BECKET — Skywoman falls. In the Anishinaabe story, she falls through a cluster of seven stars.
On a mountaintop, here, she spirals from the sky to the earth. Strong and gentle hands lift her, and she moves in a slow and beautiful wave.
She comes to earth in the beginning of "Trace," a new work by Red Sky Performance at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, beginning Wednesday and running through Aug. 11.
The dance company, based in Toronto, has performed around the world for many years, and this summer at the Pillow their performance has grown into a larger celebration with storytelling and live music.
Red Sky's artistic director, Sandra Laronde, spoke by phone on a car trip across Canada. She is of the Teme-Augama Anishinaabe (People of the Deep Water) in Temagami, northern Ontario. Anishinaabe is the name Europeans know as Ojibwe.
She has led Red Sky for almost 20 years, and next week, seven dancers and three musicians will perform in the Doris Duke Theatre. Pamela Tatge, artistic director at the Pillow first saw them perform here in summer 2017 on the Inside / Out Stage.
"To see those dancers against the Berkshire hills was thrilling," she said, "and I wanted to bring them back and be honored with a performance."
They will give "Trace" its U.S. premiere here, with Laronde's direction and choreography by Jera Wolfe, a dancer and associate artist of Metis heritage.
"I was interested in the idea of traces, in all forms," Laronde said. "DNA, fossils, tracing a phone call, an investigation. (They) all lead back to a source."
So do stories.
"I'm thinking about origin stories," she said. "What is our origin, as indigenous peoples, and as Anishinaabe, and what are our origin stories? We know the story of Adam and Eve, but in our origin stories, back to the beginning, we know that we are formed in the core of a star. As Anishinaabe, we are known as the `star people'."
Around the world, she said, origin stories go back to the stars. The milky way and the whole of the night sky illuminate human psyche and world view, and people read the stars like stories.
The Anishinaabe see the winter maker, a beautiful long-armed figure, where Western astronomers see the stars of Orion rising in the cold months.
"The dipper, ursa major — we call it the big bear," she said, "and the story behind it is about seven hunters."
The position of the dipper speaks to the seasons. In the spring, she said, in the story, the hunters shoot a bear, and the bear's blood falls to earth and touches a robin, giving him a red breast. And the robin is a sign of the spring.
People turn to the stars for time and navigation, Laronde says, and some for connection. When she thinks of life in the universe, she does not think of it as alien. Extraterrestrial does not mean other.
"I asked the Cree astronomer Wilfred Buck how indigenous people think of aliens," she said. "He says when we see them, we're going to say `hey, cuz.' Because when we say `all our relations,' they are our relations too."
She speaks of all her relations meaning the water and the trees, two-legged and four-legged creatures and creatures beneath the water, and those in the sky too, connected and interconnected.
She speaks of people's stories and their astronomy, and she sees them being erased. That body of knowledge has been disappearing, she said, and now people are upholding it.
"We are looking at our stories and our science — how can we tell that story through dance? Rekindled though dance and music and without words it becomes something more powerful."
In "Trace," her dancers, musicians and choreographer work with a team of digital artists in 3-D and motion graphics and projection mapping. They dance with images evoking an expansive space and time.
In one powerful movement, Laronde said, the artists present a historic letter from 1921 from the Superintendent of Indian Affairs — the top U.S. government official at the time with influence over their lives — on how to stop `Indian people' from dancing. The letter appears and begins to crumble. The letters begin to fall, and then the words. They become a constellation that evaporates.
And the dancers move.
They invoke the night sky and the life of a star. A star has a birth, a young life, a middle age and a death.
"We show that physically," she said, "and you hear it in the music."
Three multi-instrumentalists will perform live — percussion and strings, marimba, flute — with a live vocalist and a recorded singer, in a blend of traditional Inuit throat singing and beat boxing.
The drums pulse, and the Skywoman falls. As she touches the earth, the birch trees turn to red leaves, and the leaves fall like blood in the forest. She is injured, Laronde said, as so many women and girls are injured.
And she rises.
She will lift, circling upward until she finds a new plane of the sky, and becomes part of a constellation, and melds with the Milky Way.