BECKET >> In this week's line-up at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Adam H. Weinert presents his "MONUMENT" project, which features reconstructions of some of Pillow founder Ted Shawn's choreography. That in itself is a rare statement. Although Shawn, who died in 1972, is acknowledged as one of our most important American modern dance pioneers, his dances may be the least-remembered thing about him.
Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, formed the famed Denishawn school, which spawned legendary disciples including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. After breaking from St. Denis, Shawn bought and repurposed the former farm in Western Massachusetts that now houses the Festival. It also contains a bounty of archives presided over by Pillow director of preservation Norton Owen, to which Weinert had access through a research fellowship.
Like a quick modern dance history lesson, the first part of the program also includes reconstructions of solos by Humphrey and José Limón, one of Humphrey's own protégés who likewise became an icon in the genre.
Logan Frances Kruger, the one female in the appealing, eclectic group, performs Humphrey's 1931 "Two Ecstatic Themes" with a calm fervor; in the dance's first section, her strongly grounded legs offer a glorious counterbalance to her swooning, arcing torso. In the "Tecumseh" excerpt from Limón's 1970 "The Unsung," Ross Katen is both yearning and expansive, his limbs reaching out in big gestures and leaps before contracting into stuttering little parallel bourrées.
Using a movement vocabulary both pedestrian and gesturally dramatic, Shawn sought to elevate the status of the male dancer — and to conjure the struggles of the modern laborer. Sometimes his joys were celebrated too, as in the jaunty first section of the 1930 "Four Dances Based on American Folk Music," charmingly performed by Brett Perry. Shawn, like St. Denis, sometimes engaged in what may now be identified as cultural appropriation: the second part of "Four Dances," which is set to the "Negro" spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," is immediately elevated by the heartbreaking simplicity with which Davon Rainey, who is African American, performs the now beseeching, now constrained movements. Nicholas Bruder has a good time with his solo, slapping his thigh, tossing his torso side to side, his grin a touch maniacal. In his brief solo set to "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the beautiful veteran performer Eric Jackson Bradley infuses the staccato foot-stomping, chest-thumping movements with a quiet dignity.
Likewise Weinert — whose physicality is almost fragile in contrast to the stocky, chest-thrusting Shawn we see in photos and video footage — lends the tentative, tactile walks and waltz-like swooping of Shawn's 1935 "Pierrot in the Dead City" a kind of delicate subtlety. (The music for "Four Dances" and for Shawn's 1935 "Pierrot" are solo recordings of Shawn's longtime pianist Jess Meeker.)
What does it mean for us when these works are pulled out of their archived mausoleums and revivified by a new generation of dancers? In this project, the results are, blessedly, not somehow "quaint," but often thrilling. The performers give the dances, and thus the dances' makers, the respect due them, which means they don't tiptoe into the steps with some kind of misplaced reverence — that would only make the works seem antiquated. They dive into the solos with full hearts, and yes, with their 21st-century bodies: of course, there has been much evolution in dance training but Weinert's group refrains from trampling upon stylistic nuances of the past with the technical wizardry of the present. They simply dance; the dances live again.
The solos are followed by "MONUMENT," an often striking — but occasionally incongruous — ensemble work created in 2015 during the reconstruction process. Throughout it, each of the seven dancers — accompanied live by dj/musician Chris Garneau — reference their ancestors' solos performed earlier.
Weinert has said that learning and embodying Shawn's dances has been like "dancing with ghosts," and, with the solos still fresh in our mind's eye, the echoed bits of them add to the evening's overall sense that we are in some kind of lovely time warp.
Janine Parker also writes for The Boston Globe, where a version of this review first appeared. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Who: Adam H. Weinert
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Doris Duke Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
When: Through Sunday. Evening — Tonight at 8:15. Matinees — Today and Sunday at 2:15
How: 413-243-0745; jacobspillow.org; in person at Jacob's Pillow box office on site