In 2004, the Danish Dance Theatre (known then as the New Danish Dance Theatre) made a splashy American debut at Jacob’s Pillow in Western Massachusetts with a provocative program featuring video projections, jazz, blood-red body painting, and salty recited Beat-era texts by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Then a touring company with no permanent stage, the company has since grown. Under the leadership of artistic director and former Royal Danish Ballet dancer Tim Rushton, they’ve become the largest contemporary company in Denmark, where they’re known as Dansk Danseteater. In the past nine years, they’ve performed in the U.S. six times, including a well-received Celebrity Series engagement in Boston’s Paramount Theater in 2010.
This week they’re back in Massachusetts and in the Celebrity Series for a two-evening engagement at the Tsai Performance Center March 16 and 17, fresh off appearances at the Joyce Theater in New York and Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Once again the program takes on American culture. Press materials call “Love Songs” “neither a dance performance nor a jazz concert, but a successful mix of the two.” A video trailer of the work, which premiered in Denmark last year to full houses and enthusiastic reviews, shows dancers dressed as if they’re at the end of a long night at the jazz club, with women mostly in sparkly dresses and the men in vaguely retro dress pants and vests and ties, their shirts untucked and open at the collars.
The choreography, from what the video shows, marries the traditions of European dance theater – best exemplified, in my humble (or, um, totally obsessive) opinion, by Germany’s late Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal — and of American vernacular dance. It’s a pairing with a lot of potential: Both share a deceptively freewheeling or casual air that masks, to some degree, the dancers’ skill and efforts. Much looser in structure and carriage than classical dance, the kind of movements seen here – from the lifts and flips of the Charleston to the graceful, more modern ways in which female dancers lift male ones – can come off as languid or easy, especially with dancers as clearly accomplished as these. But don’t be fooled. They’re not.
I’m certainly looking forward to the performance, and to seeing how the British Rushton and his team of international dancers and musicians reflect some of our most prized endemic culture back to us. In my experience, European admiration of American culture is a funny thing, at once more fervent, perhaps because less taken for granted, and yet often slightly … off. Living in Berlin around Y2K, I experienced or heard about enthusiastic jazz sessions, spirited “Indian” culture re-creations, impassioned (and thickly accented) Brando impersonations, and Tex-Mex “Snäcks” that introduced ingredients no self-respecting guacamole should have to suffer.
Reviewing the 2004 Jacob’s Pillow performance in the New York Times, critic Anna Kisselgoff speaks well of the program, praising one piece, “Shadowland,” for capturing Ginsberg’s “encompassing universality of existence,” but writing that the second, “Graffiti,” “strives for an aura of alienation that is not persuasive enough.” You might be able to nail the steps, but really embodying a cultural phenomenon is much harder indeed.
That said, Rushton has been praised for his feel for music, with The Guardian writing of another program in 2011 that “it’s not just that the music feels like a strongly tangible element. It’s that Rushton’s choreography is so viscerally responsive to its fine detail, you can almost feel the notes as a rough, silky or chilly sensation on the dancers’ skin.”
If he’s as successful in this piece, then we’re in for a treat this weekend, because the score is phenomenal, a medley of jazz standards and pop interpreted by musicians Caroline Henderson, Nikolaj Hess, Nicolai Munch Hansen and Jacob Høyer. Included are some of our finest cultural exports: standards “All of Me,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Lilac Wine,” and “My Funny Valentine,” alongside the Grateful Dead’s “To Lay Me Down,” Dusty Springfield’s “I’m Gonna Leave You,” and “The Night Holds No Fear.” Love Songs, indeed, in many senses of the phrase.
Kris Wilton is an arts writer and editor whose writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Art+Auction, ARTnews, Photo District News, Art New England, Slate, the Huffington Post, and the Village Voice, among other publications.