At 70, dance festival still has spring in its steps
BECKETT, MASS. — From her seat at the executive director's desk upstairs in the 1796 frame house that stands at the center of Jacob's Pillow, Ella Baff watches as a dance troupe sits for a photograph atop a large boulder. It's a tradition shared by all dancers before leaving the festival.
Jacob's Pillow, celebrating its 70th anniversary, has been bustling since early June, with students taking classes and dance companies from here and abroad rehearsing and performing. The festival runs through August.
On just one day last month, visitors could see Mr. Baryshnikov and Harry Belafonte, legendary choreographer Katherine Dunham and a delegation of dancers from Ghana. "It was thrilling," says Ms. Baff.
Baff, director for four years now, is the most recent visionary to continue the tradition that stretches back to American dance pioneer Ted Shawn. He bought the old farm (Jacob's Pillow) in the Berkshires and turned it into his home.
Shawn started the tradition of welcoming the public to "Tea Lecture-Demonstrations" in 1933, and then expanded his invitation into this annual summer festival. Jacob's Pillow was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places as the oldest continuing dance festival in the United States.
The attractions that director Baff has selected for this season reflect what she calls her "appetite for dance and all the arts."
Formerly the program director for the Cal/Performances Series at University of California at Berkeley, Baff has a background in classical music, theater, and different styles of dance.
Baff never performed professionally, but she took a ballet class every day and studied Graham technique at the Martha Graham School near her home in New York, where she grew up. She also also studied Balinese dance, African dance, and even Hawaiian hula.
"I'd take enough classes to understand what the technique did on my body," she said, echoing Shawn's belief in the equal importance of every kind of rhythmic human activity known as dance.
Baff understands that Jacob's Pillow must offer more than just an evening's worth of entertainment.
She has expanded the possibilities for visitors to dine under a tent at the Pillow Cafe or picnic on the lawn, to attend the the free Inside/Out Series, listen to a pre-performance lecture, and browse through historic exhibits.
The excitement in Baff's voice and the sparkle in her eyes were reflected in the energy that swept out of the studio several weeks ago where 24 students were taking an afternoon class in the Dunham technique. Ms. Dunham, the doyenne of American choreographers, was conducting a class in the lush movement that she developed from her studies in dance and anthropology in the 1930s and early 1940s.
She brought her style of dance to Broadway ("Cabin In the Sky," 1940), Hollywood films ("Carnival of Rhythm," 1942, and "Stormy Weather," 1943), and eventually her own troupe.
While at the Pillow, Dunham gave a special lecture on the lawn, conducted the class, and ruled over a gala evening program in her honor.
Other performers in residence that week were choreographer-performer Ronald K. Brown's dance company, Evidence, and a troupe of nine puppeteers, under the direction of Basil Twist.
Mr. Brown's company performed each night in the Ted Shawn Theatre, which opened in 1942 as the first stage dedicated to dance in America. Twist's production of the Igor Stravinsky-Michel Fokine ballet "Petrouchka" appeared at the same time on the stage of the Doris Duke Studio Theatre, farther back in the woods.
As curtainraiser to both events, a different company was featured every night on the Inside/Out Series, set on the outdoor stage located in a natural bowl backed by the Berkshire sunset and mountains.
Brown's works, performed by a company of sleekly accomplished dancers, are obviously created in homage to Dunham and her achievements in their melding of contemporary modern technique with the forms and spirituality of African ritual.
"Petrouchka" is informed by a different experience: the tours of the Diaghilev Ballets Russes (1909-1929). Twist's "Petrouchka" was brought to life by 4-foot-high puppets, endowed with such emotions that one could almost see the tears glistening in the puppet-clown's eyes. The performance was accompanied by Russian-born twins, Julia and Irina Elkin, expertly playing a two-piano adaptation of the orchestral score.
A visitor could see the expression of pride on Baff's face as she introduced "Petrouchka" on opening night. She hopes to bring live musicians for every performance, but she admits, "We don't have the money to do it yet."
Most of the classes for the two-week segments of the school program, which runs throughout the summer, have live accompaniment. For example, the Dunham technique classes were galvanized by the beat of a quartet of African drummers.
Daily management is an ongoing challenge for Baff. She monitors the costs of the school, the performance series, and the maintenance of 153 acres and 28 buildings.
Jacob's Pillow has an annual operating budget of $3.7 million and a separate capital budget for repairing and upgrading the theaters, studios, and cabins, some of which were built in the 1930s by Shawn and His Men Dancers.
"It's relentless, like running anything in the risk-taking business," says Baff. "I think very little is known about how arts organizations are managed, with their business demands."
In a season that features appearances as varied as the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Yin Mei Dance Company, and Urban Bush Women, Baff explains, "The element of surprise is part of what I try to have happen at the Pillow. What I tell people is, 'If you don't come every week, you'll miss something.' "