After going from woodsy frontier to center of the dance world, Jacob’s Pillow launches landmark 80th season


Visitors to the Berkshires nowadays can choose from more live theatre, music, and dance than they can shake a conductor’s baton at. But that wasn’t the case 80 years ago when a group of dancers built a place to work and perform in a remote corner of western Massachusetts. Eight decades later, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the only dance festival designated as a national historic landmark, is still going strong. As it gears up for this landmark season, the festival combines highbrow dance with a respect for its history and an eye on the future. New England Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin has the story.

 [sound from ballet rehearsal]

 At a secluded campus near a state forest, about two dozen elite young ballet dancers, most between the ages of 17 and 21, are rehearsing in a warm, low-ceilinged studio. Most are sprawled around the edges of the room, stretching, kneading their ankles and feet and keeping loose. A few are working with guest instructor Michael Corder, who until recently was director of dance at the English National Ballet School, on a piece they’ll perform before a well-heeled audience at a gala performance in a few days.

 These students came from China, Australia and all over the United States. for this highly competitive program at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts. Several likely will soon transition to major professional companies, says Corder.

 “I think the whole point of this project here is to really give these young students who are about to become professionals, and some just are, is to give them a real taste of what it’s going to be like working in a major ballet company, working with choreographers and directors, and how to rehearse, how to be creative, and how to work, really.”

 This visit to the Pillow is a gold star on their young resumes, and the Berkshires is firmly branded as a cultural mecca in the hills — a working example of the “creative economy” that’s now seen as a potential economic engine for many an out-of-the-way Massachusetts community.

 But when the dancer Ted Shawn brought his all-male troupe here in 1933 and established Jacob’s Pillow, which now owns the distinction of the U.S.’s longest-running dance festival, the cultural landscape here was much different. Tanglewood, Boston Symphony Orchestra’s renowned summer home north in Lenox, was still five years from being founded. The Berkshire Playhouse in nearby Stockbridge, later named Berkshire Theatre Festival, was in its infancy.

 Stuart Chase, executive director of 1Berkshire, an organization with its eye on economic development in the county, recognizes Pillow founder Shawn as an arts entrepreneur, well before such a thing became a trend here, much less a defining characteristic of the region.

 “I think that unique special moment back in the 1930’s when Ted Shawn started this dance group in the hills of the Berkshires, in Becket, there was something entrepreneurial, something, sort of a special Berkshires spirit about the place that has just provided this longevity of programming there.”

 The effect spills over into Lee, the blue collar town almost ten miles to the west. Rachel Portnoy, co-owner of French restaurant Chez Nous, says that after Pillow season tickets go on sale, it’s always easy to tell when the most popular dance companies are booked to perform—her mid-week reservations for those weeks fill quickly.

 “Oh yeah, we’re booked weeks in advance. I know when there’s something good at the Pillow by the beginning of the summer.”

 Shawn went to the Berkshires to build a retreat for his own troupe but it  became a presenting center for companies from around the world. His passion for dance is obvious in this 1963 interview found on You Tube.

 “This is unique among the arts. A painter can paint something and it goes on the wall, or a sculptor makes something and it stays there, but this is the most ephemeral art. You see, you do it and it’s born and dies in the very second you’re doing it. ” 

 He was knighted by the King of Denmark in 1957 after welcoming the Royal Danish Ballet for its American debut. The medal he received hangs on the wall of the well-preserved archives in a converted barn on campus. A few feet away is the Presidential Medal of Arts the current artistic director Ella Baff received from President Obama on  behalf of the Pillow in a White House ceremony last year.

 There was likely little thought of honors from kings and presidents in the festival’s earliest days. Baff describes the pioneer spirit of its founders.

 “There was no water, there was no electricity. They built everything. They moved barns. We have these great photographs of the men dancers, Ted Shawn and his men dancers, just hammering away. They really had their hands on this place.”

 Nowadays it’s only about a ten-minute drive from the nearest exit on the Massachusetts Turnpike, but in a direction that’s not on the way to anywhere in particular—other than a series of tiny hill towns.

 Pillow archivist Norton Owen, who’s worked here 35 years himself, offers some perspective.

 “It’s a very unlikely happening that you would put a dance festival in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Depression, and that that would still be going and thriving and growing and continuing 80 years later.”

 But it is. Jacob’s Pillow’s 80th season runs through August 26. For New England Public Radio, I’m Jeremy Goodwin.