Stroll Around the Grounds
so much to see at Jacob’s Pillow—and that’s before the show
Mae G. Banner
but it’s quiet as dawn. I can hear birds calling overhead,
and the crunching sound of gravel as I walk up the well-raked
path that runs between the barns of Jacob’s Pillow.
Once a family farm, the Pillow now grows dancers. Ballet,
ballroom, jazz—students rehearse and perform in these barns
built more than 70 years ago by founder Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers,
who wanted to prove their muscle was good for daily work as
well as art.
Berkshire folk and second-homers always have been welcome
to visit the Pillow and watch the dancers at work. This afternoon,
though, the place seems as deserted as a summer camp after
closing day. Actually, it’s opening week of the performance
season and, what with the rain and the laid-back feel of the
place, it seems things are starting slowly.
Here comes a woman in a purple cotton print, striding purposefully
up the path. She is Carmella Vassor-Johnson, a professional
videographer who’s worked at the Pillow for five years. She
says, “I’m on my way to do a sound check for the Inside/Out
show tonight.” The Inside/Out stage is a white-painted open-air
platform set among the rocks and trees at the far west of
the grounds, across George Carter Road. Four nights a week,
visitors sit on the rocks or on downed trees to watch the
free shows. Sometimes, they’re invited to join the dancers
for a free-form finale.
document everything,” Vassor-Johnson says. “Rehearsals, classes,
shows, interviews with artists. It’s important. It’s history.
So much has come through here, and the public has access all
year long to the archives.”
It’s a couple of hours before tonight’s Inside/Out show begins,
so I decide to look in on a ballet rehearsal in one of the
barns. Degas’ daughters wear stiff white practice tutus over
tank tops and boys in knee-length tights stand in a respectful
circle around their teacher, Anna-Marie Holmes, their mouths
slightly open in wonder. She’s telling where she was last
whole audience jumped up screaming. It was so passionate because
it was Julio Bocca’s last performance.” She had just seen
Manon at the American Ballet Theatre. The students
nod, wide-eyed. This is the world they hope to enter.
Rehearsal break is over. A girl steps into a purple, lacy
tutu with fluted edge, wiggles her hips to adjust the hooks,
and, suddenly, it’s “Giselle.” A dozen boys put their hands
to their hearts, take a big sideways leap and a jump turn.
The pianist, tucked away in a corner, plays forcefully, while,
through the open back window, Spanish music—the score for
the evening show by Nacho Duato’s CND2—drifts into the barn/studio.
Dancers not “on” at the moment are all around the rim, doing
pushups and spins, or stretching their necks or legs. They
will perform the duet from Swan Lake tomorrow on the
Inside/Out stage, and Holmes tells the boys, “Wear black.
No pants. The audience wants to see bodies.”
As more and more watchers enter the studio, I step out into
Ted Shawn’s Tea Garden, a patch of lawn where the Men Dancers
of the 1930s performed for visiting Berkshire ladies and served
them tea and sandwiches, all to make grocery money and keep
their enterprise afloat.
Here, I meet a mom and dad with two daughters, 8 and 10 years
old. The kids grin as rivulets of chocolate ice cream run
down their chins. The dad explains that stopping at the Pillow
is a family tradition. “My mom went to summer camp here in
the ’40s and occasionally they would come to see a show here,
so I’ve always known about it. For two years, we’ve been coming
from Rochester. We drop off our son at his summer camp and
then spend the day here. We come twice a summer—when camp
opens and on visiting day.”
His wife says, “I think it’s more fun walking around seeing
them practice than seeing a show.”
There’s still time before the free show, so I visit Blake’s
Barn, an 18th-century barn moved here 15 years ago as a gift
from the dancer Marge Champion. It houses art exhibits and
the all-important archives. This year, the cusp of the Pillow’s
75th anniversary, the walls hold historic photos and drawings
of founder Ted Shawn as the god Shiva, an Indian chief, a
matador, all given extra spice by bits of his original costumes:
the chief’s silver-linked belt, the matador’s caracul hat.
On a whim, I ask Norton Owen, director of preservation and
guru of the archives, if he still has the videotape of some
interviews I did here years ago. I had spoken with two celebrated
teachers, Bernard Harkarvy, who led the dance faculty at Juilliard,
and Alvin Ailey’s associate, Jimmy Truitte, both of whom died
in the last few years.
Owen types their names into his computer and up comes an identifying
number, 0.099—A Summer of Dance, 1986. A minute later, he
brings the tape up from the basement storage and I get to
see a vibrant Harkarvy, a sage Truitte, as they were on that
summer day 20 years ago. I get chills. This is like discovering
uncles you thought were lost forever. And, then, it hits me
that I’m part of the Pillow’s legacy, too. Wow.
I give Owen the names of other people on the tape—Schenectady-based
pianist-composer Judy Atchinson and Saratoga Springs ballet
teacher Michael Steele—and he adds them to the database.
While I watch the tape, a middle-aged man comes in to ask
Owen about a painting he owns. “It’s by an Israeli artist
named Gat. Is he related to this dancer, Emanuel Gat, who’s
coming here next week?” Owen has no idea, but he takes the
man’s business card and says he’ll find out.
Meanwhile, I slip off to yet another barn, the Ruth St. Denis
Studio, where, because of the rain, the Inside/Out show will
be performed. I’m amazed. The room is packed with people,
graybeards and shoulder-riding toddlers, all here to see an
unknown trio of Brazilian tapdancers do their mosquito dance
to a live jazz combo. It’s like the cactus flowers that suddenly
bloom in the desert after a rain. Where did all these people
They’re an active audience. They thank the dancers with rousing
cheers and extended applause, and, right away, they begin
to shoot questions at the leader, Cintia Chamecki. “How long
have you been working together?” “What gave you the idea for
that bug-slapping dance?” “Where will you be performing next?”
Turns out, Chamecki and her colleagues will be in New York
City this month at the big Tap Festival at the Duke Theater.
Now, it’s time for the formal show by the Spanish company,
CND2. I’m excited to see them, but, after a day of exploring
the Pillow, it’s almost too much of a wonderful thing, like
chocolate sauce on chocolate ice cream.