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Celebrating its 90th anniversary, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival opens its newly renovated theater to a variety of performances

When Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival opens its 2022 season with a grand gala on June 18th, the organizers – and dance lovers – have much to celebrate. The season not only honors Jacob’s Pillow’s 90th anniversary as America’s longest-running international dance festival, but also marks a return to live indoor performances at the newly renovated historic Ted Shawn Theater, the heart of Pillow’s pastoral campus. In addition, the festival features outdoor performances on the Leir Stage, special on-campus performances, dance parties, community events, exhibitions, classes, workshops and PillowTalks.

And the said gala, which is always full to the brim with dancing stars and is generally a lavish, expensive affair? For the first time, the in-person event, the first full performance at the modernized Ted Shawn Theater, will also be streamed live for more affordable access to audiences around the world. The never-before-seen program features a range of mesmerizing performances, from an excerpt from Ted Shawn’s legendary “Dance of the Ages” to a world premiere choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Then there are a number of special guests, from Michelle Dorrance and Camille A. Brown to Liz Lerman and Mark Morris. The program also includes the presentation of the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award 2022 to the famous Belgian and Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

“The challenge was to represent 90 years in a 75-minute program that included everything from a nod to founder Ted Shawn to Cherkaoui, one of the most talented and visionary choreographers of our time,” says Pamela, Executive Director and Artistic Director by Jacob’s Pillow Tatge. “We wanted to open the stage with artists representing each decade of our history and through them honor all the artists who have graced this stage in the past.”

The Ted Shawn Theatre, which opened in April while renovations were underway, is Jacob’s Pillow’s flagship. It opened in 1942 as the first theater built solely for dance.Photo by Christopher Duggan

“What’s new alongside the enduring is part of what’s exciting about Jacob’s Pillow,” says Norton Owen, the organization’s director of conservation, who has been with Pillow since 1976. “This is truly an opportunity to see the cushion’s durability, stability and excitement shine in a great way and follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.”

Choreographer Lerman, whose performances at Pillow date back to 1985, agrees, pointing to the history of the country itself and its “poetic appeal and spiritual connection”.

“It’s such a unique environment, with the opportunity to go in and out at the same time,” she says. “What you feel are all the dancers that came before you. I think there will be a lot of emotion in the room on this 90th anniversary at a time when dance is so crucial and fragile.”

The gala will also feature the Ted Shawn Theater itself. When it opened in 1942, it was the first performance venue in America designed exclusively for dance. After a year-long $8 million renovation, it now features a new cooling and ventilation system, an orchestra pit, expanded accessibility for performers and audience members, increased stage depth (by 10 feet), and upgraded technology, among other features.

Tatge is particularly excited about the new access for artists with disabilities. “Before the renovation, there was no wheelchair access on the stage,” she says. “Not only will we have the first disabled dancers on our stage [during the gala], but they will fly off our new steel beams. It will be an amazing moment to witness Kinetic Light’s Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson.”

Kinetic Light’s Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson will perform at the 2022 Jacob’s Pillow Gala. Here, Alice lifts Laurel up from below while stretching her arms and torso up in a hug. Laurel hugs back, arms open and bent, wheels turning.Photo by Hayim Heron/Jacob’s Pillow

Throughout the history of Jacob’s Pillow, the program has been a rich blend of tradition and modernity, and this summer too Season is no different, including notable anniversaries and firsts. New York’s Limón Dance Company, performing July 20-24, has both as it celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding and presents a new work by Olivier Taparga, specially commissioned by the Pillow for the occasion. “So few American dance companies have lasted so long, and José Limón was a student of Doris Humphrey, [who] was a dancer with Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, so this company descends directly from our founder and his pioneering work,” says Tatge.

The Limón Dance Company will perform at the 2022 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, taking place from June 22nd to August 28th.Photo by Kelly Puleio.

The first concert Shawn presented at the theater was designed to showcase American folk dances, and the Pillow revisits the theme with its June 22-26 season opener, AMERICA(NA) TO ME. Tatge believes the program beautifully encapsulates the spirit of Jacob’s Pillow and ties much of the season together. It features a wide range of dance artists reflecting on what American identity means to them, with movement works that reflect on heritage, tradition and belonging. The exclusive engagement includes three Pillow commissions and a cast that includes Indigenous dancer Warwick Gombey Troupe, American flamenco artist Nélida Tirado, tap queen Dormeshia & Guests and New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns in collaboration with her Husband Broadway include choreographer Joshua Bergasse.

“What makes Pillow unique is this constant dialogue between old and new,” says Owen, who curates exhibitions at Blake’s Barn on campus to provide context for the season’s featured artists as part of a broader continuum. “When these different time periods rub against each other, it can stimulate the performance that you see. I don’t know of many other places where this magic exists.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at [email protected]

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