BECKET — Celebrating the re-opening of its main venue, the Ted Shawn Theatre, after necessary renovations, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is offering a program this week whose title, “America(na) to Me,” is at once playful and provocative. The Pillow, 90 years young this year, is itself a very particular example of Americana: The Shawn theater was the first built specifically for dance performance in the US, and accordingly, the Pillow’s exalted place in this country was sealed in 2003 when it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Curated by the Pillow’s Melanie George and Ali Rosa-Salas and produced by Katy Dammers, the make-up of the program is in homage to the mixed programs that Pillow founder Shawn presented for decades. The very full buffet George and Rosa-Salas offer us here is, as they said in their onstage speech, a “response” to Shawn’s idea of American identity. Thus, in addition to genres Shawn himself presented — Bharatanatyam, Flamenco, Modern, ballet — Jazz and Tap, styles he avoided, are also on the menu.
Homage is due to Shawn, for the legacy he helped build at the Pillow, and the crucial contributions he and his sometime dance partner/sometime wife Ruth St. Denis bequeathed to this country’s early Modern Dance scene. But the Pillow is also grappling with challenging aspects of the pair’s legacy, particularly their practice of performing, with their white bodies, dance genres from other cultures and ethnicities. Where does appreciation slip brutishly into appropriation?
In any event, this program is a giant party, really, one that’s kicked off exuberantly by the drummers and dancers of the Warwick Gombey Troupe from Bermuda, founded by Irwin Trott. Gombey is a dance tradition borne from the movements of enslaved people; in addition to their bright and fancifully ruffled costumes, today’s performers continue to wear the facial masks originally worn to hide the dancers’ identities. This group’s connection to the program’s America/Americana theme is through its ancestors, who were among the members of Massachusetts indigenous tribes, including the Mohican, Narragansett, Pequot, and Wampanoag.
In her 2014 “Dime Quién Soy,” Nélida Tirado infuses her formidable flamenco dance base with social dance to depict, abstractly, memories of her upbringing in her Puerto Rican family. Early on, Tirado seems paralyzed with anxiety, but with the support of her dancers she finds resolve; in a longer sequence for herself and the other women, they alternate between banalities — waiting for the bus or train — and brief forays out of the usual walk of life, their heels briskly rat-a-tat-tatting. When the men return, they’ve all made a remarkably fast costume change, and moving softly and in sneakers now, trip the light fantastic in a joyous, nostalgic glow.
Light and shadow play a significant role in Jasmine Hearn’s premiere “Trinity: Child, You Lost Water,” a haunting solo in which Hearn travels, like a ghost, like a memory, entering from the briefly opened doors at the back of the barn/theater and eventually exiting up an aisle and out a side door. Mike Faba’s lighting design and the accompanying soundscape are prescient partners to Hearn’s dynamics — Hearn at times seems to both float just above the floor, or to be swimming effortlessly with an invisible current.
It’s no slight to say that the odd duck in the program is Alex Tatarsky, whose tour-de-force performance of their 2016 “Americana Psychobabble” is meant to land with a loud, gloppy splat. An intentionally outrageous torrent of spoken-word/stream-of-consciousness text is accompanied with a kind of drunkenly strung together series of movements; Tatarsky’s character may forget what they said or did tomorrow morning, while some audience members may wish they could forget what happened, but for better or for worse, this fish-out-of-water performance was memorable.
The Pillow commissioned three works for this 90th season celebration. “Ar | Dha (‘Half’)”, choreographed by Mythili Prakash, is utterly compelling, visually and aurally sumptuous, with a now-stark, now-warm lighting design, also by Faba, and a gorgeously layered score by Aditya Prakash and ganavya doraiswamy. Using the traditional story-telling framework of Bharatanatyam dance, music, and gesture, the precise yet liquid Prakash and her equally excellent musicians tip the genre, playfully, slyly, so that their tale ends in a deliciously upended way. “Gershwin Sweet!”, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, is a charming, reminiscent shout-out to Broadway and Hollywood dance of yesteryear. Set to breezy George Gershwin tunes performed onstage by pianist Jonathan Howard Katz, the dancers, all currently or formerly with New York City Ballet, have a goofy good time twining grapevines or knocking off faux-show-offy pirouettes.
The third commission, “Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century,” directed by Dormeshia, one of today’s very-celebrated tap “sheroes,” closes out the program as it should. The swinging, killing-it-hot-but-cool trio accompanies Dormeshia and her band of dancers.. The program’s other theme — homage to the past—comes full circle as the names and old footage of a quartet of female performers from the past are projected onto the back of the stage, and then brought to life by these very present women embodying and glorifying their forebears’ talents. Let’s say those names: Cora LaRedd; Mable Lee; Harriet Browne; and Juanita Pitts, American Sheroes all.
AMERICA(na) TO ME
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Wednesday (repeats through Sunday).
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.