Jacob’s Pillow 2016

Around this time of the year I always get a little nostalgic for Jacob’s Pillow. The 2016 Festival is in full swing. Here is a link to the 2016 promo with video clips from the diverse program that is always a feature of the Pillow Festival.

My nostalgia this year was heightened when, while looking for a version of an article I wrote for The Canberra Times back in 2005, I chanced upon the images below and above, taken at the Pillow in 2007, which I have not published during previous bouts of nostalgia.


(l-r) National Historic Landmark sign, cafe, on-site accommodation.

Michelle Potter, 27 June 2016

Featured image: Inside the Archives Reading Room, looking up. Jacob’s Pillow 2007

‘Never stand still’. Jacob’s Pillow

I finally got round to getting myself a copy of the DVD Never stand still: dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. And I’m so glad I did. What is particularly satisfying about this DVD documentary is that there is no promotion of a particular company or a person and no media hype. It’s simply about dance in its many and varied forms. ‘Dancing is direct and honest,’ says Mark Morris, one of the several illustrious interviewees appearing on Never stand still. And that’s what we get: direct, honest and simply beautiful dance.
'Never stand still'. DVD coverA few sections particularly stood out for me, although others will have their own favourites I am sure. I especially enjoyed segments featuring Mark Morris and his dancers, perhaps because those works of his I have seen recently have not impressed me to any great extent—Beaux danced by San Francisco Ballet and Pacific from Houston Ballet, both of which I saw earlier this year, left me feeling underwhelmed. Never stand still has some lovely footage from Morris’ Italian Concerto and Love Song Waltzes and a brief look at a work called Falling Down Stairs, which Morris made in conjunction with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whom we also see on the DVD. The excerpts from these works show quite clearly what Morris is best known for, his astonishing musicality. And Morris is a forthright and articulate speaker in his interview segments.

I was also especially taken with Shantala Shivalingappa, a solo Kuchipudi dancer born in Madras and raised in Paris. What an amazingly expressive body she has and how she uses it to her advantage. Every movement fills the space and she seems to linger a little at the high point of each movement before seamlessly continuing to the next.

Shantala Shivalingappa 1
Shantala Shivalingappa 2


Segements featuring Suzanne Farrell speaking about her transition from Balanchine ballerina to company director make interesting viewing as do excerpts from Balanchine ballets she has set on her own company. Natalia Magnicaballi, a principal with Suzanne Farrell Ballet, is startlingly good in the lead in Tzigane.

Gideon Obarzanek makes an appearance and there are excerpts from his work I want to dance better at parties performed by Chunky Move. I also loved the all too brief footage from Bournonville’s Napoli courtesy of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with a brief discussion of the Danes making their first appearance in the United States at the Pillow at the invitation of Ted Shawn. Then there’s Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham, Judith Jamison, tap, vaudeville…so much more.

Interspersed throughout the contemporary footage is rare archival material showing some of the early performances at Jacob’s Pillow along with an underlying narrative about Shawn and the founding of the this renowned festival, an annual event held at Becket, Massachusetts, in the beautiful surroundings of the Berkshire Hills. If you’ve been there it will bring back wonderful memories not just of the variety of dancing on offer, but of that glorious outdoor stage, those barns and the spectacular surrounding countryside. If you have not had the good fortune to be there Never stand still will make you want to pack your bags for 2014.

Never stand still is so worth watching and is available online at the usual places for quite a small amount of money, even with our dollar falling against the greenback. Here is a link to  the official trailer.

Michelle Potter, 26 August 2013


Dance diary: April 2012

  • Heath Ledger Project

In April I conducted two more interviews for the National Film and Sound Archive’s Heath Ledger Young Artists Oral History Project. This time, with cameraman John Parker, I recorded interviews with two emerging circus artists currently in their final year of training at the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne.

Josie Wardrope is specialising in hand stands and swinging trapeze—she loves the feeling of flying—and in the group activity of risley. The term ‘risley’ sent me to a dictionary as I was researching for the interview and I discovered it is ‘a circus act in which an acrobat lying on his back juggles barrels or fellow acrobats with his feet’. It is named after a 19th century circus performer, Richard Risley Carlisle. Post-interview, watching Josie in a one-on-one trapeze session with her coach, her words about loving the feeling of flying were made visible. Exhilarating!
Josie Wardrope in CODA. Photo David Wyatt

Josie Wardrope on swinging trapeze in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

Simon Reynolds gave up his childhood dream of an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics after seeing a performance by Cirque du Soleil. Now he aspires to a contract with this company at the end of his training. At NICA he specialises in contortion hand stands, tumbling tight wire and the group act, teeterboard. I have to say he is somewhat outstanding on trampoline as well. Watching him execute a series of mid-air twists and turns as he moved the length of a very long trampoline in a NICA rehearsal space was breathtaking.Simon Reynolds in CODA. Photo David Wyatt

Simon Reynolds executes a hand stand in a performance of CODA, 2011. Photo David Wyatt. Courtesy NICA

A typical day for these two young people is long and arduous but neither can think of anything they’d rather be doing. Both are full of praise for those who coach them, who bring to NICA the skills that they have honed in circus companies from around the world, including China, Russia and Argentina. Both are utterly determined to make a career in circus. Both are also in rehearsal for their 2012 mid-year show Lucy and the lost boy and agree that it is the performance side of their training that spurs them on to perfect their technical skills.

