“EARTH”: This element was defined by reptilian movement.
Larry Keigwin’s genial take on the perennially popular theme of the four elements (water, fire, earth, air) didn’t add anything profound to the cosmic intelligence. Performed by his company last week in Jacob’s Pillow’s Doris Duke Studio Theatre, Elements consisted of 16 individually titled sketches, each about four and a half minutes long, with no more substance than the foam that inspired them.
Keigwin can extract great mileage out of a tiny idea, like the contemporary choreographer he most resembles, David Parker. But unlike Parker, he doesn’t make the leap from mundane comedy to the sublime reaches of absurdity. “Water” introduces the company, who are clad in bath towels and seemingly nothing else. As they step in and out of a line-up, discreetly rearranging the towels, we’re longing to see one miscalculation, but the choreography prevents any untoward exposure. By the end of the fourth “Water” droplet, when we’ve given up on this, the last dancer does flash his butt, just as he’s disappearing into the wings.
In between these coy moments, Ying-Ying Shiau (“Sea”), in a teeny weeny polka-dot bikini, is partnered by three men in terrycloth bathrobes (accompanied by Cole Porter’s anything-but-coy “Let’s Do It”), and Alexander Gish (“Spa”) imitates Carmen Miranda in a towel and a towel turban. Liz Riga hands him restorative bottles of water, and he thinks up silly things to do with them before handing them back.
The first part of “Fire” seemed to be riffing on the idea of movement that swirls upward, enhanced by the extended sleeves on the dancers’ costumes (“Flicker”). To a Chopin Nocturne, Jenn Freeman, Nicole Wolcott, and Julian Barnett (“Simmer”) face what might be an invisible dressing-room mirror, trying out stagy postures and faces. Implicit rivalries get quickly extinguished. Wolcott spins from one spotlit area of the stage to another (“Burn”). Patsy Cline is singing “Crazy” but Wolcott is mouthing different words, maybe angry ones.
“Earth” summons up reptilian movement. Keigwin’s solo, “Gecko,” was the one authentically weird dance of the show. The audience Thursday night gazed uncomfortably at his darting tongue, his quick, predatory gestures, his distended yet withdrawn limbs and shoulders. The other dancers extrapolated his lizardly quickness into group dances and a slippery, circling solo by Liz Riga (“Dragon”).
“Air” begins with a walking dance — much of Keigwin’s choreography is built on walking steps and variants, running and skipping, with the upper body in constant descriptive action. In “Fly,” accompanied by the airline commercial “Up, Up and Away,” all eight dancers report, dressed as a flight crew, with their wheelies in tow. Something about the way they danced in formation to that music, mimed a seat-belt demonstration with reassuring artificial smiles, and then went off to their posts with cheery salutes struck me as ominously funny.
After two more vignettes — Shiau as a fairy-like creature in pink being wafted by Barnett and Andy Cook, still in their pilot’s uniforms (“Float,” to a Debussy Arabesque); and Keigwin and Gish in a lightly competitive duet (“Breeze”) — the company tore into a big closer (“Wind”) to music of Philip Glass. As they streaked in and out at breakneck speed, they evoked the electrifying finale of Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. Were they imitating this dance sensation, or mocking it? Or both? I wasn’t sure.
Keigwin’s modern-dance movement took second place in Elements, upstaged by jokes, props, and costumes. Most of the dancers have been with him for a while, and they threw themselves into their featured roles. But they didn’t always seem to have a point of view about their characters, or take us beyond superficial connections to the four natural resources. Since the company’s performances here in 2006, they seem to have compressed and polished the things they can do well, instead of pushing those strengths into riskier territory.