BECKET, Mass. — One of the main attractions of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is the rural setting here in the Berkshires. But the news this year is a return to the big inside. In 2020, the double blows of the pandemic and a fire that burned down one of the festival’s two theaters forced the cancellation of all performances. Last year the shows were outside, weather permitting. The main stage – the barn that festival founder, Ted Shawn, converted 80 years ago into the first theater in the United States dedicated to dance – underwent some renovations.
The Ted Shawn Theater is now open for business again, half of the exterior wood is weathered and looks historic, the other half is clean and new. (The second theater has not yet been rebuilt.)
The first program at the renovated theater, last week, marked 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 to the show on Sunday, to the first programs Shawn presented at the theater in 1942, in which he expressed his concept of American dance (square dances, Agnes De Mille).
Their idea was “a more prismatic understanding of what it means to be American or from America,” and that more prismatic understanding has been 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 part hopeful, part troubling — roughly good for 2022.
“America(na) to Me,” was a varied show: diverse, inclusive, and with seven acts a little overcrowded. In a way, it wasn’t particularly varied. Aside from the opening act — the all-male Warwick Gombey Troupe, from Bermuda, whose masked dancing and drumming is of both West African and Native American origins — this was a female-led, female-focused program.
Some selections were explicitly feminist. In ‘Ar|Dha’ or ‘Half’, the precise Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash, a child of immigrant parents, reworked a mythical dance contest between the gods Shiva and Kali – a faked contest that Shiva won, in the traditional manner of narration, by bringing his leg to his ear, a move Kali is forbidden because she is a woman. You can probably guess how Prakash’s version ended up. Her raised leg was triumphant, and although the battle that preceded it was a bit dark, they were accompanied by beautiful singing (by Sushma Somasekharan, Kasi Aysola and Ganavya Doraiswamy, who composed the music with Aditya Prakash).
Queen tap dancer Dormeshia’s “Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century” was a historic rescue mission, paying tribute to four underrated black predecessors: Cora LaRedd, Mable Lee, Harriet Browne and Juanita Pitts. First, the wonderfully wild Brinae Ali tapped and sang over the sheroes to the tune of Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” then Star Dixon, Marie N’diaye, Quynn Johnson, and Dormeshia each did justice in solos that balanced the styles of the originals. with their own.
Nélida Tirado’s “Dime Quién Soy” (“Tell Me Who I Am”) got a few guys on their feet for a fun salsa bit and asked some standard questions about identity in a voiceover, but it was most powerful when Tirado, backed by three other women, slammed some fierce flamenco in tracksuits during a wait-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 adorable ballet jazz (choreographed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse) to Gershwin’s piano preludes. Jasmine Hearn made the most magical entrance – through the rear cargo doors that open onto the green exterior – mostly preserving the mystery in a solo of seductive lightness and sensitivity.
It was left to performance artist Alex Tatarsky to make the most of the subject of being American, as he spat barbs about immigration, folk dance and white rights during an absurdist diatribe gesticulating ‘Americana Psychobabble’. Outrageous and profane in an old-school East Village style, this was a slip-of-the-tongue descent into American identity: almost too easy as satire, but depressingly accurate.
A sense of America in need was also found in Brown’s “The Equality of Day and Night,” which premiered Wednesday. It has a thoughtful score by jazz pianist Jason Moran, who plays live, but those sounds are interspersed with recordings of speeches by Angela Davis, whose view of America is also unflattering.
Some of the points she makes are evergreen (how the black male body has been labeled with criminal associations), some strange (George W. Bush as an avatar of conservative superiority). Brown’s choreography responds above all with a ritual of prayer and grief: the dancers circle a witnessing soloist or retreat to a corner, raise their hands, or remove the top halves of their costumes and pile them up as offerings or bodies.
A repeated series of jumps miraculously jumps up – on a diagonal, out of nowhere. But unlike Brown’s juicier older works (“Gatekeepers,” 1999 and “Upside Down,” 1998), “Equality” never really locks into a transcendent groove—even when Moran plays a four-on-the- floor drum machine beat. This subdued mood also feels depressing.
For a real sense of lift on Wednesday you had to fall back on the older works or wait for the arches. Brown, who suffered a stroke last year, walked outside with the help of a walking stick and the company’s artistic director, Arcell Cabuag. It was like a moment in one of his works: he stood witness and saw the others dancing. The big smile on his face said it all.