BECKET — As a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, Taylor Stanley has achieved a level of stardom that allows for the kind of artistic exploration that infuses “Dichotomous Being: An Evening of Taylor Stanley.” In a sense, the show, which premiered at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival this week, began in 2018, when Stanley surprised many with great delight with their performances in postmodern choreographer Kyle Abraham’s “The Runaway,” commissioned by City Ballet.
Observers were struck by Stanley’s quality of movement throughout that dance, which revealed deeper nuances in this already particularly sensitive dancer. It was a watershed moment; Stanley has called this role, this expansion of range of motion, a “gift.” And so, with Abraham as artistic advisor to the project, Stanley stars in a program that, with recent or new works by choreographers Jodi Melnick, Andrea Miller and Shamel Pitts, scratches this new itch of artistic exploration. However, the past is present here too, in excerpts from George Balanchine’s “Square Dance” from 1957 and Talley Beatty’s “Southern Landscape” from 1947.
The program is made up of three solos for Stanley and two group works. Aside from Esteban Cortazar’s colorful costumes, and a few exciting choreographic shots, Miller’s “Mango” (an adaptation of “Sky to Hold,” the 2021 ballet she created for City Ballet) is the only low point of the evening. Taylor, Ashton Edwards, Nouhoum Koita and Sebastian Villarini-Velez give it their all – and it’s exciting that Edwards performs her role, fabulously, on pointe – but the choreography feels shapeless and clichéd. And alas, in a way, the positive payoff of having Edwards dancing on pointe is almost negated by the fact that many of their movements recall the trope in need of rescuing that women in ballet have often been subjected to.
At the other end of the stylistic platform is Melnick’s “These Five,” the brand new piece she created for Taylor, Cemiyon Barber, Allysen Hooks, Marcella Lewis and Ned Sturgis. Set to James Lo’s often fey score peppered with birdsong and raindrop-like sounds, it’s a strange yet utterly absorbing dance, now tense approaching an electrical storm, now free like the storm’s sunny aftermath. Melnick’s phrasing includes casually precise sequences that evoke both the shoulder-braided wit of Twyla Tharp (she danced for Tharp) and the casual austerity of Merce Cunningham. It’s just shy of being too incongruous, and that’s part of the deliciousness.
Just as Balanchine’s “Square Dance,” with its light charm, joined the folk/society dance forms of American square dance with classical ballet, so too the simple but majestic environment of The Pillow’s outdoor stage seems the natural setting for Stanley’s. performance of this excerpt, a strange, precious specimen that Balanchine incorporated into the ballet years after it premiered. Stanley has said that the solo “showcases the expressiveness that a male dancer can exude”, but the feeling is, so to speak, mutual; this quiet, lyrical solo, set to a pensive sarabande by Arcangelo Corelli, is an outlier in the otherwise chatty, sharp ballet. It’s a beautiful opening to the show, and the way they command, gently, immediately, the stage, a testament to the kind of subtlety Stanley excels at. A huge tour jeté is landed without a sound, a pirouette whipped into a pirouette opens . up, like a sigh, into a reset; or, after a series of open, upright rides, the Stanley folds into a private, carved shell.
It’s not a given that even someone with Stanley’s formidable ballet chops could pull off the “Mourner’s Bench” solo from Beatty’s “Southern Landscape,” his full-length contemporary dance that depicts some African-American experiences at the end of the Reconstruction period. It is an extremely technically difficult dance, imbued with long balances on one leg or core-challenging sequences where the dancer lies, bent forward, on the titular bench, arms outstretched and legs hugging the underside. Stanley, who was coached by PHILADANCO! artistic director Kim Bears-Bailey, however, is a revelation, exuding a sober, unaffected, singular focus.
In Pitts’ “Redness,” the program’s closer, Stanley alternates between locking into, and disconnecting from, distorted positions or traversing with a kind of awkward staccato intensity. Like “These Five,” the piece isn’t “light,” that is, giving viewers a more familiar kind of flow to the experience, but like Melnick’s dance, Pitts’ is nonetheless compelling. More so, given Stanley’s riveting performance, full of power but ultimately, I realized, also full of the hardest thing of all for a performer: vulnerability. One definition of “dichotomy” is division. Stanley may feel torn, even conflicted, by what the new paths of movement mean, versus their long balletic history. I hope, selfishly, that Stanley will continue to also dance in ballet roles. I hope they will find that what they discover about the possibilities of movement, within other genres, can enhance their already exceptional balletic gifts. Perhaps what began with “Runaway” was not the beginning of a division opening in Stanley, but a fusion of their entire being.DANCE REVIEWWhat: Dichotomous Being: 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: 18.00, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $25 – $35
Reservations and more information: 413-243-9919, jacobspillow.org