Friday, June 30 & Saturday, July 1
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

Pilobolus Dance Theater has visited many worlds in forty-six years of producing some of the most accessible works in modern dance. In its latest collaborative work, Echo in the Valley, which premiered at the American Dance Festival last Friday, the veritable first family of the banjo, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, guided choreographers Renée Jaworski and Matt Kent into the Appalachian dark.

Choreographers have visited these hills before. Decades after Martha Graham’s improbably bucolic Appalachian Spring, Doug Varone choreographed The Bottomland to a suite of Patty Loveless songs, including the haunting coal-mining epitaph “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” More recently, Kate Weare set Bright Land to mountain music from the Crooked Jades; zoe | juniper based last fall’s Clear & Sweet on the sacred harp hymns of the Primitive Baptists.

Echo opened with three miner’s headlamps piercing the blackness of an unlit DPAC stage, their high-intensity beams sweeping across the auditorium before locating Heather Jeane Favretto’s inert body on the floor. But whether her character was sleeping, injured, dead—or, perhaps, all three, since backwards banjo loops sometimes suggested time reversing—took as much time to resolve as her relationship with the three searchers in this ambiguous work.

After Jacob Michael Warren appeared to whip the woman into a standing position, Washburn’s plaintive voice in the stillness seemed to identify her. “I am a coal miner’s wife; I’m sure I wish you well,” Washburn sang in the opening verses of the Depression-era protest song “Come All You Coal Miners.” The dramatically amplified boom of Favretto’s shoes on a wooden platform suddenly broke the quiet. In the Stygian gloom, clogging, the Appalachian folk dance form, had never seemed or sounded more ominous.

In this puzzle of shadows and light, moments of musical optimism tried to cut against the mood. But since Harlan, Kentucky, has been associated with hard living and bad outcomes in various tunes over the years, it felt uncanny to hear Washburn’s character begging a beau to take her back there in the lyrics of a new, unrecorded song.

That and other efforts to leaven the mystery misfired. At what appeared to be a wake, Favretto was once more on the ground. Nathaniel Buchsbaum pulled at Warren’s grieving, silhouetted form, trying to get him to leave. When Warren didn’t budge, Buchsbaum fell to his knees, tugged at Warren’s legs, and then repeatedly sidled under his right arm to nudge him away. Though Favretto’s character subsequently revived—again—from the floor, the sequence seemed a particularly tone-deaf effort at comedy.

There were striking images and sounds throughout. But the shadows—and the back-and-forth scripting and choreography, which kept the central character inexplicably flipping between being incapacitated and not—left too much ambiguity at the end. Was this a murder mystery, enacted in reverse, in a Kentucky cave? Or a not entirely coherent ordering of events on a darkened stage? At this point, I’m afraid the answer is both.