'Difficulties Are Built Into The DNA': Jacob's Pillow Reopens After Pandemic And Fire

Jun 16, 2021

Jacob’s Pillow, the long-running dance festival in Becket, Massachusetts, has had a lot thrown at it this past year. The COVID-19 pandemic shut the venue down in 2020 for the first time in almost 90 years. Then last November, a fire gutted one of its dance theaters.

But if you look back through the Pillow’s history, it’s survived all kinds of challenges.

This summer, with the Ted Shawn Theatre under renovation and the loss of the Doris Duke Theatre to the fire, dance shows will be entirely outdoors

“We have almost a natural amphitheater,” said Jacob’s Pillow’s executive director, Pamela Tatge. “Audiences will be able to sit on benches and witness a performance with the backdrop of the Berkshire mountains.”

The Pillow, located on a couple hundred acres of land surrounded by mountains, is known worldwide as a sanctuary for dancers.

’The community-building power of dance’

This year’s nine-week season opens at the end of June with a world premiere from the Dorrance Dance company. Dancers and musicians developed the piece, inspired by the past year’s global experience of isolation, while living at the Pillow during a COVID-compliant bubble residency.

Dancers with the National Dance Institute perform at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in 2008 in Becket, Massachusetts.
Credit Angel Gardner, National Dance Institute / Creative Commons

Later in the season Ballet Hispánico performs, and Ballet Coast to Coast will feature dancers from the Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

There is dance planned off the mountain too, Tatge said, with a two-week series of pop-up street performances in Becket, Pittsfield, Great Barrington and North Adams.

“We just think people need to come out of their homes and experience the community-building power of dance,” Tatge said.

To understand how Jacob’s Pillow arrived at this moment in time is to understand how to go forward, Tatge said — especially after the last 15 months.

A fire ripped through the Doris Duke Theatre at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, on November 17, 2020.
Credit Monterey Fire Department / Facebook

The November fire engulfed the Doris Duke Theatre, an important and well-loved structure at the Pillow. The Massachusetts State Fire Marshal couldn’t identify a specific cause, but determined the blaze was exacerbated by failed fire alarm and sprinkler systems.

“We took a few months to process what happened. We’re now in the process of picking an architect,” Tatge said.

'Boy, have we been tested'

“Difficulties are built into the DNA of Jacob’s Pillow in many ways,” said Norton Owen, the organization's archivist. “From the get-go we were really about making something happen out of nothing, and making something happen out of adversity,” Owen said.

Jacob’s Pillow was founded in the Great Depression. Within the first 10 years, Pearl Harbor and World War II took place. Men dancers went off to war, with gas and other material rations hitting just as the Pillow was starting to build up.

“And yet Jacob’s Pillow — alone among the Berkshire cultural organizations — continued throughout the war years,” said Owen, who has been at the Pillow for 45 years.

Owen said he well remembers the gas shortage of 1979, when people could fill their car only on certain days of the week. The town of Becket, for most of the audience, wasn’t exactly next door, Owen said.

Norton Owen is the director of preservation at Jacob's Pillow, in Becket, Massachusetts.
Credit Screen shot / Jill Kaufman / NEPM

The Pillow had one woe after another, he said, and at one point in the 1990s, it was at risk of foreclosure.

“I think our place is secure at this point, but boy, have we been tested,” Owen said.

Recently tested with the pandemic, when 40% of the staff had to be laid off. Only some have been rehired.

As for documenting all of it, the Pillow has been recording dance performances and epic moments on film and video since its very beginnings. Owen said this past year’s online work is now a part of that.

One of Owen’s favorite sounds of Jacob’s Pillow captured on tape is the notes of a piano being played in a studio during a class.

“You could hear it all around because the doors were open,” Owen remembered.

The history of dance and of Jacob’s Pillow in many ways is embedded in a dancer’s body Owen said. A dancer moves in a way that’s reminiscent of their teacher, who learned to dance from someone else, and so on.

Owen said that may be one of the reasons the Pillow is so resilient.