Dormeshia pays homage in female tap dancers who came before her in "Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century" on opening night of Jacob's Pillow's 90th season. (Photo by Christopher Duggan)
It’s been nearly three years since Jacob’s Pillow audience have been able to enjoy a performance in the august Ted Shawn Theatre.
Yet now that the COVID-19 restrictions has eased, dance fans have returned, just in time to celebrate the festival’s 90th anniversary. And on opening night, Wednesday, June 22, the audience got a seat in the newly renovated and expanded Shawn Theatre, which now features air conditioning and an orchestra pit.
Audiences also saw a program that was designed to reflect one of theater’s earliest programs – one meant to mirror what dance in America looked like.
The new theater’s inaugural program, “America(na) to Me,” tried to do that by providing a compilation of dance in America today. And while it was sweeping with everything from Bharatanatyam to salsa to tap to ballet, the program was uneven and not fully satisfying.
Still the audience left joyful thanks to Dormeshia, the tap dance phenom who closed the show with her wonderful “Unsung Sheroes of the 20th Century.” With a crew of four other tappers, she surveyed the women who came before her including Juanita Pitts, who she gleefully portrayed with her light and dazzling rhythms, rapidly written by her fleet feet.
The musical trio accompanying her, led by pianist Idris Frederick, laid out songs by Nina Simone, George Gershwin, Fats Waller and Count Basie. Brinae Ali was also a standout as a singer and dancer whose voice commanded. Eyes and ears were absorbed in the stories of the women she told.
The program started out with the invigorating Warwick Gombey Troupe from Bermuda – an ensemble that traces its roots back to New England Native Americans who early Americans shipped off to the remote Atlantic island. They maintained their heritage, lively drumming and dancing in colorful costumes, in a tradition that remains festive. It was wonderful to see.
The evening proceeded with the gorgeous and precise Bharatanatyam ensemble that recast the tale Shiva and Kali’s dance competition in “Ar / DHA” or “Half.” The music, especially the vocals, mesmerized.
That detailed dance was followed by a solo by Alex Tatarsky that was both funny and deeply disturbing. In her “Americana Psychobabble,” she portrayed a clownish character that spewed a torrent of buzz words and phrases connected to issues that divided our nation – immigrants, the economy, guns, race. Tatarsky literally put herself out there, on the edge of the stage, twisting the political language that left the audience both stunned and amused.
The remainder of the show was disappointing. “Dime Quien Soy,” choreographed by Nelida Tirada for a sextet of Latinx dancers, dragged on too long, taking many minutes to even begin after the first dancer stepped on stage. The ending was uplifting, but the first 10 minutes should probably be cut.
“Gershwin Sweet!” featured the well-loved and respected New York City Ballet stars Sara Mearns and Gonzalo Garcia with Gilbert Bolden III. The piece, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse, was a jaunty foray into Gershwin song in which, not surprising, Garcia excelled. But the piece seemed under rehearsed and constrained.
Jasmine Hearn’s solo “Trinity: Child, You Lost Water” was also unfortunate as it was too obtuse to resonate. On a dark stage, wrapped in tattered tulle, she seemed to be escaping from an unseen enemy. Twirling and twirling, she would stop in front of a microphone where she repeated “you.” At the end, she left the stage and called “freedom.”
At that point, I wanted freedom from the theater too. But Dormeshia and company saved the night, sending returning audience home with a smile.
“America(na) to Me” will be repeated at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, June 25, and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 26.
'Don Quixote' charms again
Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo star in American Ballet Theater's "Don Quixote." (Photo by Rosalie O’Connor)
There is no ballet more charming than American Ballet Theatre’s version of “Don Quixote.”
As seen on Saturday afternoon at the Metropolitan Opera House, it’s funny, flashy and fast-moving and a tonic for that ails us.
As staged by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and Susan Jones after the Russian original, the classic is based on a snippet from the epic novel about a dreamy chivalrous soul who desires to make all things right with the world. The Don finds meaning in aiding the impetuous lovers Kitri and Basilio, the true stars of the show, whose romance is foiled by her father, Lorenzo, who promises to marry her off to the wealthy but ungainly Gamache.
This sets up an amusing adventure for the cast through Seville, its countryside (dubbed a “gypsy camp,” a term which should probably be reconsidered by ballet directors worldwide), into a tavern and back to the city where the sweethearts, after a little trickery, marry.
This is a perfect ballet on many levels — because it combines gorgeous sets and costumes with a story line with romance and humor. But mainly, "Don Quixote" wins admiration for its breath-taking dancing throughout (not just the finale) that set viewers aback.
Let’s start with Sklyar Brandt as Kitri and Herman Cornejo as Basilio. They are ideal as the delightfully defiant lovers who take Lorenzo and Gamache on a chase that the Don and his faithful assistant Sancho Panza stumble upon.
Cornejo is a superb partner – strong, attentive and invested – able to hoist Brandt high with one arm, time and again, with one fluid flourish.
He’s there for Brandt who is supremely capable in her own right, bounding through high kicks, a stream of steady balances, precise pointe work and impressive double fouettes.
The two are obviously relaxed and having fun exchanging kisses in these playful, but very demanding roles that include the most technically difficult pas de deux in classical ballet.
Also impressive was Cassandra Trenary as both Mercedes and the Queen of the Dryads. She holds all eyes with her seductive abilities to enchant in both roles.
“Don Quixote” is, however, a ballet made for men to show off their machismo, making room for the virile toreadors and campers, led by the amazingly dynamic Elwince Magbitang who flies in tour de force spinning jumps. And then there is Espana, the golden matador, danced by Gabe Stone Shayer, personifying bravado.
Conductor Charles Barker absorbs the mood, vigorously leading the orchestra in the grandiose Ludwig Minkus score.
For those who have never seen a ballet, ABT’s “Don Quixote” is the ideal introduction. No ballet is more appealing.
Therefore, I am forever grateful to McKenzie, who prepares to step down from his leadership role at ABT, for bringing it to the stage. I know it will endure.