2020 was devastating for performing arts across the region and the world, perhaps none more so than for Jacob’s Pillow, the 79-year-old dance mecca in the Berkshires. Not only did the pandemic kill last year’s entire season, but in November the Doris Duke Theatre, the company’s cozy second stage, burned to the ground in a still-unexplained fire.
But necessity, that inventive parent, stimulated some ingenious programming for this summer, including a mix of live and online shows, plus a series of events and performances sited throughout the Becket property. And since the live season was necessarily conceived as an all-outdoor affair, the long-awaited renovation of the festival’s mainstage, the venerable Ted Shawn Theatre, has proceeded apace.
The festival launched last week with perennial favorite Dorrance Dance, a company that has not only pushed the boundaries of tap but has grown to embrace other forms, notably hip-hop with the arrival of Israeli-born b-girl Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Matthew “Megawatt” West. The troupe’s residency included both a full evening performance (more on that below) and an afternoon sequence of mini-pieces titled Ways to Now, which explored the far reaches of the Pillow’s campus and a variety of modes and meanings.
It was conceived by founder Michelle Dorrance with Josette Wiggan-Freund and musician Nicholas Van Young and improvised by the 20-member company. As Van Young later explained in a Zoom talkback, “Covid obliged us to think in terms of how artists are going to intersect and affect each other” going forward. Each of the works, he said, uses a different part of the property, “allowing the dancers to be ingenious and different.” It was indeed ingenious, different, sometimes puzzling and almost tap-free.
On a wet afternoon last weekend, my partner and I were ushered into a long tented hangar on the Pillow’s grounds, separated into color-coded groups and feeling like refugees in a holding area, as a misty rain fell outside. As the rain let up, we began the six-part perambulation, armed with an intern guide’s caution to watch out for mud puddles and check for ticks afterward.
First stop was The Pub, the campus watering hole temporarily rechristened The DD Bar, where we were treated to a five-minute set by Luke Hickey, tapped out to a jazzy 12-bar blues, with musicians Aaron Marcellus and Claudia Rahardjanoto taking their own solo dance turns. This was classic tap, what we’d been expecting – and setting us up for the unexpected.
That came right away, at a porch beside the Shawn, where we found Warren Craft and Rena Kinoshita dressed in white spacesuits, fiddling with panels of electronic contraptions that emitted a cosmic wail, engaging their tap shoes only to stamp with frustration at the obstinate instruments.
Then across the campus and into a glade where Asherie and West executed, not a break-dance routine, but slow, silent images of a troubled relationship, starting with a seated ritual of approach and rejection and moving into a metaphorical balancing act on a fallen tree trunk.
By now we were getting the hang of these sundry encounters, and starting to sus out a theme: the search for connections, made all the more poignant as we all emerge from isolation.
The next stop was a solo piece, performed in and around a rough-hewn shack at the end of a rutted lane where Josette Wiggan-Freund, moving to the tunes issuing from an ancient Victrola glimpsed through the doorway, enacted a bluesy wash day. Shaking out sheets that sometimes wrapped themselves around her then trailed behind as she scampered around her little plot of land, she offered a joyfully exuberant performance which then drifted into melancholy to the strains of Sarah Vaughn’s “Lover man, oh where can you be?”
Then more searching for signs of interstellar life as Michelle Dorrance, Leonardo Sandoval and Byron Tittle aimed a homemade satellite dish skyward, then raced downhill to a gravel pile where they started devising polyrhythms, work shoes shuffling on the stones and shovels scraping at the rock.
Finally to a cluster of wooden cabins – former intern housing, now inescapably recalling slave quarters – where a group of laborers, relaxing after a workday, began tapping out rhythms on household objects: washboards, pots and pans, building into accompaniment for a pair of tap dancers on a porch and a clapping, marching finale led by virtuoso trumpeter Keyon Harrold.
This hybrid journey whetted our appetite for the evening performance, a pair of new pieces conceived by Nicholas Van Young and Josette Wiggan-Freund, respectively, . Instead, our anticipation was wetted by its cancellation, due to the rain.
In the end, the weather scotched all but one of the week’s sold-out mainstage performances, scheduled for the hillside venue of past seasons’ free shows, newly upgraded and renamed the Henry J. Leir Stage. Ways to Now, however, will be available for online viewing for two weeks starting the 15th. Free, reserve here.
This week the festival continues with shows both live and virtual. The LA-based multicultural dance-theater troupe Contra-Tiempo, rooted in salsa, Afro-Cuban, hip-hop, and contemporary dance, performs joyUS justUS, “an embodiment of radical joy and justice,” on the outdoor stage. Online, Body and Soul, created by the ever-adventurous Crystal Pite and performed by Paris Opéra Ballet, streams on-demand through July 15, and the Nrityagram Dance Ensemble takes viewers to “a lush ten-acre village of dance on the outskirts of Bangalore, a one-of-a-kind community where dance is a way of life,” available through July 22.
Photos by Christopher Duggan
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