Jacob’s Pillow: a giant leap

Executive and artistic director Ella Baff on how a simple idea for a dance collective turned into world-renowned dance festival and hub of ideas.

Jacob’s Pillow is a famous US dance centre, school and festival hub located in the small town of Becket, Massachusetts, situated just two-and-a-half hours drive from New York. It’s award-winning Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival runs from June to August, while Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive is the centre’s year-round digital resource for the archiving and sharing of dance films and videos spanning the entire period from the 1930s to today.

When American choreography pioneer Ted Shawn founded Jacob’s Pillow in 1933, it was improbable that it would one day become a permanent international center for dance. The idyllic 18th-century New England farm, as it was at the time, first served as a retreat for Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers. Today, Jacob’s Pillow is a National Historic Landmark sitting on 220 acres, and home to America’s longest-running dance festival. The organisation is also a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, presented to the company by President Barack Obama at the White House.

The 2014 Festival was, by all accounts, our most successful on record: we welcomed more than 96,000 visitors to experience paid and free performances, public talks with artists, dance classes, film screenings, exhibits, open rehearsals, and many other events involving interaction between artists and audiences.

Festivalgoers were introduced to an eclectic range of companies from all over the world, with the aim of fostering an all-embracing view of dance that includes ballet, hip-hop, traditional and culturally specific forms, tap, and many more category resistant fusions. In total, 52 companies were presented in three venues across a varied programme including US debuts, commissioned works and premieres.

The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob's Pillow
The Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow

Looking ahead, the 2015 Festival shows just as much promise: we’ll be celebrating significant anniversaries, presenting premieres of co-commissioned projects, and hosting several programmes with live music. On the bill are two artists who have crafted new work at the Pillow through our creative development residency programme. Michelle Dorrance, a tap artist and winner of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, will return with her company Dorrance Dance for The Blues Project, which is staged to live music by esteemed singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon and her band BIG Lovely.

In addition, Jessica Lang will present her new evening-length ballet, The Wanderer, set to a live recital of Franz Schubert’s expressive song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Elsewhere, Daniil Simkin, international ballet star and principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, will present his new dance and multimedia production INTENSIO; an exciting world premiere co-commissioned and presented by the Pillow.

MalPaso, a fast-rising company from Cuba, will make a big impression with works by artistic director Osnel Delgado – featuring live music from Grammy Award-winning composer Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra – as well as a new work by the popular American choreographer Trey McIntyre. At the close of the festival we’ll pay homage our deep roots, and launch the 90th anniversary year of the Martha Graham Company: Martha was a student and dance partner of our founder, Ted Shawn.

Next year also marks the 20th anniversary of public access to the Jacob’s Pillow archives, among the most significant and accessible sources of archival material in the field of dance. Blake’s Barn, home of the archives, houses tens of thousands of photographic prints and negatives; hundreds of boxes of correspondence; 9,000 films and videos covering a historical period ranging from 1894 to today; 6,615 online catalogue records describing archival resources; and 30 trunks of costumes worn by various dance icons. In addition, approximately four terabytes of digital HD video and hi-resolution photos are produced each year, all of which document a diverse array of performances, rehearsals, talks, classes, events, and oral histories by a multitude of international dance artists.

As the collection grows, so does the demand for access, both on site and online. In November 2014, the Pillow broke ground on a milestone expansion project to address this: the development will add more than1,900 square feet to Blake’s Barn, tripling the space for public access, climate-controlled storage, and our documentation and video production team. It will also increase the available space for our dance library, our reading room, and our HD video viewing areas.

The archive expansion is a big step – it’ll make this highly significant collection and resource more functional and more visible to the world; a real treasure to share.