History Lessons about slavery (Review/Dance Performance)

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BECKET, Mass., Aug. 21 — It would be nice to feel unmitigatedly positive about Joanna Haigood’s “Invisible Wings,” an ambitious site-specific evocation of slave culture and history, linked to the history of the land that the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival now inhabits. On Tuesday — a day late, after rain forced the cancellation of the scheduled opening — a new version of this open-air work, first presented at the Pillow in 1998, opened on the festival grounds amid a sense of excitement heightened by the delay.

But by the end of “Invisible Wings,” the anticipation of imaginative transportation to another time and place had dissipated into the duller sensation of having been offered a well-staged history lesson. And after two and a half hours of that — no matter how enjoyable the music and how persuasive the performances — even this most passionate of topics can feel (dare one say it?) a little boring.

Ms. Haigood, a San Francisco choreographer, has a well-deserved reputation for making theatrical magic and bringing the past to tangible life in unlikely venues. After discovering that the Jacob’s Pillow land had been a station on the Underground Railroad, the clandestine network for slaves fleeing to free states, she embarked on three years of research, enlisting musicians, dancers and actors along the way.

The outcome is a complex patchwork of slave narratives and folklore, set in three different sites in the woods and clearings on the Pillow grounds.

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