Jacob’s Pillow shifts the conversation on indigenous dance through its landmark celebration The Land on Which We Dance.
Editor’s Note: This independent, original article generously sponsored by Jacob’s Pillow.
An Arapaho proverb says, “All plants are our brothers and sisters. They talk to us, and if we listen, we can hear them.” It’s an elegantly simple explanation of the interconnectedness of life on and with earth—a central belief in most, if not all, indigenous traditions.
This web of connection is also a primary theme of The Land on Which We Dance, a landmark celebration of indigenous dance at Jacob’s Pillow that ran from August 7 to 11. Rich, varied, and often exhilarating, Land explored how indigenous cultures use movement to express a variety of ideas, including their relationship with every living, breathing part of the planet.
While indigenous forms, or modern choreography inspired by it, have been included in Pillow festivals all the way back to 1933, this was the first weeklong festival within the festival. The Land on Which We Dance was curated by Sandra Laronde, founder of the Toronto-based Red Sky Performance and a descendent of the Teme-Augama Anishinaabe, in association with Christopher K. Morgan, founder of Christopher K. Morgan & Artists, and of native Hawaiian descent, and Nipmuc writer/musician/cultural educator Larry Spotted Crow Mann. Their vision: to pay respect to the indigenous peoples of this region while celebrating their work—past, present, and future—through traditional and contemporary performances and programming.
Over the course of the week, Land presented talks on the indigenous traditions of the region and on indigenous choreography, and a free Inside/Out performance by and a class with Morgan. Red Sky performed the U.S. premiere of their bold and athletic evening-length work, Trace, and conducted an open-to-the-public master class. Following the Friday performance of Trace, several Native American artists led an interactive storytelling bonfire.
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Finally, the exhibit Dance We Must took a warts-and-all look at the topic of cultural appropriation, through a collection of costumes, photos, props, and other objects from the Pillow archive, each with placards written by multiple artists and historians, to represent the different views inherent in historical conflict.
One of the most memorable events was the Inside/Out showcase of more than a dozen artists representing a range of traditional music and dance. But make no mistake: this, and The Land on Which We Dance as a whole, was not a pack-it-in-mothballs preservation effort. “There’s a feeling that [these dance forms] happened in the past and that they’re museum works,” says Pillow Artistic Director Pamela Tatge. “In fact, they’re living traditions that are being passed on from artist to artist. There’s a huge amount of research and sharing and training going on.”
For Laronde the distinction is huge. “It’s not just a celebration of indigenous past, or only traditional dance. It’s a celebration of the present and future of indigenous dance—its evolution, its incorporation and intersection with contemporary,” she says. “It’s a myth that we always perform traditional dance, or that all indigenous dance is about storytelling.”
Land is an extension of the robust investment the Pillow has made in community engagement in recent years, from its free performances at Pittsfield’s Third Thursdays, the free Pillow Express Saturday bus to Becket, a newly expanded Pillow Pride weekend, and programming in local schools. It’s also an opportunity to dig deep and examine the institution’s stewardship of what were once tribal lands—and open up the question of who belongs, or who feels like they belong, at Jacob’s Pillow.
Laronde answers, “We belong everywhere. We belong on mainstream stages and in world-class venues like Jacob’s Pillow, to small community theaters and school programs, all the way into big venues like the Olympic Games”—a reference to indigenous performances featured at both the 2002 and 2010 games. “If you have one of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious, dance festival in the United States opening its doors through The Land on Which We Dance, it will live on for all of the other dance companies and artists that come after.”
While The Land on Which We Dance may have wrapped, the conversation continues. The Pillow has committed to including indigenous dance in each festival moving forward, and, as Tatge says, is thinking “broadly and creatively” about the form it will take. Tatge is also keen to move beyond one-off performances and build ongoing relationships with indigenous dance artists.
Laronde is excited by the possibilities inherent in this shift in perspective, and in helping new audiences understand and enjoy indigenous dance. She also hopes that it will make Jacob’s Pillow not just an advocate for world-class dance, but also part of the movement to bring people back to the land—and to the fundamental understanding that it represents far more than just the ground beneath our feet.
About Jacob’s Pillow
Each year thousands of people from across the U.S. and around the globe visit the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts to experience the Festival with more than 50 dance companies and 500 free performances, talks, and events; train at The School at Jacob’s Pillow, one of the most prestigious professional dance training centers in the U.S.; explore the Pillow’s rare and extensive dance Archives; and take part in numerous Community Programs designed to educate and engage dance audiences of all ages.
Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.