- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

LEE, Mass. — The lush green hills of the Berkshires in southwestern Massachusetts are a summer mecca for arts lovers.From the musical riches at Tanglewood to drama at the Berkshire Theatre Festival to a panoply of dance at Jacob’s Pillow, the hills are alive with artists doing their thing and audiences flocking to watch them.

Honors for the most appealing setting go to Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest dance festival in the country, which recently became the first dance site to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

The Pillow was the site of a family farm in the 1700s, a station on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s, and was founded as a dance center by Ted Shawn in 1931, giving its first public performance in 1933.

Through the years, Jacob’s Pillow has had its share of highs and lows, depending on who was running it.

In its present incarnation under the direction of Ella Baff, the Pillow is emphasizing Mr. Shawn’s global view. He and his charismatic wife, Ruth St. Denis, and their group of Denishawn Dancers toured the world and brought back their own stylized versions of Greek, Indian, Spanish and Japanese dances.

I came to Jacob’s Pillow as a student when Mr. Shawn was still alive (he continued to run the festival until his death in 1972), and he taught us his own version of Japanese, Spanish and Indian forms.

He also performed solos that summer, including “Whirling Dervish” and “Cosmic Dance of Siva.” It was heady stuff for a wide-eyed teenager, a fabulous introduction to how people around the world danced in wonderfully diverse ways.

Mr. Shawn’s approach laid a groundwork for the birth of modern dance, which arose in part as a rebellion against just this emphasis on world dance. The rebellion produced three remarkable innovators — Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.

It was Mr. Weidman who said, “Modern dance began as a revolt against the ‘eeses.’

“When we went abroad with Shawn in Japan, we would do a Javanese dance; in India a Chinese dance.

“But, of course, we would never do Japanese dance in Japan,” Mr. Weidman added, “because they could do their own dance so much better.”

Instead, Mr. Weidman said he and his colleagues wanted to discover how an American would dance, and that led this trio of ex-Denishawn dancers each to invent a highly individual style of movement.

Although Mr. Shawn is referred to as the father of modern dance, it was a strange kind of birthing because he was quite hostile to what his three rebels had created. Martha Graham’s company never appeared at the Pillow until 1984, 12 years after Mr. Shawn’s death.

Still, the Pillow has always been marked by its interest in dance from other lands, and never more so than under its current director, Ms. Baff.

This weekend, for instance, the Pillow is presenting hip-hop artist Rennie Harris in his acclaimed new work, “Facing Mecca,” in its larger, rustic Ted Shawn Theatre, specially built for dance in 1942.

In the Pillow’s smaller Doris Duke Studio Theatre, two artists from abroad will perform: Kitt Johnson, a young Danish artist who has been influenced by the precepts of Japanese Butoh; and Vincent Mantsoe, a soloist from South Africa.

This diversity continues throughout the season. In addition to such established American dance groups as the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Buglisi/Foreman Dance (four outstanding soloists from the Martha Graham company), Stephen Petronio Company and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, the season will introduce a clutch of dancers from abroad.

Making their U.S. debuts will be CND2, a Spanish dance group bringing dances by Nacho Duato; Jo Stromgren Kompani from Norway, a fast-rising company that combines dance and theater; Irma Omerzo, from Croatia, exploring subtle relationships through dance; and Compagnie Felix Ruckert from Berlin, headed by a former Pina Bausch dancer.

New works will be seen by the Akram Khan Dance Company, a London group influenced by Indian classical dance; and Batoto Yetu, a group of dancers aged 6 to 18 presenting the world premiere of a work based on African folklore.

A visit to Jacob’s Pillow encompasses more than seeing a performance. Many free events enrich the Pillow experience, including early evening performances on an outdoor stage framed by the Berkshire hills beyond, talks with visiting artists, discussions led by dance historians, film showings and the Pillow’s rich, well-displayed archives.

Further enhancing the pleasure of a Pillow visit is the possibility of formal dining under a tent, noshing at a small cafe, bringing your own picnic to one of the many tables dotting the grounds or visiting one of the kiosks offering ice cream, coffee and souvenirs.

This Summer at Jacob’s Pillow: Rennie Harris “Facing Mekka,” today and tomorrow; Kitt Johnson and Vincent Mantsoe, today and tomorrow; CND2, Wednesday to July 27; Buglisi/Foreman Dance, Thursday to July 27; Cunningham, July 30 to Aug. 3; Jo Stromgren Kompani, July 31 to Aug. 3; Batoto Yetu, Aug. 6 to Aug. 10; Irma Omerzo, Aug. 7 to Aug. 10; Stephen Petronio Company, Aug. 13 to Aug. 17; Akram Khan Dance Company, Aug. 14 to Aug. 17; Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Aug. 20 to Aug. 24; Compagnie Felix Ruckert Aug. 21 to Aug. 24

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