because I can’t help myself :) ):

Bennyroyce Royon

Bryan Arias

Rasta Thomas

Bad Boys of Dance and Lombard Twins

This was such a fun, juicy hodge-podge of dance that, like Mimulus, interfused together well. It was such a medley of movement it’s a little hard to describe, with most of the pieces containing within themselves several different types of dance. There was a lot of contemporary ballet (most of the men have extensive ballet training). But the ballet was combined, to fun, thrillingly unpredictable effect with gymnastics, capoeira / martial-arts-like movement, jazz, hip hop and even silly poppy social dances, like — I kid you not — in a piece choreographed by the dancers themelves, the Macarena! To be honest, I thought that was a bit corny, but Alyssa ate it right up! The mood would go from cutely funny to raucous and brazen to silly to beautifully serene and lyrical, to bluesy, to fast-paced, to techno and robotic- looking and so on. At one point, ballet’s classical vocabulary might be ridiculed (along with opera, as in “Figaro”, that piece choreographed by the dancers themselves that included Macarena), but in the next breath, ballet’s beauty and grandeur would be upheld. My favorite pieces were “Steel Visions,” a fast-paced jazzy number choreographed by Darrell Moultrie and set to Astor Piazzolla music; Robert C. Jeffrey’s “Heartbreak on Repeat,” a bluesy, beautifully lyrical piece danced by all, but containing a solo by Rasta that left me and Alyssa nearly on the floor; and “Take 4″ choreographed by dancer Bennyroyce Royon, a fun, fast, rhythmic, at times techno and robotic-like, very imaginative combination of ballet, hip hop and jazz. I was also blown away by the guest artists, the very hot Martin and Facundo Lombard — “the Lombard Twins” — from Argentina who were able somehow to combine hip hop, swingy blues and tap dance to mad fun, very sexy effect.

The funny thing is, what led me to the production, I have to confess, was the troupe’s name :) I am such a sucker for those crazy sky-high leaps and jumps and turn / jump / leaps, etc. that only male dancers are capable of :) Sorry, I can’t help it!!! But, besides the very first, very short number, in which Rasta did some of those aforesaid leaps from the classical ballet Le Corsaire — and then it’s only to show what the night is NOT going to consist of — no such thing existed here. I felt like, personality-wise there was a certain cockiness (albeit cute) to the Lombard twins that seemed very male, but, other than that, this program didn’t really showcase any type of dance strengths that were essentially male. Which ended up being brilliant.

Unfortunately, I never got a chance to see any archival footage of Shawn’s original Men Dancers, but, according to the resident Pillow scholar, Philip Szporer, who wrote a little note of commentary on the program, Shawn’s purpose with his troupe was, as I said above, to counter the then stereotype of male dancers as effeminate. So he often showed his male dancers in heroic, athletic poses, going out of his way to depict them as macho and ruggedly virile.

But here, there was no goofy crazy he-man posturing, no ‘look at me, I am man, I can lift my fellow man high above my head and toss him clear across the floor,’ no crazy stage-length leaps; it was just a bunch of guys dancing, dancing really really well. So, maybe Rasta is making fun of stereotypes with his naming of the troupe? Maybe his “Boys” are “Bad” because they don’t give a crap how they’re perceived; they’re dancers and they should be accepted as such, nothing more nothing less. It’s like he’s giving a big ‘screw you’ to all the homophobes. And how much do we love him for that!!! At the end, he has an emcee introduce the dancers by name, as if they’re heavyweight champions: “Ladies and gentlemen, weighing in at — pounds, from the Philippines is Bennyroyce Royon,” etc. It’s hilarious. And don’t get me wrong, what Szporer calls “the swoon factor” is most definitely there; if female dancers would have performed the same roles, Alyssa and I wouldn’t have been drooling all over the floor like we were, but we still would have been awed at the eclecticism, the excitingly unpredictable versatility, the talent.

Just a little note on Mr. Thomas, for people unfamiliar with him: I guess it makes perfect sense that this program was such a mouthwateringly savory stew of contemporary dance since Rasta himself is virtually a one-man amalgam of different dance genres. After being told by doctors he’d never walk properly following a horrible car accident at age 2, he threw himself first into martial arts, winning bizillions of black belt titles, then gymnastics, placing in the junior Olympics. When his plethora of championships led to serious cockiness problems :) , his father threatened to take his hubris down a notch by forcing him into a tutu. Not one to resist a challenge, Thomas took his first ballet lesson. At first, he hated it, but admitted that after he reached puberty and began to take an interest in girls, that all changed. After going on to, of course, win a bunch of ballet competitions, Thomas danced with Kirov Ballet, then began guesting at a slew of prestigious ballet companies. But he’s most known as the star of Twyla Tharp’s Broadway hit, “Movin’ Out,” and as an actor in the Patrick Swayze film “One Last Dance.” Anyway, Thomas now says he loves ballet, it’s his heart and soul, but its vocabulary is limited and there’s only so much you can do with it. The classics are at least 50 years old now, he says. He’s hungry for more.

I guess I both agree and disagree with him about ballet having limits. While certain classics’ ability to speak to the human condition, to provide poetry for the soul, to entertain and move audiences, make them timeless, like a Shakespeare play, ballet, like literature, will die as an art, will become only a historical artifact if the classics are relied on too heavily and there’s never anything new. But new doesn’t mean that balletic movement has to be abandoned, that it can’t be expanded, its vocabulary broadened, and its boundaries with other forms of dance tested to bring new meaning and vigor to the dance form. Isn’t that what he did here???

I’m sorry this ‘review’ goes on and on and on — they give you so much info at the Pillow — with their elaborate program notes, pre-show lectures by resident Pillow scholars and post-show talks with the artists themselves, there’s just so much you wanna talk about! Sorry!

For Ms. Dunning’s much more compact and far less sprawling take on these programs, go here for Mimulus, and here for Bad Boys.

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18 Responses to Flouting Genre Boundaries and Stereotypes of Stereotypes (and Just Creating a Fun Time!): Bad Boys of Dance and Mimulus at Jacob's Pillow

  1. Rachael says:

    We enjoyed having you at the Pillow this weekend and are glad you had a good time!

    If you’d like more images of the grounds and artists, please feel free to check out http://www.jacobspillow.org/gallery.

    Hope that you’ll visit the Pillow again in the future!

  2. jennifer says:

    thanks for the review on bad boys tonya! i wish i was there…

    i thought rasta was part Japanese??…but I may be mistaken.

  3. tonya says:

    You’re welcome :) Is he part Japanese? I can see that! Maybe you’ll have a chance to see them at some point — I hope they tour. They got a great reception there, and obviously he’s so famous I’m sure they’d do really well if they did.

  4. Philip says:

    Pillow founder Ted Shawn, despite his marriage to Ruth St. Denis, was gay and had as his longtime companion Barton Mumaw who was one of Shawn’s troupe of Men Dancers.

    Shawn has been credited with creating ‘a homoerotic style of modern dance”.

  5. tonya says:

    I really wish I would have seen some of that archival footage of Ted Shawn and his troupe… What was I doing screwing around in Shaker villages and Norman Mailer museums?… I’ll have to go back up there!

  6. tonya says:

    Oh thank you, Rachael, I just received your comment! I really had a wonderful time, definitely one of the best dance experiences for me. I do hope to come back!

  7. Susan says:

    Tonya, thanks for the reviews! You know how much I love Rasta, I wish I could have gone…

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  10. Parker says:

    Ugh, aching with longing to have been there!!

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