America, Prismatic and Distressed, Seen Through Dance

BECKET, Mass. — Among the main attractions of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is its bucolic setting here in the Berkshires. But the news this year is a return to the great indoors. In 2020, the twin blows of the pandemic and a fire that burned down one of the festival’s two theaters forced a cancellation of all performances. Last year, the shows were outside, weather permitting. The main stage — the barn that the festival’s founder, Ted Shawn, converted into the first theater in the United States dedicated to dance, 80 years ago — was undergoing necessary renovations.

The Ted Shawn Theater is now open again for business, half of its exterior wood weathered and historical-looking, the other half clean and new. (The second theater has not yet been rebuilt.)

The first program in the renovated theater, last week, was indicator of another change: the addition, in 2020, of two associate curators, Melanie George and Ali Rosa-Salas. The show, “America (na) to Me,” was their idea — “our response,” they said in a speech before the show on Sunday, to the first programs that Shawn presented at the theater in 1942, showcasing his conception of American dance (square dances, Agnes De Mille).

Their idea was “a more prismatic understanding of what it means to be an American or from the Americas,” and that more prismatic understanding has carried over into this week’s program, the return of Ronald K. Brown / Evidence. Taken together, the two shows offered a vision of America, through dance, that was partly hopeful, partly distressing — about right for 2022.

“America (na) to Me,” was a variety show: diverse, inclusive and, with seven acts, somewhat overstuffed. In one way, it wasn’t particularly varied. Apart from the opening act — the all-male Warwick Gombey Troupe , from Bermuda, whose masked dancing and drumming is both West African and Native American in origin — this was a female-led, female-centered program.

Some selections were explicitly feminist. In “Ar | Dha,” or “Half,” the precise Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash, a child of immigrant parents, revised a mythic dance competition between the gods Shiva and Kali — a rigged contest that Shiva won, In the traditional telling, by raising his leg to his ear, a move forbidden to Kali because she is female. You can probably guess how Prakash’s version ended. Her lifted leg was triumphant, and while the struggles that preceded it were a little murky, they were accompanied by some gorgeous singing (by Sushma Somasekharan, Kasi Aysola and Ganavya Doraiswamy, who composed the music with Aditya Prakash).

“Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century,” by the queenly tap dancer Dormeshia, was a historical rescue mission, a tribute to four underrecognized Black predecessors: Cora LaRedd, Mable Lee, Harriet Browne and Juanita Pitts. First the wonderfully wild Brinae Ali tapped and sang about the sheroes to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” then Star Dixon, Marie N’diaye, Quynn Johnson and Dormeshia did justice to each in solos that balanced the styles of the originals with their own.

Néli da Tirado’s “Dime Quién Soy” (“Tell Me Who I Am”) brought on some guys for a fun salsa bit and posed a few standard questions about identity in a voice-over, but it was most forceful when Tirado, backed by three other women, pounded out some fierce flamenco in track suits during a waiting-for-the-subway scene. Who is she? A New Yorker.

Sara Mearns, joined by her New York City Ballet colleagues Gilbert Bolden III and the recently retired Gonzalo Garcia, made less of an impression, doing some cutesy ballet-jazz (choreographed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse) to Gershwin piano preludes. Jasmine Hearn made. the most magical entrance — through the rear loading doors which open onto the green outside — and mostly maintained the mystery in a solo of beguiling lightness and sensitivity.

It was left to the performance artist Alex Tatarsky to address the subject of Americanness most head on, spitting barbs about immigration, folk dance and white entitlement throughout an absurdist rant-with-gesticulation “Americana Psychobabble.” Outrageous and profane in an old-school East Village style, this was a slip-of-the-tongue descent into the American id: almost too easy as satire, but depressingly accurate.

A sense of America in distress could also be found in Brown’s “The Equality of Day and Night,” which had its premiere on Wednesday. It features a thoughtful score by the jazz pianist Jason Moran, who plays live, but those sounds alternate with recordings of speeches by Angela Davis, whose view of America isn’t flattering either.

Some of the points she makes are evergreen (how the Black male body has been stamped with criminal associations), some quaint (George W. Bush as an avatar of conservative overreach). Brown’s choreography responds mainly with a ritual of prayer and grief: the dancers circling around a testifying soloist or retreating into a corner, hands raised, or removing the top halves of their costumes and placing them like offerings or bodies in a pile.

A repeated series of jumps spring miraculously upward — on a diagonal, out of nowhere. But unlike Brown’s juicier older works on the program (“Gatekeepers,” from 1999, and “Upside Down,” from 1998), “Equality” never really locks into a transcendent groove — not even when Moran adds in a four-on-the-floor drum machine beat. This subdued mood also feels depressingly apt.

For a real sense of lift on Wednesday, you had to rely on the older works or wait for the bows. Brown, who had a stroke last year, walked out with the help of a cane and the company’s associate artistic director, Arcell Cabuag. It was like a moment in one of his works: He stood witness and watched the others dance. The big smile on his face said everything.

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