By Jessica Lockhart
Red Sky Performance’s hold-your-breath physicality provides plenty of “wow factor.”
Red Sky Performance, Jacob’s Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket MA, August 7 through 11.
The American premiere of Red Sky Performance’s Trace began with an image of a giant black hole being slowly lowered down from the sky. At the same time, a dancer stood straight atop the shoulders of other dancers. She was up in the heavens and the group supported her descent; she sank ‘earthbound’ by way of a series of diving, swinging, and rushing orbits. This contemporary Indigeous dance company from Canada (Toronto-based), made up of seven dancers and three musicians, provided a compelling look at life and the creation of the earth.
According to executive and artistic director Sandra Laronde, Indigenous peoples have mapped the night sky for thousands of years, the stories inspired by the stars continually shaping their society and culture. Their primal belief is that we are all part of the universe and it is part of us.
Trace smacked of the cosmic, and the piece’s extraordinary sounds and shapes stunned. The dance featured many partnered sequences. Skillfully the dancers pulled off difficult and tricky moves. One section had a person being thrown and tossed over another’s back — the result were a succession of precarious, and dramatic, shapes. The pairings continued with more unique lifts and turns; the result was a hold-your-breath experience, generating a delighted fear at the sight of such extreme moves. Beneath the risk was a sense that the dancers shared a firmly grounded relationship with each other. In order to execute complicated passages marked by sinewy grace and speed, it was imperative that the members of the pairs could rely on each other. Red Sky Performance is exciting on a number of levels — it is exciting to watch the performer’s explosive moves, but their intricate, small gestures are hypnotic as well.
The hour-long piece moved between segments that suggested the dancers were human, spiritual, and a combination of the two. The dance was strongly rooted in storytelling, dramatizing how the Indigenous peoples’ values depend on the importance of origins, a vision that embraces the dreamlike and the ritualistic. Traces was conceived by Laronde to examine the roots of the Teme-Augama Anisinaabe, how these Indigenous people imagined their origin by looking at the sky and the stars. The process made her wonder — what traces do individuals leave behind, how do they shape culture?
The visual video background was continually changing. One scene showed the inside of a teepee with smoke traveling up and out a vent at the top of the tent. There was a giant tree whose leaves slowly fell one by one to the ground. Most powerful of all was a projection of a real life 1921 letter from Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs that insisted Indigenous dancing had to stop. It had been outlawed. Devastatingly, the words started to fall off the page, letter by letter.
The live music by Ora Barlow-Tukaki, Bryant Didier, and Rick Sacks made use of Indigenous instruments: shells, flutes, and cajons as well as cello, drum, and bass. Performing along with a recorded composed score by Eliot Britton, the music exerted a number of moods and sounds, from quiet and spacey to rhythmic, including fierce passages. This was a deep and rich score, worthy of the mystical subject matter.
Jera Wolfe, who performed along with Sarah Di lorio, Eddie Elliott, Miyeko Feruson, Lindsay Harpham, and Bridget Wolfe, choreographed Traces. The dancers were dressed in white shorts and diaphanous shirts. White markings were painted on various body parts. The performers’ facial expressions were surprisingly natural given the mythological subject matter. Traces was anchored in an emotional reality; powerful stories of struggle and enlightenment generated compelling reactions of sadness and wonderment.
After the Red Sky Performance ended, I wandered back to my car and looked high up into the dark summer sky and marveled at the stars.
As well as Red Sky’s formal performance, Jacob’s Pillow offered a week long celebration that explored other aspects of Indigenous culture. The Land in Which We Dance offered exchanges of song, processions, storytelling, and a bonfire.
Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.