Jacob's Pillow dance performances to launch Lift Ev'ry Voice Festival
BECKET -- From urban centers in Mali, from folklore and global culture in Cuba, from a strong family of women, Jeremy McQueen, Danys Perez and Jamal Jackson make new dance.
They perform nationally and internationally. And this summer, as part of the Lift Ev'ry Voice Festival, now in its second year of celebrating African-American heritage in the Berkshires, Jacob's Pillow will bring world-class African-American-led dance companies to their mountaintop.
Beginning Wednesday, dancers including these three will share their work among the Pillow's free Inside/Out performances.
'The Pillow is an underground railroad site that has a particular interest in highlighting and educating people on its history and heritage. It was a perfect fit,' said Shirley Edgerton, co-chair of Lift Ev'ry Voice.
From San Diego to Cuba to New York, these dancers bring with them influences that help them tell their own stories.
Jamal Jackson formed his eponymous dance company in 2004, combining traditional African dance with Modern and hip hop styles. From growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., to studying at Brown University to traveling in Mali, Jackson's company reflects the diversity of his experiences.
Jackson visited Mali as a college student. He found it an eye-opening experience. Many people have an image of African dance being heavily rooted to traditional 'village culture,' he said, but he found an ever-evolving world of dance in Mali.
'When you are in a major city in Mali, you are surrounded by artists who are pushing boundaries, in some ways much more so than they are here,' he said.
Since he founded his company nearly a decade ago, Jackson has made a point to push boundaries as well. When his company performs on Wednesday, Jackson said he is excited to be joining a group of like-minded artists.
'I'm proud to be part of a festival that celebrates different artists who are opening up different forms of dance,' he said. 'It's a nice cross-section of different kind of movements.'
Danys P rez, who grew up in Santiago, Cuba, said her time spent in the Oriente province of Eastern Cuba informs the kind of dance she works on today. As a teenager she was asked to join Cutumba, an Afro-Cuban folkloric ballet company, and she toured with them for about 18 years.
In 1998 she started her current company, Oyu Oro in Santiago. For six years, Oyu Oro has been based out of New York. The company, Perez' home country, blends a kaleidoscopic mixture of cultural influences.
'My work really appreciates the influence that is the heritage of Cuba,' Perez said. 'It comes from the African people and also the European people -- it's that fusion of European, Cuban, and African nationalities.'
She will bring Oyu Oro to Jacob's Pillow on June 20.
Roughly translated from the Yoruba Lukumi language, 'oyu oru' means 'water lilly as a crown.' Perez chose the name to represent 'the queen of the ocean,' a powerful female deity from her culture.
'It goes back to the ocean which is what gives the Earth life,' Perez said. 'The title means the crown of the queen of the ocean. I love celebrating my culture through dance.'
When Jeremy McQueen came across Georgia O'Keefe's 'Black Iris III' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he was struck by inspiration. As with many who gaze at an O'Keefe painting, McQueen saw more than just a flower -- he was transported to a different time and place, reading narratives in the canvas.
Looking at the iris's soft yet powerful lines, he thought about the power of women, particularly that of the three family members who had been by his side throughout his life -- his mother, godmother and aunt. All three African-American women had gone through many trials and triumphs, and each one made a lasting impression on him.
'These three strong black women embody the essence of the painting,' McQueen said. 'Some of their struggles that I heard along the years all spoke to me. I decided to craft a ballet piece with a lead African-American female at its center.'
Only 27, McQueen was a 2013 recipient of the Joffrey Ballet's Choreographers of Color Award, and his work has taken him across the country, from the San Diego School of creative and Performing Arts to the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation.
McQueen will perform at Jacob's Pillow on June 28.
'My mom grew up during Southern segregation, integration and the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.,' McQueen said. 'For me to have that knowledge passed down to me, to share some of that experience through dance as part of this festival makes me so thrilled.'
If you go ...
What: Inside/Out Lift Ev'ry Voice performances at Jacob's Pillow Jamal Jackson Dance Company
When: Wednesday, 6:15 p.m.
What: Oyo Oro Afro-Cuban Dance Ensemble
When: June 20, 6:15 p.m.
What: Jeremy McQueen
When: June 28, 6:15 p.m.
Where: Henry J. Leir Stage at the Marcia and Seymour Simon Performance Space, Jacobs Pillow Dance, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
Admission: All Inside/Out Events are free and open to all