Festival Series: Jacob’s Pillow Dance (1931-Present)

December 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Jacob’s Pillow is the oldest internationally acclaimed summer dance festival in the United States. Its mission is “to support dance creation, presentation, education, and preservation; and to engage and deepen public appreciation and support for dance.”

The festival is located on a farm that was purchased in 1931 by Ted Shawn to be used as a dance retreat with his wife Ruth St. Denis and their highly regarded Denishawn Company. The farm was bought by British ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin in 1942, and was made into a National Historic Landmark in 2003.

The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the country's oldest theater for dance. (Photograph by Nancy Tutko; from the archives of Jacob's Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts.)

The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the country’s oldest theater for dance. (Photograph by Nancy Tutko; from the archives of Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts.)

Ted Shawn’s goal when he opened Jacob’s Pillow was to teach a myriad of dance forms without hierarchical valuation. Modern dance, ballet, jazz, flamenco, tap, Bharata Natyam, hip-hop, and Butoh dance have all been taught and performed at Jacob’s Pillow over past summers.

A large part of the festival is the School at Jacob’s Pillow. When it began, it was Shawn’s all male dance company. He hoped to take away some of the stigma of male dancers that Americans held. In 1933, he opened the doors for 40 male students. In 1938, the school officially accepted female students as well.

Ted Shawn and Men Dancers in 1936, photo credit Richard Merrill

Ted Shawn and Men Dancers in 1936, photo credit Richard Merrill

In 1942, when the farm was bought by Markova and Dolin, the Pillow began to change. Due to the difficulty Shawn was having running the festival on his own, it acquired a board of directors and became a non-profit organization. That year the Ted Shawn Theatre was built, the first stage in America that was solely dedicated to dance. The festival included instruction and performances in “American Folk Dance,” “Dance of the Orient and Their Adaptations,” Contemporary European Ballet,”, and “Primitive Dance and its Adaptations.” The programming was purposeful–Shawn hoped to show audiences how dance reflected cultures and societies as well as not assigning importance to one type over another.

Students in class at the School at Jacob's Pillow

Students in class at the School at Jacob’s Pillow

Students in 1942 experienced a summer program that sought to create citizens of the world through diversified educational experiences. Pillow students studied numerous dance forms, attended lectures before seeing artists, had works choreographed on them by eminent artists, as well as manual labor like, “building, chopping wood and gardening”. The aim was for dance to become part of a community lifestyle, and not just a vocation.

Ted Shawn doing manual labor at Jacob's Pillow in 1931. Photo uncredited

Ted Shawn doing manual labor at Jacob’s Pillow in 1931. Photo uncredited

Particulary after the founding of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1965, the number of modern and ballet companies in America grew exponentially and a number of these companies spent time at Jacob’s Pillow. Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor Dance Companies, Pilobolus Dance Theatre, Pear Land & Dance Company, and Minnesota Dance Theatre are among the artists who have performed at the Ted Shawn Theatre over the years.

The festival has also been pioneering in educational outreach. Through their Pillow Talks, a lecture series started in the late 1950s, the festival cultivated an appreciation of dance among the community. Audience members could learn about dance notation, ballet innovators, and the extensive careers of dancers such as Ruth St. Denis and Matteo for an admission fee of $1.50. The Pillow has also offered community dance classes for all levels, often taught by the visiting artists.

Crystal Pite participating in a post-show lecture. Photo credit: Christopher Duggan

Crystal Pite participating in a post-show lecture. Photo credit: Christopher Duggan

Ted Shawn was able to remain the artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival until his death in 1972. There have been many other artistic directors after him that have kept the organization a vital part of the dance world. Each year, Jacob’s Pillow has about 60 performances, 20 talks, 100 students, and more than 80,000 audience members all in about 70 days.  It has become a living monument in the history of dance in America, but also in American history itself.

A performance at Jacob's Pillow in 2010. Photo credit: Kristi Pitsch

A performance at Jacob’s Pillow in 2010. Photo credit: Kristi Pitsch

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