The roaming project — currently untitled — is a first for Dorrance and one borne out of necessity. There are no indoor venues at the festival affectionately known as “The Pillow” this year, and the audience is going to be socially distanced. Not that anybody minds.
“This is a gift, to work with this volume of people,” said Michelle Dorrance, the company’s founder. “The other night I hung out and talked until 3 in the morning. Because we’re together.”
In a small clearing in the woods, the 41-year-old watched two performers rehearse a short piece, a modern dance performed, in part, on facing chairs, set next to a downed tree. A breeze swept through as Donovan Dorrance, Michelle’s brother and a member of the company, accompanied the dancers by softly playing chimes hung over a branch. As the piece developed, Ephrat Asherie and Matthew West’s movements intensified, from hands brushing hands to an almost violent, choreographed bob-and-weave.
Earlier this spring, Dorrance and other members of the company’s leadership came to the 220-acre campus to scout locations for this roaming piece, which they say is meant to evoke feelings of loss, community and our attempts — both successful and not — to communicate. (Dorrance Dance is also doing performances of other work on the festival’s outdoor stage.) They considered a marshy spot, until they were told about the mosquitoes. The ticks are unavoidable, though the festival’s staff has helped by mowing paths to each location. And there are other reminders that this is still not a normal summer, including the daily health questionnaire, which quizzes them on whether they’re feeling a loss of taste or smell or any other coronavirus symptoms. Some also find it takes getting used to what they don’t have to do. Massachusetts ended its mask mandate May 29 after recent guidance for vaccinated people from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s weird not to wear a mask, 24-7,” dancer Leonardo Sandoval said. “I feel a little bit guilty, but actually we don’t need to.”
It is only fitting that Dorrance Dance, the tap company launched in 2011 by the North Carolina-born MacArthur fellow, is headlining the first week of in-person performances at Jacob’s Pillow. The international dance festival, founded in 1931, has long nurtured young talent, from a 22-year-old Alvin Ailey, who first performed here in 1954, to the then 17-year-old Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, part of the Los Angeles-based Jazz Tap Ensemble when she appeared in 1993. Dorrance’s appearances in Becket date back to 2011 and, before the pandemic hit, the company was designated to take over all of the festival’s performance spaces for a week of the 2020 season.
This is the first time the Pillow has had to make this kind of a comeback. Over the years, it has pushed through economic collapses, World War II and the energy crisis of 1979. But last year wasn’t just canceled by the pandemic. In November, the festival dealt with another setback: Its 220-seat Doris Duke Theatre, a prime performance space built in 1990, caught fire and was destroyed. (The cause remains undetermined; the organization plans to rebuild the Duke, but details have not been announced.)
In January, the Pillow began a previously scheduled $8 million renovation of the 600-seat Ted Shawn Theatre, its other indoor performance space, which also renders that venue unusable until 2022. (There was talk of delaying the project, but the space’s outdated ventilation system made it unsuitable in a post-covid world.)
So, as Dorrance Dance — the first of nine companies to be on-site this summer, including Streb Extreme Action and Contra-Tiempo — launched rehearsals earlier this month, tap shoes sometimes competed with the sounds of drills, hammers and table saws. On a sun-drenched clearing, workers readied the Henry J. Leir Stage. In the past, the site was used for free performances. This summer, it will be a key venue with ticketed seats or, more specifically, newly installed, wooden benches that allow for three-foot gaps between parties. The distancing has reduced the Leir’s capacity from 900 to 400 patrons.
That’s where Dorrance will present staged works, including the first collaboration between Josette Wiggan-Freund, one of the company’s artistic leaders, and Keyon Harrold, the Grammy Award-winning trumpeter and composer who has played with Eminem, Rihanna and Gregory Porter. The official world premiere of “. . . Praise: The Inevitable Fruit of Gratitude” will come in July in New York as part of Queens Theatre’s summer season.
“It’s a blast just to be together, period,” Wiggan-Freund said. “For all of us coming together, that alone is just enough. But then you transport that energy, you transport that idea here in this space and that takes it up a notch.”
That was clear as Michelle Dorrance, artistic team member Nicholas Van Young and Wiggan-Freund checked on three of the sites for the roaming performances. The first was in what is normally an outdoor campus pub. Aaron Marcellus, at a piano, sang over a 12-bar blues alongside bassist and dancer Claudia Rahardjanoto. Tap dancer Luke Hickey hopped onto the wooden floor to deliver an energetic, upbeat performance. The company’s artist directors snapped, clapped and shouted enthusiastically.
“A slam dunk,” said Van Young at the end, delivering high-fives.
