Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival celebrates 85 years in Becket

It is July, 1932.

An athletic, tanned and slender man with dark hair cut very short takes a break from his morning’s work. He stretches in the sun, unselfconsciously wearing little. He is laying a new floor to turn the barn into a dance studio. By the next summer, people in this county will drive most of a day, on dirt back roads, to get up here and watch him dance.

Ted Shawn, co-founder of the first modern dance company in the country, bought an old farm as a haven and a rehearsal space. He wanted to be within range of New York City, but to have his own space, said Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket.

In 1933, Shawn opened the studio to visitors. He would give a talk in his bathrobe, join the Men Dancers in a performance and then host a tea for the guests. He was 40. And he was turning the world of dance upside down — for the second time.

Shawn’s new company of college men lived and practiced in outbuildings without electricity, in those early summers. They studied Pilates and warmed up with Javanese hand movements. When they rehearsed, Jess Meeker, a pianist trained to improvise scores to silent films, matched his music to their movements.

“It was like nothing anyone had ever seen,” Owen said. “He had to train (his dancers from scratch), because no one else trained them like this.”

Shawn felt the men best able to learn what he had to teach would be athletes, but not dancers who had already learned different styles, Owen said.

Shawn had studied dance from all corners of the world. He drew inspiration from the Hopi and from black spirituals — his choreography to “Nobody knows the trouble I see” is stripped down in desperate anger. He invented wholly new ways of dancing, in this place and time. And he made dance a way for men to make a living.

In the early 1900s, “dance was analogous to being a prostitute,” Owen said. Shawn had fought that denigration for decades. In 1914, he had joined national dance star Ruth St. Denis to perform, and then to found a school and a modern dance company — Denishawn. They sought out teachers to learn traditional dance forms, and they later toured Japan, Cambodia, India and the Philippines, studying with dancers there.

“Every way that any human being of any race or nationality, at any period of human history, has moved rhythmically to express himself, belongs to dance,” they wrote bluntly into their company guidelines.

“They were embodying multiculturalism in 1914,” Owen said.

Now his mountain hosts Compagnie Marie Chouinard in 24 Preludes by Chopin and Henri Michaux: Mouvements, inspired by the artist’s poems and ink drawings, and also Aakash Odedra in Rising, contemporary dancer with roots in classical Indian dance, Kathak and Bharatnatyam (both performing through Sunday).

Next week Ballet Hispanico will bring the flamenco-inspired Línea Recta set to Spanish guitar; Eduardo Vilaro’s Danzón, a contemporary take on the national dance of Cuba; and Gustavo Ramírez Sansano’s El Beso, nuances of a kiss, set to Spanish Zarzuela music — and Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY will perform Exhibit B, looking at the Israeli conflict with Omid Walizadeh’s hip-hop and Iranian music score. They will alsp present excerpts from Calling Glenn to music by Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche.

Barton Mumaw, a Denishawn performer who became Shawn’s lead dancer in the Men Dancers, would come back to Jacob’s Pillow as late as 2001 and tell Owen how thrilled Shawn would have been to see the Pillow now.

“It proves the validity and power of his ideas,” Owen said, “to see they can fuel growth like this.”

One of Ted Shawn’s dancers created a dance about the Shakers that inspired Tero Saarinen’s “Borrowed Light” here five years ago, Owen said. When Shawn came to the Berkshires, the Shaker community in Hancock still had 11 living members, though they no longer danced. So Shawn’s ideas have come full circle, and young dancers still gather at the tables in the stone dining hall after a full day’s study.

Shawn’s college crew of Men Dancers raised that stone building with their own hands, and they grew crops to eat in it.

“He would say he wanted the dancers to be familiar with the ways men moved and the work they did,” Owen said — “plowing, digging, building.”

It was also a way to get the work done, he said, but it put the work into their art. And that combination of feel for the earth and feel for the art may begin to explain the pull this place has had, from its first days. When Ted Shawn opened his studio doors, visitors walked into his space, where making the work mattered most.

On this hilltop, Ted Shawn lay awake on summer nights. Here he cut grass with a sickle and a rake, still dressed in his good clothes after dinner. Here he sat at his typewriter, sorting out lighting and schedules and interns’ visas.

He wrote these details, beginning in 1942, in daily letters to Barton Mumaw when Mumaw enlisted, as America entered World War II. These are intimate letters to someone he knew well, and someone who knew the rhythms of the Pillow.

Shawn wrote to him in friendship what he might have said of the best of dance as well: “Those are the peaks — when the harmonious fusion of two persons is so complete that it proves it can happen.”


I talked with Norton Owen in July 2012, as Jacob’s Pillow celebrated its 80th year. I remember sitting in the archives on a quiet summer night and reading Ted Shawn’s letters, and I imagined him up there in the days when the barns and buildings had kerosene lamps … and when he first performed informally for visitors in his garden. In July 2017, in the Pillow’s 85th year, the story feels as immediate and relevant — if anything, even more so. I’ve updated it to reflect the 2017 summer’s dancers.

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