BECKET – As the principal dancer of New York City Ballet, Taylor Stanley has achieved a level of stardom that allows for the kind of artistic exploration that permeates “Dichotomous Being: An Evening of Taylor Stanley.” Somehow the show, which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, began in 2018, when Stanley surprised many with their performances in postmodern choreographer Kyle Abraham’s ‘The Runaway’, commissioned by the City Ballet .
Observers were struck by the quality of Stanley’s movement throughout this dance, which revealed deeper nuances in this already particularly sensitive dancer. It was a watershed moment; Stanley called this role, this expansion of possibilities of movement, a “gift”. And so, with Abraham as the project’s artistic advisor, Stanley performs in a program that, with recent or new works by choreographers Jodi Melnick, Andrea Miller and Shamel Pitts, scratches that new itch for artistic exploration. The past, however, is also present here, in excerpts from George Balanchine’s 1957 “Square Dance” and Talley Beatty’s 1947 “Southern Landscape”.
The program consists of three solos for Stanley and two group works. Esteban Cortazar’s colorful costumes and some striking choreographic imagery aside, Miller’s “Mango” (an adaptation of “Sky to Hold,” the 2021 ballet she directed for City Ballet) is, for me, the only weak point of the evening. Taylor, Ashton Edwards, Nouhoum Koita and Sebastian Villarini-Velez are giving it their all – and it’s exciting that Edwards are performing their roles, fabulously, on point – but the choreography feels shapeless and cliche. And, alas, in a way, the positive payoff of having Edwards dancing on point is almost negated by the fact that many of their moves recall the trope of need to save that women in ballets have often been subjected to.
At the other end of the stylistic platform is Melnick’s “These Five”, the brand new piece she has created for Taylor, Cemiyon Barber, Allysen Hooks, Marcella Lewis and Ned Sturgis. To James Lo’s often fairy-tale score peppered with birdsong and raindrop-like sounds, it’s an eerie, yet utterly absorbing dance, now tense as an approaching electrical storm, now free as the sunny aftermath of the storm. Melnick’s lines include precise, laid-back sequences that evoke both the bullish spirit of Twyla Tharp (she danced for Tharp) and the haphazard austerity of Merce Cunningham. It’s just shy to be too incongruous, and that’s part of his delight.
In the same way that Balanchine’s “Square Dance” joined, with easy charm, the folk/social dance forms of American square dancing with classical ballet, so does the simple but majestic environment of the outdoor stage of The Pillow seems the natural setting for Stanley to perform this excerpt, a curious and precious specimen that Balanchine inserted into the ballet years after its creation. Stanley said the solo “shows off the expressiveness that a male dancer can exude,” but the feeling, so to speak, is mutual; this quiet, lyrical solo, set to a pensive sarabande by Arcangelo Corelli, is an outlier in the otherwise talkative and lively ballet. It’s a great opening for the show, and, in the way they gently, immediately, command the stage, a testament to the kind of subtlety at which Stanley excels. A huge thrown turn is landed without a sound, a whipped pirouette opens upwards, like a sigh, in a backside attitude; or, after a series of open, erect rides, Stanley retreats into a private, sculpted shell.
It’s unclear whether even someone with Stanley’s formidable ballet skills can handle Beatty’s “Southern Landscape” “Mourner’s Bench” solo, his full modern dance, illustrating some of the African-American experiences at the end of the rebuilding period. It is a technically extremely difficult dance, steeped in long one-legged balances or difficult sequences in which the dancer is lying, prone, on the titular bench with arms extended and legs hugging underneath. Stanley, who was trained by PHILADANCO! artistic director Kim Bears-Bailey, is a revelation, however, exuding a restrained, unaffected and singular lens.
In Pitts’ “Redness,” the closer program, Stanley alternates between tying and uncoiling in twisted positions or traversing with a kind of awkward staccato intensity. Like “These Five”, the piece is not “easy”, meaning it gives viewers a more familiar flow of experience, but like Melnick’s dance, Pitts’ is nonetheless convincing. More so, given Stanley’s mesmerizing performance, full of power, but in the end, I realized, also full of the hardest thing of all for a performer: vulnerability. One definition of “dichotomy” is division. Stanley may feel divided, even conflicted, by what the new avenues of movement mean, compared to their long ballet history. I selfishly hope that Stanley will continue to dance in ballet roles as well. I hope they find that what they discover about movement possibilities in other genres can enhance their already exceptional ballet skills. Maybe what started with “Runaway” wasn’t the start of a division opening up for Stanley, but a merging of their whole selves.DANCE REVIEWWhat: Being Dichotomous: An Evening of Taylor Stanley
Where: Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, Jacob’s Pillow Dance, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Until July 31
Performances: 6 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $25 — $35
Reservations and more information: 413-243-9919, jacobspillow.org