The artistic team then walked around the corner, where Dorrance and two other dancers rehearsed a piece that called for them to shovel gravel until they had built a percussive beat. As her boots hit the ground, dust kicked into the air. The group walked down a hill to a wooden shed that will house homemade electric instruments Van Young crafted out of shoe boxes, kid’s toys and drum machines to simulate communication tools. And they stopped in what was once the festival’s intern village, wooden cabins condemned a few years ago but still standing on the outside of a U-shaped clearing large enough to serve as a gathering spot. This is where the roaming performance will culminate.
For a moment, it seemed almost possible to forget that 2020 ever happened.
But it did, and cancellations meant Jacob’s Pillow lost half of its $8 million annual operating budget and had to lay off 40 percent of its 45-person, full-time staff. Dorrance Dance, coming off a 2019 that featured a 30-city tour and its largest production to date, an adaptation of “The Nutcracker Suite,” shut down on March 7 after a show at Sonoma State University. The company survived by reducing its budget and relying on covid relief, the government’s Paycheck Protection Program, donors and virtual gigs.
While the festival will still be partially online this summer — including streamed performances by companies in other locations — there is a sense of relief that there will be an audience on hand for most of the work.
“There’s nothing like live performance,” Pamela Tatge, Jacob’s Pillow’s executive and artistic director, said.
And Dorrance, in particular, said she is eager to click off Zoom. In fact, while Jacob’s Pillow is filming most performances this summer and making them available to what it sees as its growing audience online, Dorrence negotiated to keep Wiggan-Freund and Harrold’s main stage piece off the Internet. Instead, the festival will make a short film of the site-specific, roaming performance.
“We’ve all talked about this quite a bit,” Dorrance said. “We want the live performances to be special and remain live,” Dorrance said. “One of our biggest concerns is that we are percussive dance artists. Sound, as it is received in a room versus an outdoor stage, there are a lot of variables. So if we’re going to stream something, we already know it’s compromised.”
Tatge and the festival’s staff have also been working to develop safety protocols on campus, even as federal and state guidelines shift, sometimes from week to week. In the Berkshires, a thriving summer tourist destination, other reopened attractions include the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the Barrington Stage Company and Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox.
On campus, protocols have been put in place, Tatge said, that balance the need to keep performers and audience members safe while also respecting privacy. For example, Jacob’s Pillow is not requiring ticket buyers to reveal if they’ve been vaccinated, but anyone walking the grounds — “in motion,” as defined in the protocol — must wear a mask. People who say they’ve been vaccinated can remove their masks while at the Leir watching a performance.
Performers and staff are being asked to disclose to the festival whether they’ve been vaccinated but their information is not being made public. If they are not vaccinated, they will be required to get a weekly test.
“Health information is always 100 percent confidential for me,” said Angelica McCarthey, who is serving as the festival’s health-care coordinator and covid compliance director. “With covid, nothing’s different.”
Since testing began earlier this spring on campus, there has not been a single case of the coronavirus, she added.
During rehearsals, the majority of the Dorrance company members were not wearing masks. But one who chose to wear a mask bristled when asked about it. And a Jacob’s Pillow publicist then made a request to a reporter that company members not be asked about covid precautions.
“Some people on this cast are cancer survivors,” said Dorrance, who was not wearing a mask. “Some people on this cast have seizures. There’s no part of me that is going to share that. We internally, as a company, know everyone’s status. Because we have to keep everyone safe. But we’re also here bubbled on campus. Anyone can do whatever they want. Regardless. Because we’re safe now. So what we are doing as individuals, we all support each other.”
There was no talk of the pandemic as they rehearsed, gathered for lunch and sang an impromptu happy birthday to Hickey — he turned 25 on June 21 — but the work produced for this summer’s festival was clearly influenced by it, the artists said.
Take the solo piece Wiggan-Freund is preparing as part of the company’s roaming project.
In it, she will be in a house, folding laundry next to an old Victrola as Sarah Vaughan’s “Lover Man” plays.
“I think my character is remembering the good old days when I was surrounded by people listening to this record,” she said.
Was that before covid, she was asked? Wiggan-Freund didn’t answer and Dorrance, sitting across from her, piped in.
“We are, of course, experiencing these things of defining communication in isolation and being so close to someone and still entirely isolated from them and not being able to communicate with them.”
The abstract beauty of a performance, Dorrance said, is that the audience can decide the meaning for itself.
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2021 runs from June 30-Aug. 29 with online programming available through Sept. 23. https://www.jacobspillow.org/festival/; 413-243-0745.