The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has a list of dance trailblazers as long as Jacob’s ladder to heaven. And since its inception in 1932, this festival revolutionized not only American dance, but also the social respectability of male dancers. Consequently, the recent world premiere by The Bad Boys of Dance, Rasta Thomas’s year-old male dance troupe, pays homage not only to the Festival’s 75th season, but also to the company that began it all, in 1911—Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.
The athletic group drew gasps from the audience with its clean technique, multiple pirouettes, and buoyant jumps. However, one reference to the delicate, “feminine” stigma of classical ballet was featured in the hilarious “Figaro,” in which the dancers/choreographers Brian Arias, Robbie Nicholson, and Bennyroyce Royon quoted the sylph-like choreography from quintessential “tutu” ballets (such as “La Sylphide” and “Giselle”) as well as Kitri’s iconic fan solo in “Don Quixote.” With this movement placed alongside social dances and absurd images from popular culture—notably, the Macarena—“Figaro” was a tongue-in-cheek satire of the classical tradition’s feminine stereotypes, which has remained, sadly, a constant obstacle for professional male dancers long after the Men Dancers graced the Pillow stage, as well as Shawn’s death in 1972.
The Bad Boys offered a refreshing image of male sexiness. Guest artists Martin and Facundo Lombard, tap dancing twins from Argentina, portrayed a sizzling contemporary interpretation of the tango in their duet, “Tapngo.” Set to a dynamic score by Astor Piazzolla, the Lombards created a percussive fusion of styles by incorporating their tapping prowess with the rhythmic flare of tango. The strict form of this piece, demonstrating the Lombards’ virtuosity as choreographers as well, contrasted other dances (“Lombard’s Way” and “Swinging & Improv”) that relied on the sheer spontaneity of improvisation. The Lombards’ brand of chemistry and fun is that which could only be shared by twins.
The ambitious program of ten pieces was not cumbersome. Despite the dancers’ efforts, the choreography emerged as the weakest link of the evening. “Heartbreak on Repeat,” Roger C. Jeffrey’s four separate solos, featured unresolved narratives of romantic angst. The choreographer’s inclination towards dramatic gesture made the piece melodramatic amidst an awkwardly edited sound score (which the program credits vaguely as “Various Artists”).
Ultimately, The Bad Boys demonstrated the sheer athleticism and masculine energy one could discover in dance. During the company’s finale, “BBD Remix,” the dancers entered the stage with the energy of boxers entering the ring, accompanied to music often heard at the sports stadium. Such an image calls to mind Ted Shawn’s early efforts to equate dance with sports such as basketball. The Bad Boys of Dance reminded our twenty-first-century audience of what Ted Shawn taught us so long ago: that dance doesn’t, and shouldn’t, belong to tutu-clad women. Dance can, and should, be shared equally by both genders. And somewhere, up on Jacob’s ladder, Mr. Shawn proudly smiles down as his message, after 75 years, lives (and dances) again.