A world of vibrant dance invades a bucolic former farm

Though the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival unfolds in the quiet, bucolic hills of western Massachusetts, there is nothing sleepy about the flurry of artistic activity that has taken place here each summer for nearly seven decades.

What began as a modest showcase for the choreography of modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn is now one of the most intense hotbeds of international dance activity in the world.

During July and August, the festival's 68th season is ushering in some of the most vibrant dance from cultures around the globe, from ballet to butoh, modern dance to hip-hop. With companies from the United States, France, Japan, Ireland, Africa, Sweden, Brazil, Spain, Canada, and The Netherlands, the festival's current season is one of its most diverse to date.

This diversity is at the heart of the vision director Ella Baff has for the festival, which aims to nurture dance in all its many guises. (Jacob's Pillow was the name of a farm that once occupied this site.) Now in her third summer leading the festival, Ms. Baff likens the offerings at Jacob's Pillow to the variety found in a good art museum, where "You can see everything from Flemish tapestry to Mondrian to Damien Hirst. Somehow it's all accepted as part of the repertoire of that art form.

"I feel that dance has become, at least in this country, very narrowly defined. You tend to hear people talk about either ballet or modern, and these are useful terms, but the terminology is like transportation - it's a construct that gets us around ideas conveniently, but overuse can ... [limit] possibilities.

"There is a world of dance going on out there - there's baroque dance, there's tribal dance in villages, there's dance in downtown New York, in Iowa, in Burundi, everywhere. I want to find a variety and the best that I can find and ... bring it here."

What Baff manages on an annual operating budget of roughly $3.7 million (with no corporate endowment) is a wonder.

This season features 148 performances by 64 dance companies (404 dancers, plus three performing dogs) from 13 countries in works that include four world premires and five US premires. In addition to paid performances in the historic Ted Shawn Theatre and the intimate Doris Duke Studio Theatre, the festival offers more than 200 free shows and talks, exhibits, walking tours, and book signings.

The festival also supports seven choreographers with creative-development residencies. ("That means food, shelter, and unlimited studio space," Baff explains.) Baff hopes next year to add documentation and videography services. A new film series, initiated this year in Boston, will travel around the country, extending the Pillow's visibility.

The expected highlight of the summer season is a week-long celebration (July 25-30) of legendary choreographer Paul Taylor, who has chosen to spend his 70th birthday at the Pillow. "Of all the places that Paul Taylor could be in the world, including staying at home, which would probably be his first choice, he has honored us," Baff says, "which I think is an extraordinary statement about" Jacob's Pillow.

Taylor has had a long relationship with the Pillow. To commemorate the occasion, it has commissioned and will present the world premire of a new Taylor work.

In addition to performances by his regular company, the smaller Taylor 2 will present works old and new.

Though Taylor and other major names of guaranteed popularity - Mark Morris, Bill T. Jones, and Liz Lerman - anchor the season, the more intriguing offerings come via Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as from lesser- known American choreographers.

Baff especially recommends the witty and provocative Compagnie Maguy Marin from France in a work in which performers combine dance and text with playing a variety of exotic musical instruments. "It's a completely different movement vocabulary than what people see in the States," she says.

Baff is already exploring new directions for next year. "I'm fully committed to presenting things that are different and unusual to expand our view of what dance really is.

"And ultimately I think that's what does develop audiences.... That's how we grow. We venture out a little bit. Sometimes it doesn't work out, but sometimes it's the next epiphany."

*For more information, call (413) 243-0745 or visit www.jacobspillow.org

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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