Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 20, 2019

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Umanoove/Didy Veldman

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through July 21, 2019
by Josephine Sarnelli

It was Albert Einstein who wrote, “A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?” Choreographer Didy Veldman seemed to have embraced this philosophy in creating her work “The Happiness Project.” The stark set consists of four small boxes containing a multitude of props, that also function as tables and chairs. The stage is otherwise filled with four dancers and one violinist. The last scene even includes a bowl of strawberries.

Photo by Grace Kathryn Landefeld
Alexander Balanescu, the violinist, composed the beautiful musical score. While walking around the stage with the dancers as he performs, his role is somehow reminiscent of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town.” Whether being the catalyst for the dancers’ actions or responding to their needs, Balanescu is always an integral part of the performance. Veldman masterfully has him interacting with the dancers, rather than relegating him to an orchestra pit.

Unlike Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is more dance than theatre, Veldman’s   Umanoove tends more toward theatrics. The dancers have speaking roles and a significant amount of the evening is devoted to exploring the question raised by Balanescu, “What makes you happy?”

Through a series of solos, duets and pas de trois, the pursuit of happiness is addressed, oftentimes with humor. One dancer attempts to find happiness by affixing herself to a blissful couple, only to realize that their joy cannot be experienced simply by proximity.  

In another vignette, designer named products are extracted from one of the boxes and hoarded by a dancer. But instead of happiness, he finds himself literally tethered to his material possessions and encumbered in his movements.   

Dance enthusiasts will be thrilled with the technical proficiency and athleticism of all four dancers. They move fluidly in both their solos and duets; their lifts appearing effortless.

Although the duration of the performance is only 73 minutes, it seemed longer. Too much repetition is used to develop the theme, especially when employing props of plastic sheeting and a glass of water. Perhaps more dancing and less acting would keep the audience more engaged. Although an imaginative concept, the production borders on being an allegorical journey found in the genre of moralistic plays.

Despite these concerns, if Franklin D. Roosevelt was correct in suggesting that happiness “… lies in the joy achievement, in the thrill of creative effort,” then Veldman and her troupe should be pleased with their debut production.