America, prismatic and in distress, seen through dance

BECKET, Mass. – Among the main attractions of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is its bucolic setting here in the Berkshires. But new this year is a return to the great interior. In 2020, the double blow of the pandemic and a fire that ravaged one of the two halls of the festival forced the cancellation of all performances. Last year the shows were outdoors, weather permitting. The main stage — the barn that festival 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 open for business again, half of its weathered, historic-looking wood exterior, the other half clean and new. (The second theater has not yet been rebuilt.)

The first program of the renovated theater last week was indicative of another change: the addition, in 2020, of two associate curators, Mélanie George and Ali Rosa-Salas. The show, ‘America (na) to Me,’ was their idea – ‘our response,’ they said in a pre-show speech on Sunday, to the first programs Shawn presented at the theater in 1942, showcasing his design from America. dance (square dances, Agnès De Mille).

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

“America (na) to Me” was a variety show: diverse, inclusive and, with seven acts, somewhat overloaded. Somehow it wasn’t particularly varied. Aside from the first act – the all-male Warwick Gombey troupe from Bermuda, whose masked dancing and drumming is of both West African and Native American descent – ​​it was a female-led program and centered on women.

Some selections were explicitly feminist. In “Ar|Dha” or “Half”, the accurate Bharatanatyam dancer Mythili Prakash, a child of immigrant parents, revised a mythical dance contest between the gods Shiva and Kali – a rigged contest which Shiva won, in the traditional account , raising her leg to her ear, a gesture forbidden to Kali because she is a woman. You can probably guess how Prakash’s version ended. His lifted leg was triumphant, and although the struggles leading up to it were a little murky, they were accompanied by beautiful singing (by Sushma Somasekharan, Kasi Aysola and Ganavya Doraiswamy, who composed the music with Aditya Prakash).

“Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century,” by tap-dancing queen Dormeshia, was a historic rescue mission, a tribute to four underrecognized black predecessors: Cora LaRedd, Mable Lee, Harriet Browne and Juanita Pitts. First, the wonderfully savage Brinae Ali tapped and sang on 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.

Nélida Tirado’s “Dime Quién Soy” (“Tell Me Who I Am”) brought in some guys for some fun salsa and asked some standard identity questions in a voiceover, but it was more powerful when Tirado, supported by three other women, beat fierce flamenco in tracksuits during a scene waiting for the metro. 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 by doing some cute ballet-jazz (choreographed by her husband, Joshua Bergasse) to piano preludes by Gershwin. Jasmine Hearn made the most magical entrance – through the rear cargo doors that open onto the green exterior – and above all kept the mystery alive in a solo of seductive lightness and sensitivity.

It was left to performance artist Alex Tatarsky to tackle the subject of Americanness head-on, spitting jabs on immigration, folk dancing and white rights throughout a nonsensical rant with gesticulation Americana Psychobabble. Outrageous and profane in an old-school East Village style, it was a slip of the tongue towards American identity: almost too easy as satire, but depressingly precise.

A sense of distressed America could also be found in Brown’s “The Equality of Day and Night,” which premiered Wednesday. It features a thoughtful score by jazz pianist Jason Moran, who performs live, but those sounds alternate with recordings of speeches by Angela Davis, whose view of America is also not flattering.

Some of the points she makes are persistent (how the black male body has been branded with criminal associations), some quaint (George W. Bush as an avatar of conservative excess). Brown’s choreography responds primarily with a ritual of prayer and grief: dancers circle around a witnessing soloist or retreat to a corner with their hands raised, or remove the upper halves of their costumes and place them as offerings or bodies in a heap.

A repeated series of jumps miraculously shoots upwards – 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 a four on the – rhythm of the drum machine on the floor. This subdued mood also seems depressing.

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

About Keith Johnson

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