New Director Settles In At Jacob's Pillow 'Dance Farm'
Sali Ann Kriegsman brings vision to bucolic retreat in western Mass.
BECKET, MASS. — Summertime, and the dancing looks easy at Jacob's Pillow, a retreat nestled in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.
A solitary dancer flutters barefoot across an outdoor stage, a valley of maples and elms as his backdrop.
Bessie Schonberg, the doyenne of American dance, watches from a porch as her students improvise in a nearby clearing.
Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris rehearse in a rustic theater with their company, the White Oak Dance Project.
"What's going on in these studios and on these stages is extremely rigorous," says Sali Ann Kriegsman, who became executive director of Jacob's Pillow in May. "But there's an informality here, a relaxed air that's conducive to the creative process."
Merely preserving this ambience, at a time when public funding for the arts is in sharp decline, would be enough of a challenge for most people. Jacob's Pillow operates on a $2.8 million budget, with 55 percent coming from earned income such as ticket sales and class tuition and 45 percent from public arts agencies (including the National Endowment for the Arts) and private foundations. Ms. Kriegsman, who herself directed the NEA's dance program for the last nine years, hopes to sustain and improve Jacob's Pillow, taking it into the 21st century.
The peculiar name derives from a series of switchbacks on nearby Route 20. Reminded of the Biblical figure who dreams of a ladder to heaven, Yankee settlers dubbed the road Jacob's Ladder. A local farmer took the metaphor a step further, likening a boulder behind his clapboard farmhouse to the prophet's pillow.
Ted Shawn bought the 18th-century farm in 1931. A trailblazing dancer and choreographer, as well as the impresario who launched Martha Graham's career, he envisioned a place where his troupe of male dancers could rehearse without distraction.
To raise money, they held afternoon "Tea Lectures" for Berkshire County's lace-glove set. In time, these gatherings gave way to the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. Last year's 10-week affair drew 38,000 people to an eclectic slate of ballet, modern, and ethnic dance performances.
Kriegsman is the seventh person to head the Pillow since Shawn died in 1972. Her hallmark at the NEA was her support for dance preservation and documentation, but she is no retrograde. Peers credit her with a deep aesthetic understanding of the art form and a sure grasp of dancers' practical needs.
"Having headed the NEA program for so long, Sali Ann has the biggest possible vision of dance in this country," says Paula Josa-Jones, a Boston-based choreographer. "She has a hawk's-eye view, and it's exciting to see someone bring that kind of big vision to the Pillow."
Affectionately known as the "dance farm," Jacob's Pillow is a uniquely tranquil and intimate venue. Yet its cardinal concern lies less with audiences than with the artists who take part in its workshops and residency programs. It is a place, as one choreographer says, "both to create new dances and to make old ones better."
"Going to the Pillow is always a great tonic," says Danny Buraczeski of Jazzdance, a troupe from Minneapolis. "Everything is right there for you. All you have to do is dance."
The remote location is one reason why concentration comes easily. But guests say the atmosphere owes as much to a rich sense of community and palpable links to the past. Visitors share meals in a mess hall built by Shawn's dancers. They sleep in cabins adorned, not with televisions, but with photographs of dance legends who visited in decades past.
Kriegsman has some big shoes to fill. Peers credit her two immediate predecessors with restoring vision to an institution that had grown somewhat myopic after its founder's passing.
Liz Thompson, who came to the Pillow in 1979, initiated an unprecedented period of physical and artistic growth. She built new rehearsal studios in keeping with the weather-beaten architecture, for example, and introduced free outdoor demonstrations.
Under Sam Miller, who succeeded Thompson in 1989, the Pillow grew to 150 acres, built a new visitor's center, and enlarged the stage and seating of the Ted Shawn Theater.
Kriegsman says she is devoting her first summer to observing the programs that Mr. Miller scheduled before he left to direct the New England Foundation for the Arts. But during a recent interview, held in the farmhouse where the Pillow keeps its offices, she outlined some of her priorities.
To begin with, Kriegsman wants to make greater use of the new rehearsal and performance spaces. For example, she hopes to expand the Pillow's residency programs, commission new works, and hold seminars for dancers, choreographers, administrators, and critics.
Audiences are also high on her agenda. "Aside from story ballets, theatrical dance is still pretty mystifying to the general public," she says. "I want to open up the creative process so there's not so much distance between what the artist does and what the public understands."
Already, a barn at Jacob's Pillow houses several exhibits, ranging from private correspondence between choreographers to video installations. And most evenings feature free outdoor demonstrations.
Kriegsman wants to go further. "I'd like to see the public dancing here," she says. "There's been a revival in social dance, and I would like for there to be occasions when people can bring their own dances."
She sees still greater possibilities through the Pillow's partnership with the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams. Scheduled to open in 1997, Mass MoCA is billed as a multidisciplinary complex for the visual and performing arts and new media technologies.
Kriegsman foresees sending dancers and choreographers to work in studios at Mass MoCA, with a Hollywood special-effects company and a CD-ROM firm right next door.
"I like to think of it as a place where dancers can humanize technology," Kriegsman says. Leaning back on a white-wicker love seat, she adds: "I love the idea that the Pillow can maintain its rustic family atmosphere and at the same time be on the cusp of the 21st century."