Dedicating 50 years to the singular pursuit of a creative endeavor is a moving study in fortitude; great architects like Germany’s Krystof Dientzenhofer and France’s Louis Bourgeois patiently committed themselves to structural feats that took more than half a century to complete, and the cultural aesthetic of cities from Chicago to Prague dramatically shifted once the dust finally settled. In the case of a Minnesota native named Jerry Pearson, whose awakened passion for the art of movement at the age of 12 would whisk him down a thrilling rabbit hole of training and travel and performance, ultimately landing him on the doorstep of UCSB’s Dance Department, one could argue that his 50-plus journey and conception of nearly 150 dance works have contributed to the architecture of our own city’s arts landscape with similar impact.
Last weekend, after an illustrious 27-year career with the UCSB Dance Department — not to mention a 20-year tenure as Santa Barbara Dance Theatre’s Artistic Director — a soon to retire Pearson rolled out a final curtain presentation at UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre, spotlighting a selection of his dearest and latest body of work. Given full creative freedom, Pearson pulled in resources from SBDT, the UCSB Dance Company, gaucho dance majors, university faculty, and guest choreographers to thoughtfully curate a four-piece collection of works over the course of four days, culminating in a celebratory gala that sent the dance department’s esteemed colleague off in style.
To watch Pearson’s work unfold in a methodical wave over the course of a single program was to breathe fresh perspective into familiar pieces, allowing audiences to approach his choreography from a relational point of view. The evening’s opener, “Amuse Bouche,” along with his reprise of the 1991 award-winning “Maze of Grace,” highlighted his confident grasp of dance as theater, thrusting a surge of idiosyncratic characters across the stage in fits of complex patterns that felt at once organic and brilliantly systematic. With declarations and superlatives flashing on-screen behind an energetic, high-kicking, and sometimes screaming set of dancers, encouraging one’s eyes to ravenously leap back and forth in visual splendor.
During the preview presentation of “Flutter” in the university’s Ballet Studio Theater last month, this delicate piece reflected the quiet intimacy of familial relationships, a trio of dancers dressed in slate-colored unitards lingering over each other in a repetitive, gestural language of almost-secretive movement. On the Hatlen’s larger stage, the extensions and lines of a deliberate arch and expressive arm opened up to a complex configuration of pattern and preening, giving the piece an expansive quality of freedom and flight.
Nothing could have prepared the audience, however, for the tour de force premiere of “Aspire,” Pearson’s final piece for the department, and choreographed in collaboration with area artist Kelli Forman. Revealing itself slowly through a fluid set of jumpsuited dancers clinging to the edges of the stage before spilling out onto the theater’s aisles, clamoring up scaffolding, and stretching across the proscenium’s expanse utilizing puppet string-like straps, the piece mounted with ferocity using spectacular effects and exquisite artistic details including the puppet wizardry of department vice-chair Christina McCarthy. The operatic display was held firmly in place by Pearson’s underlying message to his body of dancers: break free from the ties that bind, resist conformity, and reach confidently for the stars (the hovering astronaut moving with tai chi serenity brought unsolicited tears to my eyes.)
To experience Pearson’s work is to engage in an intimate dialogue with him; a fiery spectacle of political, emotional, and historical commentary studded with a clear and resounding reverence for his students and his craft. As a mentor, Pearson’s approach will encourage the next generation of dancers to leap forward with a confident appetite for the unconventional, and as an artist, his creative voice will live on through choreography that will undoubtedly continue to light up stages for years to come.
On the precipice of a new and uncharted chapter, and relieved of all proverbial obligations, it is still hard to imagine Pearson trading in a well-worn pair of jazz shoes for a sturdy set of gardening shears and an audience of perennials. One suspects that the last entry in this endearing artist’s expansive catalog of work has yet to be conceptualized; farewell seems hasty and oddly premature. And so, on behalf of Santa Barbara and the genre for which you have contributed preternatural dedication to, I will simply say thank you. Here’s looking at you, Jerry.