On the Ground

Canada’s Past and Present at Jacob’s Pillow

By Deanne Kearney
  • Deanne Kearney at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival / Photo by Jamie Kraus
  • Brett Perry in Mercury Half-Life by Trey McIntyre at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with Amber Mayberry, Elizabeth Keller, Rachel Sherak / Photo by Christopher Duggan
  • Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Gnawa by Nacho Duato / Photo by Todd Rosenberg
  • Deanne Kearney at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival / Photo by Jamie Kraus

Apart from trying my hardest not to end my sentences with “eh” or being teased gently for saying “washroom” instead of “bathroom,” I have had an amazing time interning at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the beautiful Berkshire Hills in Becket, Mass. I am in residence at the festival for the full ten weeks, and work as one of two archives and engagement interns. Being the only Canadian intern here this summer, and working in the extensive archives at the Pillow, I feel it is my duty to report on Canada’s past and present achievements at the longest-running internationally acclaimed summer dance festival in the United States.

Many notable Canadian companies have come through Jacob’s Pillow since the festival began in 1933. The National Ballet of Canada’s U.S. debut took place at the Pillow in 1953, and also marked the first time that any Canadian ballet company had appeared in the United States. A clip of this performance is available online here, showing Lois Smith and David Adams dancing Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. Since then, the company has only appeared once more, in 1957. Les Grands Ballets Canadiens had their U.S. debut at the festival in 1959, and Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet performed in 1964. Some of the many other Canadian companies that have passed through these fabled grounds are Toronto Dance Theatre, Ballet BC and Montréal’s O Vertigo. In 2011, British Columbia-born Crystal Pite won the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, which comes with a prize of $25,000. Clips of her works are also available online. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive showcases one-to-three-minute clips of the different performances and companies that have appeared at the festival since the 1930s. It is a phenomenal resource for all dance lovers and I highly recommend checking it out.

While I may be the only Canadian intern on site this summer, there is a strong Canadian presence at Jacob’s Pillow. Some of the students in the acclaimed summer dance programs of The School at Jacob’s Pillow are Canadians. Two students who were a part of the two-week ballet program have trained at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. In the contemporary program, two students trained at Toronto’s Sean Boutilier Academy of Dance before making their way to this much-admired dance hub. Another student hails from Prince Edward Island and another still is here from British Columbia. In my department later this summer, I will be joined by Canadian Philip Szporer, a long-standing scholar-in-residence, who gives pre-show, post-show and PillowTalks, as well as writing PillowNotes (short essays in show programs). Szporer is also The Dance Current’s online regional editor for Montréal and a frequent contributor to the magazine.

As a recent graduate from York University’s dance program, I very much relish the opportunity to spend three months at the Pillow, living and working with interns from around the United States, as well as one intern from Mexico. This place provides the perfect distraction from the impending stress of trying to find a “real job” after school. Instead, I am able to immerse myself in what must be the world’s only dance farm. Being here, I will have the opportunity to see twenty mainstage performances by many American and international companies that I have heard a lot about. So far, some favourites have been the Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group from Brooklyn N.Y., the Trey McIntyre Project from Boise, Idaho, and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

The performances are not the only way to be immersed in the world of dance, however, as the history of dance is palpable all over the campus. As I write, I’m sitting in the Tea Garden where dance-lecture demonstrations by Ted Shawn (the founder of Jacob’s Pillow) were given in the 1930s. Over my shoulder, I can hear beautiful piano music leading Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s morning technique class, and I can watch dancers plié in the historical Bakalar Studio, the same building that, in the 1930s, saw performances by Ted Shawn’s all-male dance group and has since housed dance artists such as José Limón. For a dance history nerd like me, these are mind-boggling materializations of our history. Working in the archives has given me the opportunity to see historic pieces, some of which are considered part of the dance canon, that I have never had the chance to see in full – works by Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and, of course, Ted Shawn.  But the archives isn’t only about the old, it’s also about the new. Everything you could possibly think of documenting is actively documented each summer and is put into the ever-expanding archives. Every summer adds to the history that is Jacob’s Pillow.

Sometimes, if I’m feeling particularly brave, I approach and initiate conversations with some of the dance artists who pass through. I am most excited (and nervous) to meet choreographer Mark Morris and ballerina Misty Copeland, who will both be here this summer. Even non-dance celebrities make their way through the Pillow. Meryl Streep was already on site this summer to see the one-woman show by her old teacher Carmen de Lavallade. Despite the stature of many of the artists who come through the Pillow, no one is put up on a pedestal; instead everyone is treated as part of the community, the family of dance. We all eat in the same dining hall, so it is normal to be a table away from legendary tap dancers Michelle Dorrance or Dianne Walker and other dance moguls that one wouldn’t generally have the opportunity to meet.

While opportunities to rub elbows with the glitterati of dance abound, I should also mention that the internships here are no piece of cake. The application process includes cover letters, resumés, two references, two letters of recommendation and support material, such as writing samples. The thirty-three interns this summer have a hand in every part of the festival and are integral to making it run smoothly. Interns ensure that the thousands of patrons visiting get to experience the magic that is Jacob’s Pillow, or, as Suzanne Farrell calls it, “the dust of the dancers that came before.” Once you have spent a summer here, you are accepted into the Pillow family, and are then a part of its rich history. I may only be one small cog in the machine that is Jacob’s Pillow, but I am a part of the archives for this summer and hope to inspire other Canadians to become part of the Pillow too.

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