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DANCE REVIEW

Barbie and Ken are all dolled up at Jacob’s Pillow festival

Lucie Baker and Sean Donovan as Barbie and Ken in 'Beauty.' Lucie Baker and Sean Donovan as Barbie and Ken in "Beauty." (Cherylynn Tsushima)
By Janine Parker
Globe Correspondent / July 2, 2011

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BECKET - O Barbie! My Barbie! That revered and reviled icon of anatomic impossibility is the star (sort of) of the 2011 dance theater piece “Beauty,’’ which is being presented by Jane Comfort and Company at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

The aptly named Comfort approaches the subject matter of her dances with gentle humor and nostalgia. Tiptoeing into areas where some may fear to tread - cosmetic surgery, a possibly comatose child - Comfort makes even Barbie a sympathetic character.

“Beauty’’ sends up the absurd lengths to which we will go in our quest for perfection (read: conformity) through a series of loosely woven scenes created by Comfort and dramaturg Anne Davison. Dancers Lucie Baker, Leslie Cuyjet, Elinor Harrison, and Petra van Noort appear alternately as Barbies in a beauty contest - cheesily resplendent in sparkling leotards, shiny nude tights, immobile hair, and of course giant breasts - and as themselves, talking about the ways in which they conformed (or didn’t) as young girls, and what they hoped and dreamed for.

The gloriously silly Barbie sections are accompanied by a piped-in voice, breathy yet virginal, sharing greeting-card wisdom - “When you live your dreams you’ll find your destiny’’ and earthier goals - “My biggest dream is that Ken would walk in the door and ask me on a date.’’ Naturally, that’s when Ken (Sean Donovan, who excels in his menagerie of supporting roles throughout “Beauty’’) walks in. Before you can get in your Barbie Dream’Vette, the two are on the floor having stiffly unsexy sex.

The deadpan slapstick bubbles over when they perform the “Four Little Swans’’ dance from “Swan Lake.’’ Baker is the lone “human’’ alongside three Barbies, and while she’s kicking it through the tricky warhorse, the others hilariously struggle to keep up, given the doll’s tragic lack of turn-out and flexibility; she’s eternally on high demi-pointe, but can’t actually stretch her toes.

When Comfort turns to the darker side of the pursuit of physical perfection, “Beauty,’’ alas, is often only skin deep, as the issue of eating disorders is tackled with the insight and subtlety of an “Afterschool Special.’’ Still, the truth of her larger theme - that while most of us believe in the beauty of the individual, we still fall into easy traps - is cleverly illustrated at the dance’s end when audience members gamely vote for which Barbie should be crowned the winner. Ouch.

Comfort’s 1998 Bessie Award-winning “Underground River’’ also features voiceovers, and though this time they are those of the concerned parents of a young girl who is the victim of a grave illness or accident, the tone of the piece remains whimsical throughout, never maudlin. The performers are sprite-like incarnations of the child, who, though her body has been stilled, lives a beautiful life of the mind, singing and romping among birds and fish.

The dancers perform Comfort’s breezy choreography, Isadora Duncan-like in its simple skips and softly generous leaps, with such delicate ease that you can imagine the grass beneath their feet. A tiny puppet, the creation of the puppeteer Basil Twist, is extracted from the cage of an umbrella that floats down to these dreamgirls. They manipulate its limbs, first in funny little marches and kicks, and then it soars, swims, and floats across the stage. The vision is playfully mysterious and achingly beautiful.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com

JANE COMFORT AND COMPANY At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Thursday (through tomorrow). Tickets: $33-36. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org