Jacob’s Pillow Dances To Its Own Drummer
Jacob’s Pillow celebrates every imaginable form of dance in every conceivable way. The Pillow, as it’s called by insiders, is more than an historic performing arts venue in a bucolic setting. It’s a multidisciplinary cultural center that during the season pulses with activity from 8 AM (with public dance and pilates classes) until after 10 PM (when you might find yourself drinking wine in the Pillow Pub alongside the dancers you’ve just seen perform such as Jason Samuel Smith, above). Even if you’re ambivalent about dance, The Pillow will seduce you not only with the world’s most innovative dances companies (such as Merce Cunningham, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, and hip-hop sensation Rennie Harris Puremovement) but also with its barns, gardens, and authentic rural charm. (Jacob’s Pillow was the name of the 18th century family farm that once occupied this hilltop in Becket.) It’s a one-stop day-trip destination.
Cultivating an appreciation of dance is one of The Pillow’s missions, and over the past decade executive director Ella Baff (right) has made a concerted effort to bring in diverse dance troupes as well as speakers who can illuminate the mysteries woven into much of modern choreography. “We have pre-performance talks every day,” she says. “They are amazingly valuable. With a non verbal art form, it helps to give people some context. I think of them as the equivalent of the audio tours your might get at a museum.”
Indeed, The Pillow functions like a museum on many levels. In Blake’s Barn, there’s a gallery space where A Dance to Jules Feiffer, the first-ever exhibit devoted exclusively to dance-related watercolors and line drawings by the eminent cartoonist, will open to members on Sunday, June 14, and to the public on June 24. (His Self Portrait with Attitude is left) “He will be speaking here on August 5,” says Baff, who notes that a few days later on August 8 there will be a free talk entitled Rachel Maddow Talks Dance? with the MSNBC star and Berkshires weekender. Baff becomes giddy as she demonstrates a new interactive display in the adjacent archives. “This is our electronic jukebox,” she says, pointing to a screen where you can call up 76 seasons of You Tube style clips of dances at The Pillow, including Ted Shawn’s all-male dance troupe back in the seminal summers of the 1930s. “I want everyone to come play with our jukebox!”
You don’t even need to purchase a ticket to feel welcomed at The Pillow, which has free performances on its Inside/Out stage every Wednesday - Saturday at 6: 30 PM. “But, of course, I hope people will buy tickets for the Ted Shawn and Doris Duke Theatres because there are so many wonderful people dancing here this summer.” While it would be undiplomatic for Baff to choose favorites, she has booked the tap dancer Jason Samuels Smith and A.C.G.I (Anybody Can Get It) for an unprecedented two-week run (most groups are at The Pillow for five days only). “He is one of the world’s great tap dancers and was in Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk—and he’s pretty good looking too,” say Baff, aknowleding that his sex appeal made him the obvious choice as the cover for the season’s catalog. And for anyone who is unfamiliar with modern dance, she thinks that the Pacific Northwest Ballet (August 19 - 23) has an intoxicating appeal. “This is not story ballet,” she explains. “This is contemporary ballet that’s very physical.”
Baff likes to think of The Pillow as a destination for discovery and she believes that you can never go wrong (even if you do not like a particular performance) when you allow your mind to experience something new. “My goal is to encourage a culture of curiosity,” she says. “You don’t need a secret arts passport to enjoy dance.”
Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival