I have never been to Pike’s Peak, the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Snake River. I have never been to the fabled, historic Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, in Massachusetts, either. This summer I made it to Jacob’s Pillow, going there to see Swing Out, an impressive, pulsating, simply dazzling dance show about the Big Band dancing of the 1930s. Yes, Benny Goodman still lives. I’m glad I got there and hope I can get there again.
Jacob’s Pillow is one of America’s premier dance theaters, with several stages in a forest in the rolling hills of Western Massachusetts, and a destination for thousands of New Jersey residents who vacation in the Berkshires, a three hour car drive away from most towns in New Jersey. Jacob’s Pillow is located in a serene forest, set down amid lovely meadows and gorgeous lakes. The dance theater, founded by Ted Shawn in 1933, has had many lives over the years as its fame grew. It has been, and remains, wildly popular with dance fans. Hundreds of thousands go there each summer. The huge Ted Shawn Theater was filled to capacity on the day I arrived. There were people from all over – even Canada. The dance fans chatted under tall trees and admired the landscape, with its hundreds of trees and patches of colorful flowers. They jammed the theaters there, filled the parking lot and walked throughout the grounds, small smiles on their faces.
The place was jammed for the jam.
Now the danced theater is in a new chapter with ballets such as Swing Out. It is always evolving amid the soft New England breezes.
“We have had a lot of changes over the years, and I think they were all for the better. Now, with Pandemic receding, we are in a new phase. Five years from now we will be in another phase of some kind, I am sure,” said Pam Tatge, the artistic director of the theater.
As an example, the mammoth Ted Shawn Theater has been renovated and, for the first time, has air conditioning (hooray!). The theater has launched a new community program in which numerous entertainment groups from area towns use the theaters. The schedule is busier than ever – ten dance conies us the Ted Shawn Theater and 24 companies use the smaller, Leir stage. All over the wooded campus there are nooks and crannies for other performances. There is a deeper look at different types of dance groups and how audiences see them.
“We want to make our productions more relevant to social trends. Swing Out is a good example of that. It’s a look back at U.S. history through dance. We also have a Korean dance company this summer. It’s new and, for us, it’s exciting,” she said.
Many of the dancers in the companies have worked at Jacob’s Pillow before and some of the companies have been there before. Many will be back again.
The Pillow has dance entertainment for just about everybody. “We draw a lot of different people and they have diverse tastes. We have dance for every person. We evolve every summer,” said Tatge.
Among the companies scheduled this summer include dance groups from all over the United States
The dance theater does evolve, as Tatge said. As an example, when I talked to the artistic director, over the phone, she wanted to know if on the same day I was going to the Swing Out production I would be at the New York Korean Arts Center show.
Dance fans evolve, too. As I stood on line to pick up my tickets, I heard three or four men and women tell their history of coming to Jacobs Pillow to the people at the box office. These stories covered years and some of the people had teenagers with them who had been coming to the theater with their parents in the summer for years, too.
The theater has also added many attractions. The schedule has dance companies that are there for a week and some that visit for just one night. They include Evidence, Ballet Neplanta, A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham, Mina Mishimura / Koto Yamazaki, the Passion Fruit Dance Company with Baya and Asa, the Limon Dance Company, The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, tap dancer Dormishia, the Hubbard Street Dance Company and some dancers from the New York City Ballet.
Altogether, the dancers and companies will stage 200 shows during the summer.
Jacob’s Pillow also has a world renown School of Ballet.
There’s no “Nutcracker,” though, said Tatge with a sad lilt in her voice. “Here, in December, we have snow and traffic and winding roads and snow falling off trees. No, no Nutcracker. We have just about everything else, though.”
Ms. Tatge, now in charge of this large dance complex, never wanted to be in the dance world at all.
“I wanted to be an actress. Everybody told me to be a good one I should take some dance classes. I did and fell in love with dance. Later, I though I should be an arts administrator and do that work in the dance world. And so, in brief, here I am,” she said.
She has been at Jacobs Pillow for six years now and finds her job very satisfying. “I get to see a lot of dance, meet dancers and, just as importantly, get to meet a lot of dance fans who come here. Very rewarding life for me,” she said.
And she makes sure everybody who comes to Jacob’s Pillow has a rewarding life, too.
Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers in Dances of the Ages, ca. 1938; photo by Shapiro Studio
OTHER PHOTO CREDITS: First two photos by Christopher Duggan, Third by Robert Benson, Fourth by David Dashiell