Farewell, Ella

Norton Owen (left) looks on as John Heginbotham (2014 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award recipient) greets Ella Baff at her farewell celebration.

While others may flock to the beach to enjoy the final days of summer, dancers (and those who love them) take to Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. This past weekend was the festival finale, during which the organization celebrated its departing leader, Ella Baff. The charismatic executive/artistic director who has led the institution for 17 years—the longest period since founder Ted Shawn himself—is leaving to join the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as senior program officer for arts and cultural heritage.

We don’t often write in Dance Teacher about behind-the-scenes people like Baff who are so vital to our field. They raise the money, provide the venues and, mostly importantly, connect us with our audiences. Without these people who focus on the business side but also understand to the very core what it’s like to be a dance artistthe needs, the commitment and the rewards—it’s fair to say, concert dance would look much different.

Baff accepted several standing ovations at events this weekend, each of which harkened back to the Pillow’s rich modern dance history. For instance, when she introduced the matinee show of MADBOOTS DANCE, a company of young men formed by recent graduates Austin Diaz (NYU Tisch School of the Arts) and Jonathan Campbell (The Juilliard School), it was impossible not to draw a comparison to Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers from the 1930s.

That connection with history is perhaps the best aspect of a Pillow visit—at least for a dance nerd like me. Norton Owen, the Pillow’s intrepid archivist, organizes a series of pre-show talks. Before the Martha Graham Dance Company curtain on Saturday, Pillow scholar (and frequent DT contributor) Nancy Wozny shared the surprising fact that though Shawn and Martha Graham are linked throughout dance history, her company didn’t perform there until 1984, long after Shawn died.

You don’t have to be a dance historian to appreciate the Pillow archives, though. This summer marks the grand opening of a newly renovated and expanded space for the collection. The Norton Owen Reading Room is open to the public to browse both videos and print documentation of the rich Pillow history, and I highly encourage you to do so. The collection is online, too: danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow

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