Dancers re-imagine contemporary American experiences

They are dancing together, and she is matching him step for step. They are meant to be two halves of a whole, dancing to the beat of the world, and she is enjoying the contest, lithe and alive in play. She is winning, and he grows angry, and he challenges her — and what then?

Dancers have told this story of Shiva and his wife, Kali, for hundreds of years. On a summer night on a mountain in Becket, Mythili Prakash will embody them both, and she is challenging the ending.

Prakash is an internationally recognized performer from in Los Angeles, and she comes to the Berkshires to join an evening of globally known artists in America(Na) to Me, the opening performance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Dancers perform on the outdoor stage at Jacob's Pillow.
Jacob's Pillow

Dancers perform on the outdoor stage at Jacob's Pillow.

To celebrate the Pillow’s 90th summer, and the re-opening of the Ted Shawn theater, associate curators Melanie George and Ali Rosa-Salas are giving a contemporary take on the first performance Ted Shawn brought to this stage, in the first theater in the country designed for dance.

Shawn opened that first festival with a night of American folk dances and square dances and a performance with Agnes Demille, known for her work as a choreographer with the American Ballet Theatre. George and Rosa-Salas have picked up that theme and reground it for the 21st century.

“What does it mean to contemporary dancers to be American?” George asked.

‘What does it mean to contemporary dancers to be American?’ — Jacobs Pillow associate curator Melanie George

She and Rosa-Salas have offered the question to leading artists in a deep interweaving of fields, and they are creating answers — Nelida Tirado in Flamenco, the Warwick Gombey Troupe in Eastern Woodland and Caribbean dance, Dormeshia in tap and Jazz and Black American social dance …

The idea of American can hold an expansive and deep meaning, Rosa-Salas said, encompassing people and cultures across two continents. She and George feel the importance, at the inauguration of the new theater, of making this a time to reflect and share their values and welcome a diverse array of artists to perform on this stage.

“Anyone who has been in the U.S., for as long as it has been called that, has has their own perception of what ‘American’ means,” George said, “whether or not they land in the history books. … They have been living here all along.”

Acclaimed flamenco artist Nélida Tirado performs.
Photo by Chasi Annexy

Acclaimed flamenco artist Nélida Tirado performs. Press photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival

Jasmine Hearn will bring their improvisations in solo dance theater, Alexandra Tatarsky comes with absurdist performance art, and Sara Mearns and Joshua Bergasse are creating a new work at the border of ballet and Broadway.

She and Rosa-Salas have talked with performers and offered ideas — and then given them room to breathe and conceive. Some are creating new work for this gathering, she said.

“As curators, I think there’s an element of wanting to give artists room to dream,” George said.

‘As curators, I think there’s an element of wanting to give artists room to dream.’ — Melanie George

Prakash’s exploration of Shiva and Kali will be new, she said, talking from home as she and her group of musicians and contemporary poet are rehearsing and evolving the story. She is creating a shorter work for the Pillow and a longer work to premiere in New York city later in the summer.

She is as a leading performer in a new generation of dancers in Bharatanatyam — a contemporary and cosmopolitan movement in a classical dance form from Tamil Nadu in Southern India. For centuries, she said, women have danced in this tradition, improvising to poetry and live music, blending mythology and worship and their own lived experiences.

When Rosa-Salas came to her, she began to think about evolving conversations within bharatanatyam, how the dances and poems show familiar characters, and how contemporary performers have revived the form.

Internationally acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Mythili Prakash, from Los Angeles, performs with expressive hands in a golden glow. Press photo courtesy of Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival
Photo by Jorge Vismara

Internationally acclaimed Bharatanatyam dancer and choreographer Mythili Prakash, from Los Angeles, performs with expressive hands in a golden glow. Press photo courtesy of Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival

She sat down to talk with her artistic company — she performs regularly four musicians and her brother as her musical collaborator, four in the U.S. and one in Singapore. They are all navigating and balancing ideas of how people see them and how they identify in themselves, she said — different perceptions in India and America, in home and school, private and public.

“It’s the first time we have had a conversation on polarities,” she said.

They began to talk about familiar characters within bharatanatyam, and one of her friends recalled a story Prakash knows well, one she has danced to since she was a child. She first performed the dance competition between Shiva and his wife when she was nine years old.

As they talked, they found themselves looking at the story from new perspectives, and the story changed for them. Prakash felt Kali’s confidence, her joy in the competition as it spurred her on, her pleasure in her own skill and speed and excitement.

Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th summer

The international dance festival celebrates the reopening of the Ted Shawn theater and almost a century of dance on a mountain in Becket with a wide range of summer performances, from Eastern Woodland Dances and Adam H. Weinert’s tribute to Ted Shawn, to Ronald K. Brown and Evidence, A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, Jacob’s Pillow contemporary dancers and the Loni Landon Dance Project …

Shiva feels threatened, she said, because Kali is winning.

“She can do all that he can,” Prakash said.

In the traditional story, He drops an earring, lifts it with his foot and places it in his ear. And the motion, he creates a kind of magic or illusion. She can make the move just as well as he can — in the traditional dance, the performer plays both roles, so the woman dancing has just shown her own agile strength and flexibility.

But Kali faces social constraints — traditionally a woman was not allowed to lift her leg in a high kick, or she will be called coarse and uncouth. And so Shiva wins the contest.

“And this (traditional story) comes in songs that praise him,” Prakash said. “They say she was arrogant and overstepping, and his creating magic justifies (him). It was a lesson, a teaching.”

She can love the myth and tradition, she said, and she can challenge it.

Prakash felt Kali’s confidence, her joy in the competition as it spurred her on, her pleasure in her own skill and speed and excitement.

