BECKET, MASS. — THE hills of tiny Becket, 10 miles east of Lenox in western Massachusetts, might seem an unlikely location for one of the best-known summer dance festivals in the United States.
But here on 150 acres of woods and former pasture land, choreographers, dancers, and students convene to study, create, and perform all types of dance.
The name of this dance farm, as it's affectionately called, is the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Since it was established 52 years ago, it has nurtured emerging artists and supported masters in the field, such as Merce Cunningham and Alvin Ailey.
"There's really nothing like it," says Margaret Jenkins, founder of the San Francisco-based dance company that bears her name, who has been here three summers. "It's played an extraordinary role in the development of dance in the last 50 years, and for contemporary dance organizations it's one of the major presenters in the country."
Jacob's Pillow started as a farm in 1790. Its name is believed to come from two sources: the twisting stagecoach route dubbed "Jacob's Ladder" that became Route 20 (which now gives access to the dance theater), and a large cushion-shaped boulder that sits on the property.
Ted Shawn, who with his wife, Ruth St. Denis, were pioneers in modern dance, bought the property in 1931. Shawn organized a group of men dancers - an unusual concept at the time because it was considered effeminate and inappropriate for American men to dance professionally. During the 1930s, the Men Dancers toured the US, returning to Jacob's Pillow to rehearse in the summer. To help support their efforts, Shawn began hosting $1 "Tea Lectures," inviting town residents for tea, lectures, and dance perform ances.
Shawn began operating a school for dance in 1940 and in 1942 built the Ted Shawn Theater - the first theater in the US designed specifically for dance. "There are other places that have each of our parts, but not our sum," says Sam Miller, the executive director of Jacob's Pillow. "We're able to support the work of dancers at each cycle. We create a community here."
Over the years Jacob's Pillow has grown significantly and has become a main attraction for visitors to the Berkshires. It now has three theaters, including an outdoor space where dancers, framed by the layers of green hills, perform informal works while the audience watches from crude wooden benches.
The indoor theaters, studio spaces, and other buildings are barn-like structures, in keeping with the rustic farm appearance. But inside the facilities rival many studios and performance sites, Ms. Jenkins says.
During the summer, Jacob's Pillow is host to a wide array of programs and dancers. Some companies perform for a week or weekend; others are in residence for several weeks. At the school, students study with renowned faculty. From December through January, the Pillow moves its programs to Philadelphia.