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New Moves for a Revered Summer Dance Festival

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Aug 01, 2017


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Jacob's Pillow debuts a new director and a new studio


One of the busiest and most creative dance destinations during summer is the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, where decades of venerable history coexist with contemporary energy and innovation. This year the Pillow, as dance regulars call it, marks its 85th season with some intriguing additions (a new director and a new performance space) alongside the kind of eclectic performances it has long been famous for. Approximately a three-hour drive from Midtown Manhattan, the fest, which continues through August 27, is a worthwhile trip for local dance lovers.

The origins of Jacob's Pillow date back to 1931, when modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn purchased a farm in Becket, Massachusetts. He and his all-male colleagues worked the land and built the theatre and housing while also rehearsing. What began in 1933 as "Tea Lecture Demonstrations" by Shawn and his Men Dancers eventually grew into a festival featuring a broad range of choreography and styles. Shawn -- who led Jacob's Pillow until his death in 1972 -- invited an array of artists, from leading ballet virtuosos to expert interpreters of Indian dance. The atmosphere was open-minded, encouraging dancers to observe and learn from less familiar techniques.

Today the Pillow showcases an intriguing assortments of American and international companies, some familiar to New York audiences, others enjoying their first major exposure. The festival commissions some of the works and, in certain cases, offers residencies for choreographers to experiment and shape new material.

This season is the first curated by Pamela Tatge, who came to Jacob's Pillow in 2016 after serving as the director of Wesleyan University's Center for the Arts for 16 years. "As a multi-disciplinary presenter at Wesleyan, dance ended up being the real focus of my programming," Tatge says. "I saw how choreographers were some of the most successful artists to work across disciplines. The Pillow had always been a place that I looked to for work that I might present."

For Tatge, who studied dance as part of her college theatre training, this was the ideal job at the right time. "It became the most amazing opportunity, to consider taking the helm of this historic institution," she says. "What I love is the breadth of the programming here, and it was very important to protect that."

To that end, Tatge made sure her 2017 schedule includes contemporary innovators such as Kyle Abraham (August 2-6), Eiko Otake, and Aakash Odedra as well as important ballet companies like The Washington Ballet (August 23-27). That troupe and other established outfits appear in the 600-seat Ted Shawn Theatre, originally built in 1942. Smaller, often experimental ensembles present their work in the Doris Duke Theatre, an intimate and flexible space that opened in 1989. There are also free performances at an outdoor amphitheatre.


Although the Pillow has been running since mid-June, Tatge cited several highlights on its jam-packed August schedule. "For those who missed Camille A. Brown's BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play at the Joyce, it's a masterwork of hers (at the Pillow August 9-13). Also, it will be extremely moving to have the Trisha Brown Dance Company (August 13) performing here in the year of her passing."

Tatge is especially enthusiastic about the world premiere of The Principles of Uncertainty (August 23-27), a collaboration between award-winning choreographer John Heginbotham and acclaimed illustrator Maira Kalman that had a developmental residency at the Pillow. She describes it as "very theatrical, with wonderful stagecraft. The work really evolved during that residency. John invited the theatre director Daniel Fish as an outside eye, and the work changed significantly. That's the kind of partnering with artists we want to be doing -- helping them make the work the best it can be."


Tatge is also excited about the August 18 grand opening of the Perles Family Studio. which will provide expanded space for its School and residencies. Its 3,500-square-foot floor is nearly double the size of the Pillow's current largest studio. "It's going to be a transformational space," Tatge says.

Jessica Lang, whose eponymous company just performed at the Pillow last month, fully appreciates the festival's importance to the dance world. As a dancer, she performed there with Twyla Tharp. Years later, former Pillow director Ella Baff encouraged Lang to form her own troupe, and presented its debut in 2012, inviting the company back several times. Lang's July program included Glow, a world premiere commissioned by the festival featuring live accompaniment by musicians from the nearby Tanglewood Music Festival.

"The Pillow has become a nice home for us," Lang says. "People who go to performances there want to support the arts. They're not judging. The Pillow is a warm and welcoming environment on so many levels. I feel the incredible history -- I think everyone does, and that's why it's so special."


Susan Reiter regularly covers dance for TDF Stages

Top image: Camille A. Brown's BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, photo by Christopher Duggan.

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Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.