  • Jacob’s Pillow

My reflections on a visit to Jacob’s Pillow in 2007 elicited a response from Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow. He mentioned, amongst other things, a DVD called Never stand still. It chronicles life at the Pillow and includes material relating to Gideon Obarzanek. The words of the title, ‘Never stand still’, are in fact those of Obarzanek, which he used in an interview for the DVD and which were then taken up and used as the title. Here is a promotional clip for the DVD.

  • Gailene Stock

In April I had the huge pleasure of recording an interview with Gailene Stock, currently director of the Royal Ballet School, London. I was inspired to suggest that an interview with Stock be made for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History and Folklore Collection after visiting her in London last year to talk to her about her recollections of working with designer Kristian Fredrikson. There was such a positive work ethic at the Royal Ballet School that I felt there had to be the hand of a strong and committed person behind it all. And there is—a director who cares deeply about what she is doing. And of course Stock had an impressive career in Australia as a performer, teacher and director before taking up her current position in London. Here is the link to the National Library’s catalogue record, although a summary of the interview is not yet available.

Gailene Stock

Gailene Stock. Courtesy the Royal Ballet School

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Jacob’s Pillow

In 2007, during time spent working in the United States, I had the pleasure of being invited to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival to sit on a panel with Gideon Obarzanek, whose company Chunky Move was showing his very popular I want to dance better at parties at the Pillow that year. You can just see us (left to right: the presenter, Obarzanek and myself)) in the background over the heads of the audience, a good sized one and one that was definitely interested in the state of dance on the other side of the world.
The session was part of the Pillow’s ‘Pillow Talk’ series held regularly during the Festival on the deck space of the beautiful red barn known as Blake’s Barn. The 18th century barn, seen in the image below, was a gift to the Pillow from the American dancer and choreographer Marge Champion and named in memory of her son Blake. It was moved from its former location in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in the 1990s. jacobs-pillow-2007-blakes-barn-website
Blake’s Barn is just one of the lovely buildings on the Pillow site in the stunning countryside of the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts. The Doris Duke Studio Theatre and part of the outdoor area are pictured below.
I have been reminded of the occasion of the Pillow Talk, and of the Pillow itself, several times recently while watching (from afar) the program for 2012 take shape. This year Australia is represented by the Brisbane-based circus arts ensemble, Circa, and by Stanton Welch. A brand new work from Welch will be presented by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

The Pillow has extensive dance archives, also housed in Blake’s Barn, and the section of its website called ‘Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive’ is a model for making archival film clips accessible to all. Many hours can be spent watching these little snippets of dance. Here are links to two, vastly different in style and indicative of the broad approach of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival: the irrepressible Twyla Tharp in a community-style undertaking in 2001; and Cynthia Gregory, with her beautifully expressive port de bras—such a sweep through space—in a re-creation in 1982 of a work by Ruth St Denis. The still images at the end of each clip are often outstanding shots too.

Michelle Potter, 20 April 2012

Ted Shawn in Australia

Back in May of this year I was lucky enough to see the exhibition of works by photographer E. O. Hoppé at the National Portrait Gallery in London. My post relating to that show concerned portraits of Margot Fonteyn and Olga Spessivtseva. The National Portrait Gallery’s show, Hoppé portraits: society, studio & street, closed shortly after I’d written that post but images of American dancer Ted Shawn, which were part of the Portrait Gallery show, have continued to resonate in my mind ever since.

One, taken in 1922, is a head and shoulders portrait of Shawn in Tillers of the Soil, a stylised dance he created in which he and his wife, the dancer Ruth St Denis, represented an ancient Egyptian couple tilling the soil. The portrait of Shawn is a bold one. And Shawn was a strong, athletic man whose contribution to world dance included the founding of a dance centre in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts where he trained a group of male dancers, young college athletes who worked on the farm during the morning and trained in the barn during the afternoons. This centre is still used for dance and is the home of the famous Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Ted Shawn in Tillers of the Soil, June 1922

Shawn also brought his distinctive brand of dance to Australia in 1947 at the invitation of an enterprising woman in Perth, Ida Beeby, director of the Patch Theatre Guild and Dance School. Shawn gave a series of lectures and several solo programs of dance in Perth. His repertoire was eclectic and uncompromisingly his own. It included dances of American Indian origin, a Japanese sword dance, some Flamenco dances, and an American cowboy number ‘Turkey in the Straw.’ From Perth he took a side trip to Arnhem Land and entertained indigenous dancers at Delissaville, who in fact had come to entertain him, with his rendition of a whirling dervish dance. After Perth he moved on to perform his solo shows in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Like most artists who visited Australia in the first decades of the twentieth century, Shawn was not averse to making predictions about the future of Australian dance. He wrote regarding Perth:

‘Perth, due to its unique isolation, is ideally the place where a new dance form, growing out of this continent, using the forms of other countries and of the past as a sort of cultural “humus,” can be born, nourished until its integrity is fully established, and then ray out to the rest of Australia and the world’.

Shawn’s visit to Australia has scarcely been examined in this country. A small collection of programs from his Perth seasons is part of the ephemera collection of the National Library of Australia. But Edward Pask in Ballet in Australia. The second act, 1940–1980, the only survey we currently have of Australian dance covering the period of Shawn’s Australian interlude, makes no mention of the visit. I believe, however, there may be archival film footage of his Australian visit in the Jacob’s Pillow Archive at Becket, Massachusetts.

Michelle Potter, 17 August 2011

Image of Ted Shawn in Tillers of the Soil: © 2011 Curatorial Assistance, Inc. / E.O. Hoppé Estate Collection. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.

Image below from The Australasian Post, 7 August 1947, p. 43, kindly supplied by Anne—see comments below.