BECKET – If part of the allure of going to a club is how lost you can be in the hallucinatory and anonymous realm of the dance floor, imagine how eye-opening it is to go to a club to find his true self. (Or to find that true self, truly accepted by others.)
Self-proclaimed ‘club head’ Archie Burnett said a club is family-oriented, the kind ‘that accepts you for who you are and what you do’. The specific clubs that Burnett talks about are New York’s underground house clubs, as well as their precursors, the ball clubs that began to emerge in the 1970s and which Burnett discovered in the early 1980s. Burnett’s part memoir/part lecture demo show premiering this week on Jacob’s Pillow traces his journey from child addicted to the “Soul Train” to teenage beginner sailing, as one of the founders of the famous house of Ninja, the adult “father”.
The six dancers – fabulous, unique – who accompany Burnett also underline his continuing history, these days highlighted by his mentorship of younger generations. Now 62, Burnett is respectfully considered a grandfather of this house named after Burnett’s great friend – famed voguer Willi Ninja – who served as his mother.
As a young dancer in the Ball circuit, Burnett developed a style of movement distinctly suited to his own tall, muscular yet lithe body; Throughout “Life Encounters,” Burnett serves up small but juicy servings of this bespoke dance. The sweatpants and unassuming tank top he wears throughout the dance may belie his status as a true legend, but when he begins to move, he shines with the decades of virtuoso authority. In brief bursts, he frames his face and torso in a flurry of precisely executed arm positions, while his feet whisper to him sideways, forwards, backwards; sometimes he slips into a split, playfully reminding us that this grandpa can still come down, in every sense of the word.
Burnett’s short star turns also serve in a practical sense, as a bridge between the different parts of the performance, which, in addition to mapping its own trajectory, also serves as a basic primer for popular Ball and House forms. , especially Vogue and Waacking. There is a general looseness in the performance but at times the piece meanders, despite its brevity (it lasts around 40 minutes). Since this is such a personal work, I wish Burnett had spoken live, rather than via the pre-recorded voice-over narrative woven throughout the performance. I also suspect that this show will benefit greatly from being in an indoor theater, where the lighting and backstage can both provide a more fluid (and magical) sense of scene change, as well as create the sense of the dark and club underground.
Yet there are many things that bring us into this world. Steve “DJ Chip Chop” Gonzalez’s consistently funky score lends an infectious groove to the proceedings, while the dance sections evoke a variety of backgrounds and attitudes – wild party, track cool, space travel. Frequent costume changes celebrate this elaborate and flamboyant aspect of Ball culture: thigh-high boots; a bright pink, floor-length, ruffled dress; a yellow knee-length skin-tight jumpsuit; shimmering pants of different shades; cascading capes; wigs of different colors and textures.
The finale is one of those great sequences in which each dancer gets their moment in the spotlight — or, in the sunlight — and brings us back to the “come as you are” spirit of house circles. There’s Princess Lockerooo (Samara Cohen; these fantastical costumes are all courtesy of her), twirling her arms and sliding into a split; tall b-woman Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, twirling on her back or tying her legs together with pretzels; Deandre “Yummy” Brown, like a resplendent fish dipping to the ground/sea and upwards; Abdiel (Jacobsen) braiding their legs with skillful delicacy, salsa style, their purple chiffon cape/tunic fluttering like wings; Sinia Reid kicks her perverted booted legs with deadpan death while twirling her magenta-wigged head; Maya Llanos sparkles as she stutters her legs in a wide parallel as her torso curves in contrasting undulations.
On the heels of this generation are those of the next – many of whom have recently been drawn to the fascinating world of Waacking via TikTok – now hungry to learn more about the history and the people who were there. For beginners, there is always a place at this table.
ARCHIE BURNETT: ENCOUNTERS OF LIFE
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, until Sunday. Tickets $45. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org
Janine Parker can be contacted at [email protected].