They move in bare feet, laughing, advancing — taunting a backbeat and a flash of guitar — they’re riding the music with a core strength they hold like a keynote. On the opening night of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, five dancers from Kyle Marshall Choreography are performing Onyx, exploring the roots of rock music.
Marshall seems to sample movement as fluently as he samples music. James Brown. Tina Turner. A gospel chord of This Train goes by like a ghost, like an essence. Niara Hardister and Cayleen Del Rosario are dancing together, fast and swinging, with echoes of jazz club and all the variety in generations of Black social dance.
They hold story and expression even in a flick of a hand. Bree Breeden lifts a shoulder, Niara Hardister trails her fingers, Nik Owens opens his arms and beckons, bring it.
In Marshall’s hands, they are exploring a lineage of musicians. They began the work in part in the pandemic, they explained after the performance — exploring the history of the music, hearing the people who make it.
Sometimes they learned that the version of a song they knew was not the original. Sometimes they learned the voices and lives of people new to them. Over the course of the dance, they said, each of them will invoke a musician, or more than one, building bridges, between artists from earlier generations and their own lives.
Voices weave into the sound, Little Richard talking about his role in launching a generation of 1960s musicians — the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix — and influencing all the generations since.
When Breeden walks on in a robe sparkling like the night sky, they embody Big Mama Thornton, the iconic blues and R&B vocalist who originated Hound Dog (not Elvis Presley, explains Melanie George, associate curator and director of artistic initiatives, guiding a skillful conversation after the show.)
When Hardister comes in with her hair cascading over her shoulders, she’s offering a tribute to Betty Davis, the indomitable funk and R&B songwriter and fashion designer, who performed with top musicians from Herbie Hancock to Chuck Rainey and Alphonse Mouzon and married trumpeter Miles Davis — a woman comfortable in her own body, teasing and assured.
Owens opens one hand in a glove, with a ring, tracing a line from James Brown to Michael Jackson — spins with fast footwork and open shoulders, standing firm in a tide of sound. A chaos of noise builds, a raw feeling Marshall finds at the core of rock music — a place, he said, that sometimes we need to hold space for. And then the music surges through.
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