DANCE REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow opens its 90th season with an exhibition of dance research in America

Jacob’s Pillow opened its 90e Season, after three summers of COVID, a fire and the restoration of the Ted Shawn Theater, with a party, an over-the-top celebration of our diverse America.

The festival began, fittingly, with a return of Eastern Woodland Dances, honoring the indigenous peoples on whose ancestral land Jacob’s Pillow is found. At the Perles Family Center, Larry Spotted Crow Mann of the Nipmoc Tribe and Annawon Weeden, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag, introduced us to traditional dances from the Northwest and Eastern tribes. The Iroquois dancers, returning to the Pillow, celebrate the family, especially women and children. In a dance, they invited the women in the audience to join the dancers on the floor, creating a large circle of women moving harmoniously together to the rhythm of the dance.

Young boy member of the Eastern Woodlands Dances. Photo by Christopher Dugganot

Our hearts were stolen, however, by the children, two boys aged two and seven, who danced with enthusiasm and skill. After a dance, the two-year-old made her way to the wide-open door at the side of the Perles Family Center, stopped at the threshold, then stumbled into the bright world beyond. A tall, handsome Iroquois warrior, transformed into a dad, swooped out, took his hand and led him inside, laughing with the audience.

Acosta Red Elk in The Jingle Dress Dance,. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

Acosia Red Elk, an award-winning dancer from the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, thrilled audiences with The Jingle Dress Dance: a Medicine Dance. Reminding me of the power of tap dancing to literally and figuratively deepen and amplify the power of dance, the jingle dress music also deepened and amplified the power of Acosia Red Elk worthy moves.

The Warwick Gombey troupe. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

The Eastern Woodlands program ended and, later at the Ted Shawn Theatre, America (na) to me started, with Gombey Dance. Originally from Bermuda, the dancers of the Warwick Gombey troupe are descended from slaves, notably from the Wampanoag, Pequot and Narragansett peoples captured in this region. With their mix of West Indian, Native American and West African influences, they create a thought-provoking sequel from a meditation on our indigenous history to a contemplation of what dance in America means to us today.

Organized by Melanie George and Ali Rosa-Salas, America (na) to me is a joyful reworking of how we define dance and American identity 90 years after the founding of Jacob’s Pillow. This celebration of dance and identity is broad and inclusive, inviting us to keep pushing the boundaries that restrict us.

Ar/Dha (“Half”). Photo by Christopher Duggan

One of those boxes is gender. At the start of the magnificent South Indian-inspired dance, Ar/Dha (“Half”), words projected on the backstage wall told the legend of the god Shiva inviting his female half, Kali, to a dance competition. When Kali is undefeated, Shiva drops his earring, then, maintaining his pose, picks up his earring with his toe and raises his leg to his ear, replacing his earring. Because a woman shouldn’t lift her leg, Kali surrenders. The projected caption ends with the question “Can we rewrite this history?”

As the evening progressed, we were challenged by the many ways this question can be asked and how the stories that compel us can be rewritten.

Alex Tatarsky, Americana Psychobabble. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

As the curtain closed on Ar/Dha (“Half”), Alex Tatarsky curled up on the proscenium like a loosely jointed puppet. With flushed baby-doll cheeks and incessant babbling, grabbing body parts while uttering the almost scatological, they stared at the audience with wide eyes, seemingly startled by the uncontrolled nastiness of what had just come out of their mouths. Beneath this mad madness, Tatarsky urges us to contemplate what is acceptable and what is not. And who decides? Psychiatrists? Supreme Courts?

The cornucopia of delightful performances unfolded with Soy Dime QuienNélida Tirado (concept and choreography) and composer Gonzalo Grau’s flamenco and social dancing infused meditation on the Puerto Rican majority, followed by Sweet Gershwina tour de force trio of athleticism and gender balance on the delicate, swinging pianism of Joshua Katz playing George Gershwin Three preludes for piano and Variations for piano on “I have rhythm.”

Trinity: My child, you have lost water. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

From the back of the darkened stage, as the old and familiar barn doors partially opened to reveal blinding light shining painfully into the eyes of the audience, Jasmine Hearn emerged, nearly invisible, dressed in flowing, gauzy clothing, small and vulnerable. Like a will-o’-the-wisp she moved through space, in and out of the light, like a deep, searching soul.

Dormeshia in 20th Century Unsung Sheros. Drawing by Carolyn Newberger

The evening ended with Unknown Sheros of the 20e Centurya tour de force of tap dancing, danced with dynamism and vigor by a quintet of African American tap dancing stars, their tap dancing collaborating with world-class musicians channeling the music of the greats, including Nina Simone, George Gershwin, Fats Waller, and Count Basie.

And to top it all off, the artistic director, Dormeshia, a tap-dancing powerhouse, dancing with a verve and brilliance that propelled the audience out of their seats.

And then, a final thrill as the whole ensemble joined in a riot of rhythm to the iconic Duke Ellington and Billie Strayhorn satin doll.

Well done, Jacob’s pillow!