All of these performers are embodying a lineage, George said — as flamenco passes down traditions from elders. Warwick Gombey Troupe draws on the traditions of these Northeastern woodlands. They are of Wampanoag, Narragansett, Pequot, and Mohican ancestry, and Gombey dance has grown in Bermuda with roots in West African movement and percussion.

Native peoples from this land, where the Pillow now sits, were forcibly removed to the Caribbean, Rosa-Salas explained. Warwick Gombey will perform a processional dance they traditionally offer through community ceremony and celebration.

“Gombey’s work is very much based on the capacity and strength to retain their traditions when you have been displaced from your home,” she said.

The Pillow holds many different histories — Native land and the underground railroad, and the farm on the mountain, and then the dance festival. The history of the land is eclectic, she said.

Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival expands their outdoor summer performances. Press photo courtesy of the Pillow.
Jacob's Pillow

Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival expands their outdoor summer performances. Press photo courtesy of the Pillow.

She imagines Hearn responding to it, as she trusts their ability to be expansive and expressive and responsive to their environment, she said, to be here and connect to the Pillow as ancestral and Indigenous land.

“They’re fascinating,” George said, “because they have this wide range of movement experiences and a holistic, egalitarian Afrofuturism … and their improvisational skills, and curiosity about life, and conviction about their identity.”

She admires their curiosity as a maker and a mover, their willingness to expose themselves to many processes and the uniqueness of their jazz movement. Hearn shares George’s background in jazz dance and her deep love for the form, rooted in Black American dance and rhythms.

Rhythm tap master Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards performs in 'And Still You Must Swing' with tap icons Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith. Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Rhythm tap master Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards performs in 'And Still You Must Swing' with tap icons Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith. Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival

Dormeshia, a tap legend with a deep history of teaching, choreographing and performing at the Pillow, has become a leader in a national and international movement to celebrate and strengthen those rhythms.

“Jazz and tap were once the same dance,” George said, “and tap has become a more successful way to maintain that link. A lot of what has been called jazz dance isn’t jazz, and for tap, rhythm and footwork led to musically percussive artists. There was a time when many touring bands had a tap dancer — Duke Ellington, Chick Webb … They’re who Dormeshia’s generation was learning from, that lineage, what’s passed down and taught and inextricably linked.

“Swing is fundamental to any jazz-based movement, and Black American social dance is so fundamental. We can talk academically about the way rhythm works, so that it’s simultaneously uneven and predictable, but it’s also a feeling. (Without) that, you’re missing a basic part of the vocabulary, a part of how you’re conversant — it’s like trying to write a sentence and not knowing what a verb is.”

Jazz dance at Jacob’s Pillow

While performers America(na) to Me will draw on traditions of jazz dance and percussion, the Pillow will return to these traditions through the summer, including LaTasha Barnes’ performance in Caleb Teicher’s Swing Out! , July 6 to 10, with 12 dancers and 10 live musicans — Evita Arce, Nathan Bugh, Macy Sullivan, Eyal Vilne and more.

LaTasha Barnes will explore the Jazz Continuum at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Press photo courtesy of the Pillow.
LaTasha Barnes

LaTasha Barnes will perform and explore jazz dance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Press photo courtesy of the Pillow.

Enfolding her rhythms, Dormeshia will have a jazz band and vocalist to perform with her. In fact, almost all of the performers will move to live music. Though Hearn will have recorded elements, George said, they will also have improvisation at the core of their work. Warwick Gombey will have live drumming. And Bergasse and Mearns will have a pianist for a trio of Gershwin tunes.

Their coming belongs in part to a gleeful chance, George said. She reconnected with Bergasse at a performance in the fall — and she has known him since they were children. They grew up together, she said. His mother was her dance teacher.

He is an Emmy awardwinning on Broadway choreographer, and Mearns is a principal in the New York City ballet, and are married — and George knew that he has never choreographed a work for Mearns before.

“He’s an extraordinary choreographer for musical theater, and she’s a world-renowned ballet dancer, and they live in the same house,” she said, laughing.

‘He’s an extraordinary choreographer for musical theater, and she’s a world-renowned ballet dancer, and they live in the same house.’ — Melanie George

She looks to them to bring a buoyancy and lightness, and trust in creating work for someone you love.

Mythili too will have live music. She will performat the Pillow with vocalists Ganavya Doraiswamy and Sushma Soma, Rajna Swaminathan with percussion and voice, and at the Pillow, rhythmic vocalist Kasi Aysola. And while her story taps a traditional myth, the words she will move to are contemporary.

She is working with Perumal Murugan, a poet who writes in Tamilizh in the voices of marginalized people, speaking for solidarity and equity. She will also weave in a lyric from a 19th-century poet, Papanasam Sivan. She sees her work dissolving boundaries, she said, and not only in words and movement, but in the form and fluidity in her performance.

Sara Mearns performs cross-discipline collaborations at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
Jacob's Pillow

Sara Mearns performs cross-discipline collaborations at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.

Often in Bharatanatyam the musicians sit at the side, stationary, she said, and the dancers keep silent — they have roles prescribed. In the longer work, she will sing, and the musicians will move. She wants to blur the line between her role as a performer onstage, that stylized persona, and herself offstage, casual and human.

Her dance form has always been in constant evolution, she said. Women carried the forms in their bodies, and they have told stories in movement and song about relationships, with deities, with lovers, with kings, with each other. They have shared their reality, organically.

“They were dancing about their life,” she said, “as we dance about our lives. We have to adapt to what makes sense today. I have a daughter, and when I tell her about these stories, I want them to feel relevant in a global world.”

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