As summer comes to New England, the art lovers come out in force, descending on Marlboro, Tanglewood, and, not least, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which started on June 16th. For ten weeks, the Pillow will present dozens of performances by artists from the U.S., Australia, Brazil, China, Finland, France, Germany, and Israel.
There’s no place like Jacob’s Pillow. The approach to the site, nestled in the Berkshires, takes you along Route 20 as it winds toward Becket, Massachusetts. Finally, there’s the turnoff, to the north, on George Carter Road. (The land on which the Pillow sits was settled in the late seventeen-hundreds, by the Carter family, as a farm on the stagecoach road from Boston to Albany.) When you pull into the gravel-covered parking lot and enter the grounds, you take in the old farmhouse, the weathered barnlike theatres, and the cabins for students who are there for summer programs, some of whom sit in groups on the grass, in between classes, or go through phrases from a piece they’re learning, or just rest in the shade. If you’ve arrived for an evening performance, crowds mill about, as the light fades from the sky and the outdoor lamps come on.
Jacob’s Pillow was begun by the modern-dance pioneer Ted Shawn, who bought the land in 1931 and used it as a retreat for his company of male dancers; when they weren’t rehearsing, they built many of the early structures on the site. (One of Shawn’s intentions in forming his troupe was to change how people saw men who danced, and the works they created often incorporated robust, masculine movement, and occasionally resembled manual labor.) In 1933, they began giving “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” to the public, and continued doing so in the summers up until 1940, when the company, Men Dancers, disbanded, and the members joined the armed forces. In 1942, a proper dance performance venue, the Ted Shawn Theatre, was built, and the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival was born. This summer marks the eightieth year of dance at the Pillow; it is the country’s longest-running dance festival.
In addition to the Ted Shawn, a traditional proscenium theatre, there are two smaller performance spaces, the Doris Duke Studio Theatre and Inside/Out, an outdoor stage that seems to oat in the greenery. Ticketed performances take place in the Ted Shawn (generally the more established artists are scheduled there) and the Doris Duke; among the twenty companies and performers that will appear in those theatres this season are the New York-based Morphoses; Kidd Pivot Frankfurt RM, based in Germany and Canada; the Israeli contemporary troupe Vertigo; the Hong Kong Ballet; Bill T. Jones/Arne Zane Dance Company; the Trey McIntyre Project; the French hip-hop troupe Compagnie Käg; and the Joffrey Ballet.
The season’s opening gala features a new ballet by the acclaimed British choreographer Michael Corder, created on students in the Pillow’s ballet program in just four days; a duet by the Brazilian company Mimulus; the A.B.T. and Bolshoi star David Hallberg, in a work by Nacho Duato; and the Australian circus-and-movement company Circa. Other highlights of the summer are a special program devoted to Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, which will include solos and personal stories by prominent male choreographers and dancers, among them Arthur Mitchell, Lar Lubovitch, Jock Soto, and Robert Swinston; and the Finnish choreographer Tero Saarinen’s Shaker-inspired “Borrowed Light,” set to traditional Shaker spirituals, performed live.
Part of what makes Jacob’s Pillow such an exciting environment is that it’s also a school. Every summer, students from all over the world, mostly in their teens and twenties, come to study ballet, tap, contemporary dance, and jazz and musical theatre, in separate sessions, with topnotch teachers, and they also get a chance to perform for the public (on the Inside/Out stage) and attend dozens of performances by professional troupes. (Their fees cover tuition, room and board, and tickets to everything on offer.) They live in rustic cabins and eat communally at the Stone Dining Room, one of the buildings put up by Shawn’s dancers, and take classes in three beautiful studios, one of which was originally a barn on the Carter farm, back in the eighteenth century. Occasionally, the doors to these studios will be open, allowing visitors to observe rehearsals and classes.
The Pillow is an educational experience for audiences as well; in addition to simply being exposed to dance companies and performers from around the world, visitors have the chance to hear from the artists about their motivations, inspirations, intentions, and influences. Performances on the Inside/Out stage, which are free, take place before performances in the theatres, and conclude with Q. & A.s with the creators. (The artists performing on Inside/Out tend to be of the emerging variety—this year, Skybetter and Associates, Ian Spencer Bell, Dancewave, and HYM Latin Dancers, among others—but the 2012 roster also includes such renowned choreographers as Molissa Fenley and Bill Evans.) PillowTalks with directors, choreographers, designers, writers, and filmmakers are scheduled throughout the festival, providing more background. And Pre-Show Briefings, half an hour before performances in the Ted Shawn and the Doris Duke, allow viewers to gain an understanding of what they’re about to see. Repeat visitors to the Pillow tend to be a savvy bunch.
There are also community classes, exhibits, and other special events. Any visitor can make use of the Pillow archives, housed in a structure called Blake’s Barn, which includes videos, books, programs, and photographs; this summer, an exhibit there called “Decades of Dance” presents photographs from each of the Pillow’s eight decades, organized by theme. In the lobby of the Ted Shawn Theatre, the photographer Toby Olds shows images made during his visits to the Pillow in the past several years. A number of dance-related films will also be screened, one of which, “Never Stand Still,” is a documentary about Jacob’s Pillow itself.
“Never Stand Still”—which had its theatrical première in New York in May, and will be out on DVD in July—provides an excellent history of the festival, making use of the Pillow’s archive, which includes remarkable footage of performances by Shawn and his Men Dancers, Ruth St. Denis (Shawn’s wife, and the co-director of the company they formed together, Denishawn), Barton Mumaw (one of Shawn’s original dancers), and the ballerina Tanaquil LeClercq, and images of the site in its early days, being built by Shawn and his men. This informative background alternates with lm of the property today, and of recent performances. Extended interviews with several artists draw us deeper into dance, and into the preoccupations and desires of those who have made it their lives, and points up the reason that Jacob’s Pillow exists in the first place: because people felt it was necessary. These artists—among them Frederic Franklin, Rasta Thomas, Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, Joanna Haigood, Shantala Shivalingappa, Suzanne Farrell, and Gideon Obarzanek—tell the stories of their involvement with the festival and also speak about the development of their careers and their processes in choreography or experiences in performing. The documentary’s director, Ron Honsa (who also made the 1985 lm “The Men Who Danced,” about Shawn and his troupe), is wise to bring past and present together; the Pillow is so much about the history of dance, and it’s all around you there.
What runs through the film is the sense that the Pillow is hallowed ground, a place revered by dancers. One never forgets being at Jacob’s Pillow. I was there only a few times as a dancer, a long time ago, but whenever I’ve returned as a spectator everything about it is so familiar, so welcoming. The ephemerality of dance is one of its special qualities, and to have a home like the Pillow, which celebrates that, and thrives on it, is wonderful. Many dancers probably feel as Ted Shawn did when, toward the end of his life, he wrote, “It is a paradox that I, who have a strong desire for what will endure, and will be permanent, should have chosen the art form which leaves nothing but memories. And yet I am satisfied this is my medium, and my destiny.”
“Never Stand Still” lovingly conveys the connection between place, performer, and audience that exists at the Pillow. But there is nothing like being there. Go if you can.
Andrew Boynton is the head of the copy department at The New Yorker.