Archie Burnett, foreground, dances in his "Life Encounters" on the outdoor stage at Jacob's Pillow. (Photo by Christopher Duggan)
When Archie Burnett plunks done at the rim of the outdoor stage at Jacob’s Pillow, one expects to hear a story. And indeed, one does.
In his “Life Encounters,” we hear and see Burnett narrate the parallel journey of his life and that of the club scene in New York City and beyond. We see him grow from a child whose mother disapproves of his watching “Soul Train” on the Sabbath to his voguing and waacking as the First Father of the House of Ninja.
And it’s delightful.
“Life Encounter: Archie Burnett” is another example of the Pillow’s dedication to inclusion – not just to formal theatrical dance but to the street and club dance as a way to enlighten the often staid Pillow audience.
Over the years, Pillow management have often done that. But this year’s effort is more concerted with the curtain welcome read in English and Spanish and with the Executive Director Pamela Tatge thanking, at the start of each show, the Native Americans – naming every tribe -- who lived on the Pillow grounds long before Ted Shawn showed up there with his Men Dancers. This, hopefully, will spark an awakening in all of us.
But back to Burnett, who is charming. He appears in a white tank top and yellow wind pants. Then, swaggering across the stage waving his arms, he takes the audience back to the 1970s when disco and the hustle were king.
Six other dancers join him on stage. And to the infectious sounds created by Steve “DJ Chip Chop” Gonzalez, it becomes a party.
Burnett and his dancers are a diverse set of technicians who can show off the skills of each type of dance. Burnett is a vogue artist supreme who can work his arms like a hibachi chef wields knives. And then there are his legs that he kicks to hit his nose and the split that he lands with all hitting the floor.
Abdiel is a hustler – gliding through different members of the ensemble – taking them in their (preferred pronoun) arms to whisk each dancer across the stage. At one point, the music goes quiet, allowing the audience a moment to examine the smooth intricacy of their steps. It is beautiful.
Burnett moves through post-disco house, with its fancy footwork that moves the body closer to the floor and away from the partnering of disco. Here Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Maya Llanos shine – switching up steps faster than the eye can absorb.
The big number is “Vogue” with all the dancers recreating the nightclub scene – with dancers in drag, strutting like runway models in their spiked heels (how do they do anything in those?). Donning frilly garb, they come to the edge of the stage and slay the audience with their sharp, daring motions.
At one point, Burnett talks about teaching in Amsterdam, relating the experimental dancing there. But that section is not as insightful, thus it falls flat.
Also, disappointing is the recorded track of Burnett’s voice. He lip-synched his story, which is an impediment to a full embrace of the audience. However, a microphone on a dancer is not easy to technically achieve, but worth a try on a small stage like the Pillow’s.
By the ending, all questionable choices are forgiven. Here, each dancer takes turns showing off their specialty – including Asherie’s breaking and Llano’s African shimmying. Each is deserving of enthusiastic applause.
"Life Encounters: Archie Burnett" will continue at the Jacob's Pillow through Sunday.
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