Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 3, 2019

Review: Jacob’s Pillow “The Day”

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, MA
through August 4, 2019
by Stacie Beland

Photo by Hayim Heron
Wendy Whelan in The Day, a piece choreographed by Lucinda Childs with words and music by David Lang, is a sprit made of breath itself. Alternating between labored, ragged, reaching, measured, and flowing, Whelan presents a life force constantly trying to ensure existence.

The Day is a roughly four-act performance with onstage solo cellist Maya Beiser, a backdrop of alternating images, and a sparklingly reflective stage floor all of which add a depth to the experience of watching Whelan dance.

At the opening, Whelan appears in white and dances against Beiser’s cello (truly a pas-de-deux, despite Beiser’s minimal movement) and the spoken word performance that gives it its name. Whelan is precise, angular, and is nearly constantly bound or burdened with some kind of tether or banding (sticks, a yoke, a cloth person). She is never alone, she is never at peace. The spoken words, a series of “I” statements that offer no emotions whatsoever, highlight an undercurrent of universality to the human experience—it is no specific story and therefore the story of us all. The props are sometimes her burdens, sometimes her aids. Her costume changes abruptly to one of black fabric, and her movement slows.

After a brief blackout, there is a cacophony of sound:  an industrial noise, the shattering of music (literally), then calming rain, and later a re-start. Beiser’s cello now sounds as though the strings have been loosened, the music she plays is no longer the smooth, deep, rich sound the audience expects from a cello but rather a reverberating “off-ness.” Whelan reappears, the spoken word has disappeared. Whelan’s dance has changed, she is never still. However, there is something more calming about her presence, rather than the staccato movement of the prior movement; she is moving as though she is in the sea. Stillness in sea can mean death, Whelan is seen rising, falling, crashing, stirring. She is unburdened by props; she is dancing only against an imaginary tide of sea change. As the lighting begins to brighten, her turmoil seems to settle. She finds balance with the currents and undertows. She dances with them, rather than against them. Then, another change: A white curtain unfurls, Beiser moves position to face the backdrop, with her back to the audience. Whelan slowly cocoons herself into the curtain:  perhaps a rebirth, perhaps a death. Curtains projected onto the backdrop fall. It is a powerful ending.