The Covid era has been bad news/good news for Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Bad news: in addition to being closed by the pandemic, at the end of 2020, the Doris Duke Theatre, the company’s cozy second stage, burned down in a still unexplained fire. Last summer and again this year, some performances that would otherwise have been at the Duke have moved to the Pillow’s outdoor platform stage.
The good news (in a glass-half-full sense, anyway) is that the closure has allowed the festival to begin long-overdue renovations to the Ted Shawn Theatre, the massive one-building barn that anchors the campus, named after the co-visionary of the festival. -founder. Now it’s open and, to the casual eye, virtually unchanged – still the deep, wide auditorium with its roughly hewn walls and cathedral-like heights, but no sign of the grand character portraits of Shawn and his co-founding wife, Ruth St. Denis, who served to flank the proscenium. But the modern world has been applied to the technical aspects, including the most anticipated update, the air conditioning – which, on the opening night of the second week of the season, was still having “difficulties”.
This week, through Sunday, the Great Hall is hosting the world premiere of a work that was to be part of the canceled 2020 season, by the Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE dance company. Proof, that is, of faith in the unseen, including ancestral spirits, and of suffering, endurance and ultimate victory, expressed by moving bodies. Brown’s work, which dates back to the 1980s, incorporates influences from the African diaspora and is inspired by the struggles and aspirations of black people. From the evidence of this week’s program – my first encounter with this longtime Pillow favorite – diasporic influences were not at the forefront.
Social/political themes, however, are abundantly present in the new work, titled The equality of night and day. Projections on hanging banners documented social justice movements around the world, and much of the soundtrack consisted of excerpts from speeches by Angela Davis. (“How do we imagine and fight for a democracy that does not engender forms of terror?”) These orations alternated with original music performed live by composer/pianist Jason Moran, some of which was inspired by plays by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.
Despite all the audio-visual substance, I found it difficult to relate it to the scenic movement, which seemed independent and sometimes at odds with its context. The ensemble’s movements and flowing costumes kept reminding me of whirling dervishes, and a final ritual in which the dancers laid their garments in a heap on the floor felt like sacred offerings, but to what?
One episode of the play – a soloist surrounded by a circle of slow-moving dancers – hit home, if you knew its meaning. A PillowTalk pre-show explained that it stems from the mourning ceremony of African elephants, which form a circle of love and support around a dying limb. But you had to know it to get it.
The dancers, however, are sensational. Where the lean, supple “dancer body” is still de rigueur in most quarters, not all of Brown’s cast fits the model – especially the tall, substantial Joyce Edwards, whose energy, focus and agile majesty caught my eyes every moment she was on stage.
Two works from the 90s have been taken over for this programme. Guardians and Upside down, both with music featuring British/Nigerian singer Wunmi Olaiya, traced the progressions of life and death from African and Native American traditions. But again, you needed advanced knowledge to interpret the action.
For me, the most satisfying sight of the evening was the second headlining performance by Los Angeles-based BodyTraffic. It was on the Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage, the former Inside/Out space, perched on a gently sloping hill overlooking a wooded valley, improved (and renamed) last year, with real seats instead of rocks scattered and garden chairs.
Three short films with very different soundtracks showed the versatility of the company and demonstrated its strengths. Tina Fickelman Berkett’s troupe works with a variety of guest choreographers, and the pieces reflect the dancers’ individual styles and choices, a showcase of soloists working in tandem.
by Matthew Neenan a million voices featured a handful of tracks by 1940s-50s jazz-pop star Peggy Lee. Songs ranged from classics like “Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Told Me),” featuring the band Benny Goodman, to “Freedom Train,” a patriotic duet with Bing Crosby. The choreography created abstract reflections on the rhythms of jazz.
Fall Notes, choreographed by Brian Brooks, was a pas de deux with dancers Tiare Keeno and Guzmán Rosado, to piano pieces by Leoš Janáček. The couple’s graceful interaction reminded me of improvised contact, responding to each other’s gesture and touch. For my companion, “It was as if they were embracing the earth, submitting to it like a third partner in the dance.”
Instantaneous, put together by Micaela Taylor, was based on clever samples and deconstructions of tracks by James Brown edited by SHOCKEY. The most literal – and of course funky – of the tracks, he skipped over lines like “And after the man’s done it all / You know the man get money to buy another man”, from ” It’s a man’s world,” to recreate edgy moments from the streets of LA. Ty Morrison took center stage for much of it, bringing an explosive hip-hop feel.
Next week, from July 6 to 10, the main stage is taken over by vintage and contemporary jive, in the hands – or rather the feet – of SW!NG OUT (this is not a typo). It’s a swing dance jamboree created by choreographer Caleb Teicher, with live music from the Eval Vilner Big Band.
He is accompanied on the Leir Stage, from Wednesday to Saturday, by a series of one-night adventures by various companies: JazzAntiqua, described as “celebrating jazz as a common thread in the cultural fabric of African American history and heritage”; Prakriti dance “uses the movement vocabulary of classical Indian dance to transcend cultural boundaries”; crossing borders Bill Shannon, doing hip-hop and skateboarding with crutches; and The Korea Center for the Performing Arts in New York, “dedicated to promoting an understanding and appreciation of Korea’s artistic heritage and history.”
Visit jacobspillow.org for tickets and info.
Pictures of Christopher Duggan
Featured Image (BodyTraffic) by Jamie Kraus
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