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PHOTO: Alicia Solsman

A Stroll Around the Grounds

There’s so much to see at Jacob’s Pillow—and that’s before the show starts


By Mae G. Banner

Mid-afternoon, 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.

“We 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 night.

“The 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 come from?

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. More cheers.

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.

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