I’ve been invited back as scholar-in-residence at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival for successive years. It’s a place where I work with a lot of latitude, contextualizing performances and finding vocabulary with which to discuss dance through talks, interviews and published essays.
Travelling into the glorious Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts never ceases to amaze. The lush beauty of the place sparks the senses. The festival abuts the fabled Appalachian Trail. Driving along Route 20, named “Jacob’s Ladder Road,” you reach the locale modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn envisaged as a little bit of heaven, a place best to serve his company of male dancers. Now, in its eighty-forth season, the ten-week festival is home to artists performing on the various stages, including an impressive outdoor venue named Inside/Out. The School at Jacob’s Pillow brings faculty and students from the ballet, contemporary and dance theatre streams of dance, and this year there was a new program, Improv Traditions and Innovations, which the festival website describes as enabling “dancers to experience the rhythms, styles, and states of being essential to embodying African American improvisation traditions and innovations.”
Change was in the air this summer. Perhaps most importantly, the festival has a new director, Pamela Tatge, the former director of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where she organized programming in dance, music, theatre and the visual arts. In a public interview at the Pillow, Tatge expressed her passion for the festival’s future and indicated, among other things, her intention to present international artists while nurturing connections with local and national partners.
Ilter Ibrahimof, artistic director of Toronto’s Fall for Dance North festival, and an agent and producer (his Sunny Artist Management represented, and co-produced Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks’ new collaboration, Some of a Thousand Words), has over the years worked extensively with Jacob’s Pillow. Ibrahimof notes that “the natural nexus between American and Eastern Canadian dance afforded by the Pillow’s favourable geography and cultural affinity should be much more developed.” He feels that Canadian dance artists “should carve out a place and identity at the Pillow, using it as an organic point of entry to the United States.”
Other Canadians were present both onstage and in spirit. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, in the Ted Shawn Theatre, brought two Crystal Pite works, Solo Echo and A Picture of You Falling. Pite is a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award winner, and her presence was felt in the ARIAS Company’s premiere of an impressive new work, a rather lovely thing, in the more intimate Doris Duke theatre. Bryan Arias benefited from two on-site Creative Artists Development Residencies (Canadian artists, take note!) while creating the piece. He and dancer Jermaine Spivey are in Pite’s company, and two of the other performers in his work — Ana-Maria Lucaciu (who studied at Canada’s National Ballet School before dancing with The National Ballet of Canada) and Spenser Theberge — have danced Pite’s works for other companies. (Excerpts from my post-performance discussion with the company appear here)
Hari Krishnan played a free performance to a packed and enthusiastic outdoor audience at the Inside/Out stage on July 6. Krishnan wrote in an email subsequent to the show that although he has performed indoors at the Duke Theatre, he “always prefers the magical environment of the outdoor stage and warmth of an open, generous audience where the contact between artist and audience is electric, honest and unhinged.” Krishnan’s company, inDANCE, was invited to be a part of a curated event called Dances for One where the focus was to highlight the power of solo performance and the mastery of a dancer’s relationship to the audience, set to live musical accompaniment. In Tiger by the Tail, Krishnan and company resident percussionist, Kajan Pararasasegaram, took inspiration from the South Indian folk dance-art of puliyattam (the dance of the tiger). Krishnan says, “The dance was a ferocious, metaphoric riff on America’s current election cycle. Stalking Indian rhythmic traditions, the dancer and percussionist captured a perilous urban hunt, exploiting ‘weaponized’ hands, feet and voice.” Krishnan received an enthusiastic standing ovation from the assembled crowd.
Racial tensions, gun violence and the divisive national political season have entered daily discourse stateside. Staff and artists were not immune and seemed beset with doubts about the election’s outcome, alternately half-joking about heading to Canada, while expressing various degrees of discomfort and fear about the situation. At the Pillow, the most noticeable change was the presence of armed local police on duty on high-traffic Saturdays, when the public converges on the festival in greatest numbers. While policing exists at popular arts events, like the nearby Tanglewood Music Festival, at the Pillow it is a new reality. Jacob’s Pillow always seemed nestled in its own bucolic reality. Not anymore. While most people appeared to take the police strolling the grounds in stride, others registered a “sickening feeling” that this is the world in which we live.
As a Canadian looking on, I witnessed the overall malaise, the way in which people’s bodies seem to deflate when talking about the current state of affairs. The dance world cannot sidestep these tensions, and can enact only so much preparedness in the face of today’s mounting ills. What a festival like Jacob’s Pillow does remarkably well is bring people together, in this case, in the chrysalis of a new normal.