BECKET, Mass. — Over the past year and a half, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival has faced greater challenges than the weather. Last summer, for the first time in its then-88-year history, the festival was forced to cancel all performances in its bucolic home here in the Berkshires. Last November, with the pandemic still raging, one of the festival’s two theaters was destroyed in a fire.
Jacob’s Pillow has bounced back, scheduling a full summer season of performances, both on-site and online. But the pandemic isn’t over, so all the on-site shows are outdoors, subject to Covid protocols and the weather. On Wednesday, opening day, the main obstacle was rain.
The festival has hired a meteorologist, who makes a call a few hours before showtime. On Wednesday, the matinee happened but the evening performance didn’t. That means that I saw only one of the two programs that Dorrance Dance — the foremost tap company of the past decade and a Pillow regular — has prepared to kick off the season.
It was a happy reintroduction, particularly since the matinee program is a kind of theme-park tour of the grounds. (Video of it will be available free, on the festival’s website, July 15-19.) Audience members are divided into small groups, designated by colored wristbands, and each group is guided by docents to a series of stations where members of Dorrance Dance perform vignettes on a loop.
In the open-air pub, we meet Aaron Marcellus, Claudia Rahardjanoto and Luke Hickey, who pretend to squeeze in one more jam session after last call. Marcellus is a singer, a soulful and gifted one, but at one point, he too contributes some tap. Hickey replaces him at the piano, and Rahardjanoto, who’s been playing bass, joins him in a tap-and-song duet. This circular trading is characteristic of Dorrance Dance, and of the playful, inviting, improvisational spirit that makes the company a smart choice to welcome back audiences.
The next bit, in the Tea Garden, shows a different side. In what look like beekeeper suits, Warren Craft and Rena Kinoshita tinker with electronics and antennae, turning tap into an esoteric attempt at communication across potentially interstellar distances — or something like that. Is this about the recent report on U.F.O.’s?
The sci-fi theme is picked up later, when we encounter Michelle Dorrance, Leonardo Sandoval and Byron Tittle in overalls, setting up a ladder and a satellite dish. Nearby, chairs are arranged around a gravel pit, where the three dancers wield shovels and boots to work up a little symphony in rhythm, attending to the sonic possibilities of the gravel: crunch, scrape, rattle.
Before that, we’ve visited Ephrat Asherie and Matthew West in the woods, doing a sad dance of disconnection to the accompaniment of wind chimes. And we’ve spied on Josette Wiggan-Freund in an isolated and rustic cabin, hanging up the wash to dry as she moves to Sarah Vaughan records in the heat, becoming amazingly close to a dance equivalent of Vaughan’s voice. At the end, we find the rest of the company (including the stellar trumpeter Keyon Harrold, in a guest appearance) clustering around more cabins, banging on washtubs and washboards and having a great old time.
Where are we? When are we? There’s something ersatz about these vignettes, something far too reminiscent of backlot theme parks. The familiar scenarios miss an opportunity, too, since the Pillow has its own rich history of architecture and place. (Could the cabin dances be alluding to the site’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad?) The stock setups heighten a sense of thinness. As soon as the final party gets going and we’re brought to our feet to join in, we’re ushered away. The ride is over.
Under the circumstances, these faults are forgivable. Dorrance Dance provides a pleasing tour. Maybe if I had seen the other program, with two new works designed for the festival’s outdoor stage, the matinee would have seemed like the perfect appetizer. But Thursday’s evening show was rained out, too, and I had to return home to Brooklyn.
Fortunately, one part of the program I missed — a premiere by Wiggan-Freund to music by Harrold — will be on at Queens Theater in Flushing Meadows Corona Park on July 9 and 10. These shows are also outdoors (but with an indoor backup plan, in case of rain). I’m watching the weather.
Through Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Mass.; jacobspillow.org.