...in 1942, the first theater in the nation dedicated exclusively to dance opened at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, a small town in the Berkshire Hills. The building was named for Ted Shawn, the modern dance pioneer who founded the nation's longest running summer dance festival on a farm he bought in 1930. During the first few years, wartime gas rationing meant that people came on foot, but come they did drawn by the festival's mix of modern, ethnic, folk, and classical dance. Jacob's Pillow has been home, studio, classroom, and stage to countless dance legends including Agnes de Mille, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey and Robert Joffrey. Today, the Pillow is considered the nation's home for dance.
In 1930 modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought a 150-acre farm with a beautiful view and an unusual name Jacob's Pillow. The origins of the name lay in the 1790s when stagecoaches traveling from Boston to Albany passed through Becket on a zigzagging road. To biblically-minded New Englanders, the turns in the road looked like the rungs of a ladder and called to mind an Old Testament story about Jacob. On a journey, the Jewish patriarch stopped to rest for the night and used a stone for a pillow; while sleeping he dreamt that he saw angels going up and down a ladder that reached from heaven to earth. The Berkshire road was named Jacob's Ladder, and the farm at the crest of the hill was named for a distinctive boulder on the site Jacob's Pillow.
By 1930 Ted Shawn had already won fame as one of the country's finest modern dancers and half of the "Denishawn Company and School." During the 1920s, he and his wife Ruth St. Denis had been stars of the American dance world, popularizing a new form of dance that blended folk traditions, theatrical choreography, and modernism. But when their marriage and business partnership ended in 1930, Shawn bought Jacob's Pillow farm and moved there. He set out to realize a dream; as a gay man, he was eager to dispel the "sissy" image of male dancers by establishing an all-male dance company whose signature style would be bold and muscular.
A native of Kansas City, Ted Shawn was studying for the ministry when a bout of diphtheria left him temporarily paralyzed. On his physician's advice, he took up dance as physical therapy and discovered a lifetime passion. In 1933 he formed the Men Dancers Company with eight professional male dancers and a group of physical education students from Springfield College. To raise money, the men gave "Tea Lecture Demonstrations" in the barn Shawn had converted into a studio. Curious audiences paid 75 cents each for a high tea, which Shawn and his dancers prepared and served out of doors, followed by a combination lecture-demonstration. With each passing week, the company's audiences and reputation grew. Soon Shawn was taking his troop on the road and expanding the barn to include classroom space.
By 1940 Shawn felt he had succeeded in legitimizing dance for men. The Men Dancers disbanded. Deeply in debt, Shawn joined forces with dance teacher Mary Washington Ball to produce a festival at Jacob's Pillow that summer. The following year the festival became an international affair, with performances by British ballet stars Alicia Markov and Anton Dolin. The event was so successful that local supporters raised enough money to purchase the farm from Shawn. They hired him as director and began constructing a dance theater.
Shawn had helped the Men Dancers put up a rustic dormitory on the farm a decade earlier, and now he helped build the theater that would carry his name. On July 9, 1942, just hours before the first performance, Shawn and architect Joseph Franz (who had recently designed the Koussevitzky Music Shed at nearby Tanglewood), mixed mud and cinders for the walkway, while Agnes de Mille rehearsed a new modern ballet in the theater.
The inaugural performance was a success, and the festival became an annual event, and later a respected institution, with a reputation for introducing foreign companies, emerging artists, and diverse, eclectic programs. Shawn also established a summer school, which he nicknamed "The University of the Dance," where the finest choreographers and dance teachers came to work with the nation's most talented students.
Ted Shawn served as director of the Pillow until his death in 1972 at the age of 81. Affectionately called "Papa" by several generations of young artists, he left a legacy that lives on in the longest-running dance festival in America. The Ted Shawn Theater has recently been renovated, and Jacob's Pillow is now a National Historic Landmark.
A Certain Place: The Jacob's Pillow Story, by Norton Owen (Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, 2002).
Jacob's Pillow website
Boston Globe, July 3, 1988 and August 23, 1996.