For Red Sky Performance at Jacob's Pillow, it's all in the stars

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BECKET — Each week during the annual 10-week festival at Jacob's Pillow Dance, each of the campus' two main theaters hosts a different company for six or seven performances. In case you're not familiar with Pillow director Pamela Tatge's performance routine, she gives a curtain speech at the Ted Shawn Theatre, then heads down the path to the Doris Duke Theatre, where shows start 15 minutes after the Shawn shows, and gives a curtain speech there. Usually those two curtain speeches are almost entirely different — she's introducing the company/dancers/performance we're about to see in that particular theater — although sometimes there's a through line that week that she wants to connect for us. This week in each speech she acknowledges that she, and thus we, are standing on land first inhabited by indigenous people, and she offers her respect and homage to the members, past, present, and future, of those nations.

It's a solemn yet lovely stamp on "The Land On Which We Dance," the Pillow's week-long celebration of indigenous dance and culture which features discussion, displays, and performances packed with the storytelling, dance, and/or music of artists based in this country and Canada. The events have largely been curated by Christopher K. Morgan — a Hawaiian choreographer whose company performed as part of the free Inside/Out performance series on Thursday — and by Sandra Laronde, artistic director of the Canadian-based Red Sky Performance group, which has been performing throughout the week in the Duke Theatre.

"Trace," a new production for Red Sky Performance, is an hour-long work for seven dancers and three (live) musicians. Although abstract, the piece's launching point is based on the Anishinaabe (the group that includes the Algonquin, Odawa, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, Potawatomi, and Saulteaux peoples) belief that, essentially, we originated from the stars. "We are traceable to the beginnings of the universe," writes Laronde in her program note, "our ancestral origins stretching across the Milky Way to the atoms burning inside of us in the here and now."

The stage is set up simply, with the amplified musicians — singer Ora Barlow-Tukaki, Bryant Didier on upright bass, and percussionist Rick Sacks — lined up along stage right. Performing the often-propulsive score they collaborated on with composer Eliot Britton, the trio are an integral presence, with Barlow-Tukaki's whispered or chanted breathsounds like a kind of vocal heartbeat throughout. On a long screen upstage a series of images appear and recede, providing a meditative backdrop to the dancers' actions. Directed by Marcella Grimaux and designed by Daniel Faubert, the images begin with what seems like an eclipse of the sun that morphs into a kind of dazed, widened pupil; at the end of "Trace," instead of large orbs we see the countless pinpricks of galaxies in the wondrous images of night skies. Other images include what look like ink drawings of feathery petals, or pictures of brightly-hued macram flowers, and are often trippy in nature, although there's a sharp bite of reality in the projection of an "official"-looking letter, the gist of which was a stern request to dissuade indigenous people "from excessive indulgence in the practice of dancing." It's a tiny bit of a wink, or a roll of the eyes — oh, the ignorance — but it's more sobering than witty. Wonderfully, as if defying the idiocy in real time, the sentences disintegrate up on the screen, the individual characters dislodging and cascading so that the text is seen for what it was: nonsense.

Red Sky associate artist Jera Wolfe's choreography for himself and the rest of the cast — Sarah Di Iorio, Eddie Elliott, Miyeko Ferguson, Cameron Fraser-Monroe, Lindsay Harpham, Bridget Lee — is a many-flavored mix: Street dance with some b-boy and b-girl floorwork, the dancers' legs windmilling as they turn on their backs; virtuosic acrobatics including a potpourri of cartwheels; hip-hop dance, in the rapid, mime-like hand and arm motions as well as the larger staccato isolations of the hips and ribs; modern dance with lots of soft falls and rolls on the floor; and a bit of ballet, particularly for the lithesome Lee, who is frequently lifted and tossed and turned by the others.

The dancers handle it all with craft, power and confident demeanors; they look strong and handsome in Kinoo Arcentales' spare, fluid costumes. There are some off-notes, including, actually, that confidence, which is overstated in the frequent "resting fierce face" that I presume the dancers were directed to adopt, but is tiresome in almost any dance. (A nice respite is Elliott's long, vulnerable solo, in which he seems propelled by unseen forces.) Lee's choreography, particularly in her solo, veers a bit into some competition dance tropes, and the duet/partnering work skews too often toward a kind of haul-the-woman-around bluntness. Perhaps Wolfe's intended choreographic effects would be better served by more intricacy, more intimacy, bodies lit less fully all the time, in Alexis Bowles' otherwise attractive lighting design.

Those hiccups notwithstanding, "Trace" is a good family event, an earnest, engaging production, and one with a rather beautiful message. From stars we come and to stars we will go, into the universe that belongs to no one.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com

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