Jacob’s Pillow has long been an outpost of forward thinking. Before the idea of “cultural diversity” existed, founder Ted Shawn was inviting Indian classical dancer Ram Gopal and pioneering black ballerina Janet Collins to join his mixed repertory concerts at this remote idyll in the Berkshires, an hour from Albany and two from Boston. In an onsite exhibition to celebrate the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s 80th anniversary, a 1954 photograph shows Gopal sailing into a Technicolor-blue sky, no stage in sight. On another wall, Collins in 1949 – after the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo had rejected her for her skin colour but before the Metropolitan Opera took her on – stretches out sideways in modernist angst.
From the preserved barn theatres to the invaluable archives, the Pillow testifies to dance’s rich and varied history. The vision it provides of the future is less bright, however. Not even the storm last weekend, which turned the gravel walkways into shallow ponds and emptied the lawns of the customary picnickers, scared people off the shows. But the full houses were mainly made up of the retirement set.
At least the choreographers aroused no dread of the art form’s imminent demise. Jessica Lang, a rare woman in big league ballet-making, is prolific but as she is a freelancer (for American Ballet Theatre, Birmingham Royal Ballet and so on) you may not have heard of her. The debut of her own small, sturdy troupe could change that.
In the generous programme of dances from the past seven years, the steps and their spatial arrangement were strong and bright, like the Mondrian that inspired the premiere Lines Cubed. Lang lards these geometries, however, with predictable romantic, psychological and musical conceits. From Foreign Lands and People comically encapsulates the problem when a love duet on the right parallels, on the left, three men lavishing blandishments on rectangular cubes.
In The Calling, to medieval plainchant, a parachute skirt fans out like a halo around the man wearing it, the dynamic former Ailey star Clifton Brown, confirming Lang’s recurrent fascination with how feeling and spirit radiate out from a person. But she has not pushed the idea far enough to unite lush humanism with geometric clarity. A troupe of her own, with these eloquent dancers, may free her for that pursuit.
If Jessica Lang Dance is too instantly pleasing, Story/Time by Bill T. Jones is initially exasperating. The 2012 work is loosely modelled on John Cage’s Indeterminacy, in which the composer read out an uninterrupted stream of randomly ordered one-minute stories from a desk at centre stage. The maximalist Jones adds to his own 70 stories – randomly selected for each outing from a pool of 150 – an ever-changing parade of dances and a score that occasionally drowns him out. In one anecdote his older brother calls him “as busy as a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest” – it applies to the first 15 minutes of Story/Time too.
Eventually, though, a theme emerges from the scatter of tales. His mother grieving over her husband by rolling across the floor like “a child on a grassy hillside”; the beauty of snow piling on winter branches; the trip Jones took to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with his mother, who, confusing it with a cemetery, said she had heard the best place to learn guitar was a graveyard at night, evoke time passing relentlessly, poignantly.
As tool more than theme, time also distinguishes the choreography (the most intricate and mesmerising I’ve seen from Jones). The movement was stretched and squeezed so it became herky-jerky at one point and gluey at another. The nine astounding dancers executed small distracted gestures, like when we pat a pocket to make sure of wallet or keys. Or they skittered sideways in low leaps, congregated to catch a rocketing dancer, or moved in dreamy unison.
The dances were immediate and specific – and eventually began to speak to the stories feelingly. When the dancers rolled naked across the stage beneath a bank of fog, both the mourning mother tumbling across the floor and death camp bodies ploughed into ditches came to mind.
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival continues until August 26, www.jacobspillow.org