Reviewed by Jeff Slayton, June 25, 2015

Nestled in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, Jacob’s Pillow is one for the most respected dance festivals in America. It was founded by Ted Shawn in the 1940s and has been going strong ever since. Clive Barnes of the New York Times wrote “Shawn did not merely enrich American dance – He was one of the people who created it.” Each year hundreds of dancers from all over the world travel there to study dance and to see major dance companies perform; often premiering new works.

To be invited to perform at Jacob’s Pillow is an honor. Smaller, more unknown companies go through a rigorous selection process that includes many applicants and only a

Photo: Billie Donya Photography
Photo: Billie Donya Photography

few are selected. The Union Project Dance Company lead by Artistic Director and Choreographer Mariana Oliveira is one of those dance companies chosen for the 2015 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The company will perform on July 9th on the Inside/Out stage; the first LA based company to perform in this space since 2009. Here, I am reviewing an open rehearsal of the program that will be presented at “The Pillow”. This took place at the beautiful Dance Conservatory in Pasadena, CA. in a wonderfully spacious studio. Personally, I love seeing dance in the studio because if the choreography can not stand on its own in rehearsal, it will most likely not hold up onstage.

Fearing the Unknown (2013) is a powerful and “dark” work performed by eight very strong dancers, Trevor Downey, Heidi Buehler, Zsolt Banki, Annalee Traylor, Carolyn Pampalone, Nia-Amina Minor, Megan McCarthy, and Micaela DePauli. The driving and dramatic music for Fearing the Unknown is an original score by Music Director Michael O. Hurwitz. This work was by far the strongest shown today. It is full of powerful images and inventive lifts that help get across Ms. Oliveira’s images of “….having a conversation with death.” This work demands that the dancers have a solid technique, stamina, a constant focus on detail and the ability to totally immerse themselves in the dance. This current cast lives up to those demands. Ms. Oliveira proves to be an excellent director by getting her dancers to trust her choreography to provide them with the emotion she wants. I was not as impressed with the costumes, however, but perhaps they will read better onstage.

Photo by Priscilla Lewis
Photo: Priscilla Lewis

Mirror in a Mirror (2015) with music by Arvo Pärt is a somewhat melodramatic solo performed by principal dancer Chad Ortiz. Mr. Ortiz is a strong performer, but the choreography requires him to emote, laugh, cry and to speak. Once again a dancer is required to talk onstage without the proper training to project in order to be understood. I was sitting only a few feet from this performer and I could not make out much of what he was saying. We were told that Mirror in a Mirror is about a man reflecting on his past as he nears the end of his life. This reviewer could have done without the emotions being forced upon me. Here I believe that Ms. Oliveira did not allow her choreography to rule, but depended on gestures and facial expressions to make her point.

W.S. (2014) is set to music by Murcof, Michael O. Hurwitz, Alfred Deller, Readings of Sonnet 81, Hamlet “To be or not to be”, and the Romeo and Juliet balcony speech. It is performed by Trevor Downey, Heidi Buehler, Chad Ortiz, Mathew D’Amico, Zsolt Banki, Annalee Traylor, Carolyn Pampalone, Nia-Amina Minor, Megan McCarthy, and Micaela DePauli with costumes by Piece of Eight Costumes, CitiPark Runway, Adriana Oliveira, and Silvana Oliveira. The company’s PR states that W.S. was created for the celebration of the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare. It is very well crafted, beautifully performed, but it follows the text almost to a fault. It is, however, easy on the eye.

If what I saw today is typical of Oliveira’s repertoire, she delves into the human psyche, and by her own admission, addresses the mysteries of death. I would go see The Union Project Dance Company perform again because the dancers are talented professionals and I believe that Mariana Oliveira is a choreographer to be watched. Her talent is strong and I hope that she listens to her muses more often as she did while creating Fearing the Unknown. I am certain that the company will be well received at “The Pillow”.

Cover photo: Billie Donya Photography

Information about Jeff Slayton available at

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Jeff Slayton
Jeff Slayton has had a long and influential career as a dancer, choreographer, and educator. Born in Virginia in 1945, Slayton began dancing as a child in order to correct his condition of hip dysplasia. He enjoyed a performance career in New York dancing for Merce Cunningham, Viola Farber and others. In 1978 he moved to Long Beach, CA. where began teaching at California State University, Long Beach as a part time faculty member. He became a full time faculty member in 1986 and continued to teach at CSULB until 1999. Jeff Slayton was one of the faculty members that helped design the Dance Center at CSULB as well as develop and implement the BFA, MFA and MA degree programs. While in Long Beach, he formed his own company, Jeff Slayton & Dancers, that operated from 1978 to 1983. He continues to stage works in the Southern California area. He is also the author of two books, "The Prickly Rose: A Biography of Viola Farber" and "Dancing Toward Sanity". For more information on Jeff Slayton please go to


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