Jacob's Pillow talk: H-Town invades historic East Coast dance fest, lures celebrities

September 1, 2012
Culture Map
Nancy Wozny


"Nancy!" screamed Marlana Walsh Doyle. The dancer charged across the great lawn at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, and after a quick hello hug, she was off to join her fellow dancers of The Houston Metropolitan Dance Company to rehearse for their Pillow debut.

August means, for me, a trip to the Pillow to talk, breathe, sleep and live dance during my stint as a scholar in residence.

Doyle and I weren't the only Texans to make the historic dance trek: This summer, there was a Lone Star invasion of the historic Berkshire, Mass.-based festival, starting with Trey McInyre Project and Houston native Allysen Hooks performing with Dance Heginbotham from Aug. 8 through 12, followed by Stanton Welch's world premiere on The Joffrey Ballet in the Ted Shawn Theater from Aug. 22 to 27 and The Houston Met on the Inside/Out stage on Aug. 25.

Joffrey Ballet tackles Stanton Welch's sleek new ballet

Let's start with Welch's new world premiere, Son of Chamber Symphony, set to John Adams' dynamic work of the same name. One of Welch's most musical and witty pieces, the ballet made nods to several classical ballets and felt like a love child borne from his buzzy Divergence and the exotic climate of Tutu.

Full of Welch's signature gestural flourishes, Son of Chamber Symphony also showcased the mighty talents of the Joffrey dancers. Travis Halsey's diagonal designs on the tutus mirrored the architectural lines of the Ted Shawn's rustic barn doors, adding to the polished geometry of Welch's choreography.

This was Welch's second trip to the famous dance rock. Last season, Welch set a new work on the ballet students for the Pillow gala, when he crossed passed paths with his old friend and Joffrey's artistic director Ashley Wheater. I liked to imagine that these two dreamed up the new ballet over some yummy French toast at the Stone Dining Room, but they didn't — a ballet takes years to plan.

One of Welch's most musical and witty pieces, the ballet made nods to several classical ballets and felt like a love child borne from his buzzy Divergence and the exotic climate of Tutu.

"But we did discuss where the ballet might premiere," says Welch, who was in attendance for the Joffrey premiere, along with executive director Jim Nelson and Houston Ballet patron Frank Hood. "The Pillow has such historical significance."

Wheater and Welch go way back. "I knew him when he was a principal at The Australian Ballet. I was about 10," recalls Welch. "He knew Mom and Dad, too."

Their paths crossed again at San Francisco Ballet when Welch choreographed several ballets for the company and Wheater served as an assistant to the artistic director. When Wheater took the Joffrey post in 2007, they kept in touch, and talk of a Welch ballet became a possibility.

"I like the company; they have made a huge jump under Ashley," says Welch. The choreographer has set ballets all over the world, but selects his outside work carefully since taking the helm of the Houston Ballet in 2003. "It's like an adventure, and a time for new discovery. These are dynamic and driven dancers."

Houston dancer on the rise

What a great joy to run into Hooks performing in Dance Heginbotham, founded by 14-year Mark Morris Dance Group veteran John Heginbotham. An HSPVA alum and a Juilliard grad, Hooks' career is on an upward trajectory — and in New York of all places, the most competitive of dance communities. 

Hooks' crisp and exact dancing are a perfect match for Heginbotham's novel phrasing and unpredictable theatricality. She was a stand out as the female lead in Closing Bell and in Heginbotham's darkly whimsical Twin, which was developed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. In addition to Dance Heginbotham, Hooks also dances with Michelle Mola + Zack Winokur / The Troupe and Esme Boyce Dance. I expect to be seeing more of Hooks on New York and, perhaps, Pillow stages. 

Bringing out the celebs

Earlier in August, Trey McInyre Project performed a trio of heartfelt works including Leatherwing Bat, the very work that launched the company as a full-time troupe in 2008. (That I got to be his Pillow scholar was yet another treat.) The company resides in Boise, Idaho, but that doesn't stop dance lovers from calling Trey McIntyre our "Houston dance son," nor does it keep McIntyre from referring to the Bayou City as his "artistic hometown."

McIntyre, who marked his fifth performance at the Pillow, cut his choreographic teeth at Houston Ballet under Ben Stevenson, where he served as a choreographic associate from 1998 to 2008. He choreographed Skeleton Clock, his first ballet for the company while still a member of the Corps de Ballet, at the age of 20.

There's no other way to say this: The Houston Met rocked the Inside/Out stage.

That Girl — as in Marlo Thomas — and hubby Phil Donahue showed up to see McIntyre's world premiere, Ladies and Gentle Men, based on the Emmy and Peabody-award winning show Free to Be...You and MeThat show was headed up by Thomas and a cast of entertainers including Diana Ross, Harry Belafonte, Michael Jackson and Alan Alda, who was also in attendance at McIntyre's premiere.

Houston Ballet's rep is chock full of McIntyre classics including the fantastical Peter Pan, which closes the ballet's upcoming season. McIntrye looks forward to next June, when he'll return to Houston to freshen up Peter Pan on a mostly new set of dancers. 

Houston looks good

There's no other way to say this: The Houston Met rocked the Inside/Out stage. The audience leapt to its feet after the show featuring Larry Keigwin's "Air" section of The Elements, Kiki Lucas' Rebound and Kate Skarpetowka's Stand Back. With a powerhouse program, luscious dancing and a magnetic stage presence, this small company made its mark on the storied mountain stage. It was a smart choice to include Keigwin — a Pillow favorite — whose joyous moves looked scrumptious in the great outdoors.

Sure, it was a proud Houston moment, but the crowd also roared when Doyle told them she was a Massachusetts native. The wonderful Met dancers included Doyle, Christopher Cardenas, Kerry Jackson, Allie Kronick, Terrill Mitchell, Katie Heintz, Noa Tumpkin and Lisa Wolf. Lucas, whose piece added to the evening's drama, did a terrific job introducing the company and each piece.

"I could feel you beaming from the audience," Doyle told me after the show.

What a great way to end my dancecation, watching hometown dancers perform with stunning grace, framed by mountains and the dramatic late summer Berkshire sunset.