A Place to Abandon Urbanity

A place to “abandon urbanity;” that’s what performer Bill Irwin dubbed Jacob’s Pillow in the latest dance flick, Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow. If you’ve been to the Pillow—163-acres of farmland in Western Massachusetts—you’ll agree that Irwin’s title is quite fitting. In fact, that’s what founder Ted Shawn’s mission was when he purchased the farm in 1931: To create a retreat for dance away from the hustle and bustle of NYC.


In this 74-minute documentary narrated by Bill T. Jones, viewers see the ins and outs of the festival and school, learn the history of the land and meet some of the choreographers who have performed there. Believe me, it’s a lot to fit in one hour. The film jumped between the archives and today, and perhaps most off-topic, the featured choreographers were asked to reflect on dance itself, and what it means to be a dancer. Like the title, the film’s focus never stood still.


This being said, the most compelling pieces to the documentary were the archival videos—especially of Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis back in the ‘30s. There were great clips of Frederic Franklin performing with the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, the Royal Danish Ballet’s American debut in 1955 and Shawn’s leading male dancer Burton Mumaw. (Also quite funny was the evolution of Mark Morris’ current look, from a student with crazy facial hair to his long mane of the early ‘90s; and a clip captured Paul Taylor’s tan and bearded face coaching the very first Taylor II apprentice company in ‘93.) ***


The more current footage of choreographers and performances was filmed mostly in (and seasons around) 2007: Sections included Rasta Thomas’ Bad Boys of Dance Jacob’s Pillow debut and the revival of Zaccho Dance Theatre’s Invisible Wings. Also featured was Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company, Nikolaj Hübbe and the Royal Danish Ballet, Australian modern dance company Chunky Move, Shantala Shivalingappa, Brazil’s Mimulus Dance Company and Stockholm 59° North. Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Marge Champion, Annna-Marie Holmes, Judith Jamison and Frederic Franklin also weigh in on dancing at Jacob’s Pillow.


Like I said, it’s a lot in an hour. But the film is highly worth a trip to the movie theatres—if you love dance and its history. I also suggest bringing your older students; they’ll be inspired by some great behind-the-scenes shots of dancers in rehearsal and maybe even want to attend the program. And who knows, you may leave the theater planning a trip to the Berkshires.


Here are the upcoming screenings, but keep checking here for added dates and cities:


May 18– 24, The Quad Cinema, NYC


May 26, Let’s Dance International Festival: Dance on Film, Leicester, United Kingdom


June 28–July 1, Litchfield Hills Film Festival, Litchfield, CT


June 29–July 5, Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL


August 10, Hopkins Center, Hanover, NH



***You can also check out Jacob’s Pillow video archive website, Dance Interactive. It’s an awesome library of clips, artist bios and more. You’ll get lost on there for hours—especially if your city isn't listed for screening opportunities.


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