The Doris Duke Studio Theatre was packed with all ages Sunday afternoon as the last performance of the 2010 season got underway. The world famous international dance festival could not have found a more perfect attraction for families than the Vanaver Caravan. The 35 year old company delivered an astounding afternoon of international music and dance that pleased children and adults alike. In many ways it was like the variations in the second act of The Nutcracker, lots of relatively short pieces to keep those short attention spans involved and delighted. In front of me was a very young girl, perhaps 5 or 6, who announced “I like them” or “I don’t like them” as each piece was danced. And to tell you the truth, I wanted to ask the emerging dance aficionado just why she liked one piece and not another. I see I will have competition in a decade or two.
But a pattern soon emerged to her pronouncements, and it is a key element of the Vanaver Caravan. This is far more than a dance group, the company members were constantly switching from the dance floor to the musicians corner where they each played a different, and exotic instrument. What my young friend would do is take an immediate dislike to each new instrument that appeared on stage. For example, when company member Fode Sissoko first appeared with a Senegalese Kora – or Joel Hanna began the ritual sequence of drumbeats on the Taiko, she would be unhappy, but as the music built and the dancing continued she became entranced, like a child discovering the pleasures of a new food for the first time.
Taiko drumming is, of course, loud, dramatic and very exciting. The Japanese instrument is huge, and the players immensely strong. It is used to announce the beginning of special events, as it does in Cirque du Soleil’s Mystere when a whole contingent of them descends from the ceiling, or as used recently in Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Macbeth, to signal important moments in the Suzuki styled Shakespeare play.
Some very traditional dancing was seen, as with the opening Invocation, utilizing the Kuchipudi style of Indian dance in whch Ganesha and Shiva were honored. From the Phillipines we were treated to Salip as styled by the women of the mountainous Kalinga Tribe. The men alternated with the women in many sections, and often were able to evolve one dance into another, as when the Bulgarian Pravo met the Irish Reel in “Fast Forward. “
Some familar dance forms were also celebrated, the Flamenco section being the longest of the evening, and for good reason. The variety of steps and moves in this form of dance, accompanied by rhythmic clapping and insistent music is amazing. Anna Mazo and Barbara Martinez showed themselves to not only be fierce practitioners of this art but people pleasers to boot. Some of the loudest applause of the afternoon followed their routines.
Isabel Taalsohn performed a Chinese ribbon dance based on choreography by Bill Vanaver, though with much wider strips of fine silk than I ever saw used by the Chinese. As a result this usually delicate dance of air and fabric came across as somewhat forced and more earthbound.
The first half ended with “Hangman’s Reel” to Au Bord de la Fontaine, a traditional Quebecois song with the typical French Canadian’s good humor coming through both the dancing and trick violin playing that added novelty to the piece.
The second half began with Curcuna, an unusual Armenian specialty danced by the full company, albeit initially divided into the men’s and women’s parts. Lots of sprightly steps and leaps, the boys sometimes scrunched up their faces like rabbits and the women would imitate the men’s moves, or create their own, exchanging roles and steps as the dance went on.
The lucky children sitting on a special row of pillows on the edge of the stage had the best view of “Awakening the Earth” in which a straw man would suddenly dart towards them, and their heads would snap back, followed by gales of laughter. This was quickly followed by dances of Bali, Brazil and Macedonia. There was even a dance from Transylvania, ”When Boots Colide” which morphed into a South African Gumboot Dance.
Of course there was dancing from the USA too, like “Backwater Blues” sung by Bessie Smith which told a story of unrequited love, and “Crazy Words” which had frantic Lindy and Charleston dancing to delight the old timers. There were plenty of grannies and grandpas in the audience too. Before the Appalachian Clog Dance which closed the show, there was a Halay from Turkey, based on “Semmeme” a traditional Kurdish song. It proved to be the most amazing of the evening, evolving into what can only be described as a Bollywood spectacular, looking like it was from Mumbai rather than mountains of Turkey.
Prior to the performance, dance critic and writer Debra Cash provided the audience with a fascinating preview of the company and its history with Jacob’s Pillow. Once the primary dance critic for the Boston Globe, she is among the legions of reviewers who find themselves moving on as the newspaper world continues to shrink. She finds folk art which is so beautifully presented by this company to be rooted in shared ethnicities and traditions, things that tend to be homogenized in American culture. As Debra said so well they are important since they invite us into “the world’s living dance traditions so that we, the audience, can meet them in our own time and in our own celebrations.”
As the curtain rang down on the Pillow’s summer season, the audience was invited on stage to dance with the performers, and as I made my way out of theatre some time later, the musicians were still playing, and both the young and old had taken over the Doris Duke dance floor to have the last dance of Summer, 2010.