'Dance of Ages' recreates Shawn's Men Dancers performance

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BECKET — On a late summer afternoon in 1938, people are coming up the worn tarmac and the dirt road, up a mountain to find a New York choreographer.

It is a long train ride from the city, and many of these are local people coming up from the mill towns. The stone quarry is still running in the valley. Here in the garden, lithe young men in cloth robes hand out cups of tea. Many of them are not long out of college, and the leader is experienced, lean and commanding in his movements. They are about to perform the first evening-length modern dance ever made.

And this weekend, Adam H. Weinert and a company of 21st-century men dancers will perform it again, just as Ted Shawn did 80 years ago.

"Imagine how it would feel to drive up George Carter Road and not know what you were going to see," said Pamela Tatge, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival director. "You'd heard about these dances at a farm, and in the garden someone presents work he's passionate about. I'm sure there were people who had never seen anything like modern dance before and felt a visceral feeling they had never felt before."

Long before Tanglewood and late in the Depression, Ted Shawn bought an old farm here and set up a studio. He was already the first American man known around the world for dance, and he was already a revolutionary artist. Modern dance was new in itself, and a company of men dancers was unheard of in the U.S. until he founded one.

He set up his studio here to teach and create new work, and his new company began performing informally on the lawn.

By 1938, they were traveling the world, and later in his life he would turn the Pillow into an international dance festival.

"He hugely expanded what was considered stage-worthy," Weinert said by phone from the Pillow as his company prepared for the performance. "He brought in dancers from Africa, from Japan, Poland, to a barn with no electricity. The conversation around cultural appropriation is hugely important, but he did go to the source, and he learned dance from the people, and that's how dance is translated, from people to people. Dance is oral history."

Shawn's work drew Weinert into research in graduate school and, in 2013, he earned a commission from MoMA to reconstruct Shawn's solo works.

"I was fascinated by what he wanted to do," Weinert said. "He saw ballet as bourgeois, elite ... he wanted an American dance for American people — accessible, patriotic, challenging and subversive."

He finds that vision timely today. In 1938, all of Europe was on the edge of war. Shawn was living through a time of rising authoritarianism and fascism, Weinert said, and he was responding in this dance.

"To see a work created at a time of great uncertainty, attacks on democracy, at the brink of World War II ... How does that work resonate in today's social and political world?" Tatge said. "Adam can reconstruct the work and make it contemporary in a way I've rarely seen other artists do."

She has seen him perform Shawn's work here before, on the Inside/Out stage on a rainy night, and felt the closeness of the dancers, felt their effort and dedication palpably. "Dance of the Ages" is an hour and a half long, she said, and Weinert has been working on it for two years.

It explores the four elements, he said, and four human communities, each with a leader, who considers the shape and the limits of the society around him.

It begins with the discovery of fire, harnessing power and spreading the embers through the earth, and the soloist here is a shaman. Then it moves into a city state like Minoa, like Cordoba, like Firenze in the Renaissance, with a poet/philosopher. It faces a democracy, recognizing its limits, and the central dancer becomes a politician. And then it looks beyond democracy to a different world, a future world maybe — and the soloist is a creative artist.

Shawn's soloists each developed their own material, Weinert said, a practice still considered new today. He knows because Shawn left records of the work: film footage, a dramaturgical narration.

Shawn had the dance filmed with a crank camera, Tatge said. The movement is sped up and uneven, and the film is silent; later he asked the composer, Jess Meeker, to record the music. This weekend, John Sauer, a colleague of Meeker's who accompanied Pillow classes for years, will play the music live.

"It was not a narrative dance," Tatge said. "That was part of what was revolutionary about it. Shawn referred to it as pure dance. ... And it was a men's dance. He was looking at what men do — and this is gender perception in the 1930s, so let's check ourselves — but he was looking at a physical vocabulary of men at work, on the farm, men at war, and this was revolutionary at a time when men who danced were seen as effeminate, less powerful. The elements reflect the power of masculine movements."

So, Weinert has rebuilt the dance, enlarging Shawn's work with his own. He has formed his ensemble from Pillow alumni, who had taken the contemporary program here. The Pillow has invited him to campus for two weeks before the work, and the dancers are living here together, making food for each other, working at a local farm and re-creating the experience of Shawn's company.

"They built (this place)," Weinert said, "and that's not metaphorical. They cut trees, planed planks, built the barn."

He thought back to an evening when his dancers sat together, talking over their time here, the influence this place has had in their lives and the dance they are shaping together. It gave body to the effort of the last two years.

"The work deserves it," he said, "these men and this place deserve it — without them, all the stories we told on the first night would not exist."


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