hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture June 2022


Exploring the breadth of American dance

At Jacob’s Pillow, opening show draws on diverse traditions



Mythili Prakash, one of a new generation of dancers in the Indian tradition of Bharatanatyam, is among the diverse group of performers in “America(na) to Me,” the opening show in this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Photo courtesy of Mythili Prakash


Contributing writer


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 story’s ending.

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

To celebrate the Pillow’s 90th summer, and the reopening 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.

Jacob’s Pillow presented its first show in the Ted Shawn Theatre in 1942. In the middle of World War II, Shawn curated a night of American folk dances. The program included square dances and a performance with Agnes De Mille, a dancer and choreographer known for her work with the American Ballet Theatre.

George and Rosa-Salas have picked up that theme and re-formed it for the 21st century.
“What does it mean to contemporary dancers to be American?” George asked.

She and Rosa-Salas have offered the question to leading artists in an interweaving of fields, and they are creating answers -- Nelida Tirado in Nuyorican-inflected flamenco, the Warwick Gombey Troupe in eastern woodland and Caribbean dance, Dormeshia in tap and jazz and Black American social dance.

The idea of America 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 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.”

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

George said 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.


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

Prakash is 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 conversations within Bharatanatyam today, as dancers today consider how the traditional dances and poems show familiar characters, and how contemporary performers have revived the form.

She sat down to talk with her artistic company, she said. She performs regularly with four musicians and her brother as her musical collaborator. Four of them live in the United States and one in Singapore, and they are all navigating and balancing ideas of how people see them and how they identify in themselves, with different perceptions in India and America, in home and school, in 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 since she was a child. She first performed the dance of the competition between Shiva and Kali when she was 9 years old.
As the group talked, she said, they found themselves looking at the story from new perspectives. 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. Shiva feels threatened, 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 in the motion, he creates a kind of magic or illusion. Kali can make the move just as well as he can — in the traditional dance, one woman plays both roles, and as she performs Shiva, she will show her own agile strength and flexibility.

But Kali faces social constraints. Traditionally, in the world of the myth, a woman was not allowed to lift her leg in a high kick like this. She would be called coarse and uncouth. And so Shiva wins the contest.

The traditional story comes in songs that praise Shiva, Prakash said, with ironic emphasis.
“They say she was arrogant and overstepping, and his creating magic justifies [him],” she said. “It was a lesson, a teaching.”

Now Prakash is questioning the lesson. She can love the myth and tradition, she said — and she can challenge it.


Growing from diverse roots
All of these performers are embodying a lineage, George said, just as flamenco passes down traditions from elders.

Warwick Gombey Troupe draws on the traditions of the 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 Bahamas, 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,” George said.

Jacob’s Pillow holds many different histories, she said — Native roots in the land, the Underground Railroad, the farm on the mountain, and then the dance festival. The history of the land is eclectic.

She said she trusts the Gombey performers’ ability to be expansive and expressive and responsive to their environment — 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 makers and movers, 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.

Dormeshia too, 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, Chuck 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,” she added. “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.”

Rhythms from live music
Enfolding her rhythms, Dormeshia will have a jazz band and vocalist to perform with her. On these summer nights, almost all of the performers will move to live music. Though Hearn will have recorded elements, George said, Hearn’s work also will have improvisation at its core.
Warwick Gombey will have live drumming to accompany them. And Bergasse and Mearns will bring a pianist for a trio of Gershwin songs.

They come into the show partly as the result of a glad serendipity, 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-winning Broadway choreographer, and Mearns is a principal in the New York City Ballet. They are married, George said, and she knew Bergasse 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.

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

Prakash too will have live music. She will perform at the Pillow with vocalists Ganavya Doraiswamy and Sushma Soma, Rajna Swaminathan with percussion and voice, and 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.

Prakash said she sees her work dissolving boundaries, not only in words and movement but also in the form and fluidity in her performance.

Often in Bharatanatyam the musicians sit at the side, stationary, she said, and the dancers keep silent, their 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 have 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 lives,” Prakash 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.”


“America(na) to Me” opens this year’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with performances June 22-26. Visit jacobspillow.org for tickets and information.