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.