A lovely time warp at Jacob’s Pillow, ‘MONUMENT’ project revisits dance history
BECKET — This week at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Adam H. Weinert presents his “MONUMENT” project, featuring reconstructions of some of Ted Shawn’s choreography. That in itself is rare. Although Shawn, who died in 1972, is one of our most important American modern dance pioneers, his dances may be the least-remembered thing about him.
Shawn and wife Ruth St. Denis formed the famed Denishawn school, which spawned legendary disciples including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. After breaking from St. Denis, Shawn bought and repurposed the former farm in Western Massachusetts that now houses the festival. It also contains a bounty of archives presided over by Pillow director of preservation Norton Owen, to which Weinert had access through a research fellowship.
Like a quick modern dance history lesson, the first part of the program also includes solos by Humphrey and José Limón, one of Humphrey’s own protégés.
Logan Frances Kruger, the one woman in the appealing, eclectic group, performs Humphrey’s 1931 “Two Ecstatic Themes” with a calm fervor; her strongly grounded legs offer a glorious counterbalance to her swooning, arcing torso. In the “Tecumseh” excerpt from Limón’s 1970 “The Unsung,” Ross Katen is both yearning and expansive, his limbs reaching out in big gestures and leaps before contracting into stuttering little parallel bourrées.
Using a movement vocabulary both pedestrian and dramatic, Shawn sought to elevate the status of the male dancer — and to conjure the struggles of the modern laborer. Sometimes his joys were celebrated, too, as in the jaunty first section of the 1930 “Four Dances Based on American Folk Music,” charmingly performed by Brett Perry. Shawn, like St. Denis, sometimes engaged in what may now be identified as cultural appropriation; here the second part of “Four Dances,” set to the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” is elevated by the heartbreaking simplicity with which Davon Rainey, an African-American dancer, performs the now beseeching, now constrained movements.
Weinert — whose physicality is almost fragile, unlike the stocky, chest-thrusting Shawn we see in photos and video footage — lends the tentative walks and waltz-like swooping of Shawn’s 1935 “Pierrot in the Dead City” a beautifully delicate subtlety. (The music for “Four Dances” and “Pierrot” consists of solo recordings of Shawn’s longtime pianist Jess Meeker.)
The solos are followed by “MONUMENT,” an often striking but occasionally disjointed ensemble work created in 2015 during the reconstruction process. Throughout it, each of the seven dancers — accompanied by DJ-musician Chris Garneau — reference their predecessors’ solos performed earlier. Weinert has said that embodying Shawn’s dances has been like “dancing with ghosts,” and with the solos still fresh in our mind’s eye, the echoed bits of them add to the evening’s sense that we are in some kind of lovely time warp.
At Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, through Sunday. Tickets begin at $25. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org