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'The Other Here'
Heather Christian and Jennie Liu of Big Dance Theater performing "The Other Here." (Photo by Paula Court)
Dance Review

Sweeping themes, and a search for connection

BECKET -- Big Dance Theater does, in fact, think big. The New York company's latest piece, "The Other Here," touches on love and loss, memory and aging, ambition, regret, responsibility, class systems, commercialism, the burden imposed by the things we care for and care about . . . you get the idea. It's a richly layered, multitextured work that sometimes overreaches and often befuddles, but always engages and greatly entertains.

It's easy to see why the company has created only one work per year during the decade and a half of its existence. The Obie Award-winning troupe, under the co direction of Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, crafts its distinctive amalgams of dance, music, text, and drama through intensive experimentation and company collaboration. The festival just presented its first ever Jacob's Pillow Award for Creativity to the company in acknowledgment of Big Dance Theater's imaginative vision.

So the works themselves can be forgiven a little messiness and di gression. "The Other Here," commissioned by Jacob's Pillow and New York's Japan Society, is perhaps at its core a rumination on the meaning of existence and the quest for purpose. And though the themes are broad, the specifics are intimate: six characters in search of meaningful connection.

The production starts as the enactment of what seems like a Japanese fable. (Some of the text is drawn from the short stories of Masuji Ibuse .) It involves Medhi, a legendary insurance salesman (Lazar), his loyal manservant (Molly Hickok ), the servant's slightly ditzy wife (Jennie MaryTai Liu ), a faithful friend (Chris Giarmo ) , and the friend's devoted widow (Heather Christian.)

But fragmented and reconfigured in Big Dance Theater's vision, time is warped and East and West are intertwined into an inventively skewed scenario involving Medhi attending the annual Million Dollar Roundtable conference of insurance salesmen. As the text begins to incorporate transcripts of the gathering, the material turns both metaphorical and provocatively contemporary, with comparisons between the business of selling and the business of living.

Sporting both fedora and kimono, Lazar's Medhi offers a convincing diatribe on the importance of taking risks. A smoothly smarmy emcee /motivational speaker (the remarkably effective Jess Barbagallo , an actress who comes across as a precious 12-year-old boy) works the audience like a self-help guru, reminding us, "There is so much magic in what we do." Periodically, the lights come up on the audience for questions from plants about such topics as the right time to buy life insurance and how to deal with the fear of making a "cold call." It all comes down to a simple statement : "The truth of life lies in its impermanence."

Big Dance Theater's performers are vivid, charismatic actors and terrific dancers. Though there's not enough of it, the choreography, which spontaneously erupts every now and then, brilliantly fuses Okinawan folk dance with contemporary idioms -- the movements of hip-hop, the energy of street dance. Christian imbues the Okinawan pop tunes that occasionally arise with soulful, heartfelt edge.

Takeshi Kata's evocative set design (beautifully lighted by Jennifer Tipton ) combines spare Japanese elements -- tatami mats, translucent screens, a large white branch that changes leaf color -- with some high-tech touches. The video image of a white carp given to Medhi as a gift of friendship seems to swim first inside a bucket, then under a frozen pond, a symbol of both the burden of responsibility and the perennial dream of freedom.


Big Dance Theater

At: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Thursday night (through Sunday). 413-243-0745 ,