Even though darkness enveloped the Durham Performing Arts Center stage on Friday night, an electrical current of excitement rippled through the audience as musicians Bela Fleck and his wife Abigail Washburn took their seats onstage for the American Dance Festival-commissioned world premiere of “Echo in the Valley,” a collaboration between the musicians and Pilobolus.
Known as “the king and queen of the banjo,” the couple won a 2016 Grammy for “Best Folk Album” for their first duo on Rounder Records. Fleck is known for the esoteric sounds he creates on the banjo and also the many, varied music genres he has traversed as a banjo player. Washburn, a singer/songwriter and clawhammer banjo player, has explored new territory by combining her banjo-playing with Far East culture and songs.
Given their pioneering spirits, it’s only natural that these musicians would eventually team up with Pilobolus.
At the beginning of “Echo in the Valley,” the couple strummed up a storm of sounds while Washburn’s pure, haunting voice edged with emotion contributed to the tragic tale of a coal miner’s wife (Heather Jeane Favretto), who died from grief after losing her husband.
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Three bright lights pierced the darkness onstage as three characters – call them coal miners for they wore the lights on their heads – portrayed by Nathaniel Buchsbaum, Krystal Butler and Jacob Michael Warren – came upon a woman motionless on the ground and watched her as Washburn sang: “Kentucky’s such a lonely – There’s an echo in the valley, I can hear it calling back to me, I will follow … My heart is tied to you.”
The onlookers soon lifted the woman and placed her in a circle of light where she began to slowly clog as though in a dream. Finally, they eased her back down and one of the men watched over her as though at a wake. She miraculously revived to slow-dance with the man who had watched over her, but soon was lifeless again, this time on a wooden slab. The men moved to carry her off, but as they approached the wings, she slowly rose to a standing position and raised one arm as she reached for the light that engulfed her in life-everlasting.
The Pilobolus program opened with the 2014 “On the Nature of Things,” a meditation on the beautiful, sculptural nature of dancers’ bodies and the way they support each other in an ever-shifting balancing act on a small, round pedestal.
“Branches,” a new work not listed on the program, came next and featured bird-like creatures (dancers wearing only G-strings), who made whistling motions with their mouths as we heard bird tweets. They cautiously looked around and then fluttered about on the floor as though bathing in the shallows of the gurgling stream that was part of the score.
The second part of the program opened with a piece from 2013 titled “[esc]” that was a collaboration with magicians Penn & Teller. In it, five Pilobolus dancers execute Houdini-like moves to extricate themselves from seemingly impossible situations.
Nathaniel Buchsbaum, his body tied into a tight ball, knees drawn to his chin, then placed into a tied up bag and then into a zipped up duffle, not only escaped but also, somehow, while inside the bag, managed to put on red pajamas.
The program ended with the 2007 “Rushes,” a collaboration with Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak, a magical work with compassionate charm and some versatile chair-handing by the six-member cast.
Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified the dancer in “[esc]” who escaped from the duffle bag as Jacob Michael Warren. It was Nathaniel Buchsbaum who performed that feat of magical dancing.
Pilobolus performs the same program at 7 p.m. Saturday, July 1, at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
For tickets: americandancefestival.org or 919-680-2787