... Jacob & Ted; Current World Dance Emphasis Hallmark of Founder Shawn

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

... Jacob & Ted; Current World Dance Emphasis Hallmark of Founder Shawn


Byline: Jean Battey Lewis, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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. …

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