Our travelling dance historian heads to Jacob’s Pillow

Jacob's Pillow

The life of a travelling historian by Caroline Hamilton

In high school I was known as ‘Ballet Girl’ – I wore my hair in a bun and talked about ballet a lot – I don’t think I have really changed, although now I like to think of myself as a modern balletomane!

Growing up I loved stories of stories of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo tours and the ‘baby ballerinas’ of the 1930s and 40s. Their travelling existence seemed so exotic and wonderful.

In my life now as a freelance historian and researcher I am able to travel and work from almost anywhere – although rather than traveling with hoards of dancers, musicians and Russian mothers (like the Ballets Russes) – it is just me, a suitcase and my laptop!

Three weeks ago, I packed up once more and got on a plane to the USA, where after a week in NYC I got a bus to the tiny village of Lenox in the Berkshire area of Massachusetts.

{ For the next three months I am living and working at Jacob’s Pillow }

Jacob’s Pillow is the longest running dance festival in the US, and perhaps the most famous dance festival in the world. Each the summer the Pillow takes on a large seasonal staff of interns, apprentices and fellows, covering departments from videography and photography to social media, box office, company management and production. This year I’m joining the Pillow in the archives and engagement team.

As part of this year’s 85th festival over 50 companies from around the globe will be appearing – where else would you get to see so many forms of dance in one place?!

I have known about the Pillow for ever – but remember seeing a series of wonderful pictures taken of Irina Baronova and Alicia Markova at the Pillow in the 1940s. It seemed so out of character for the great British ballerina Markova to be ‘camping out’ in the woods of Massachusetts! (I will share these later in the summer).

Jacob’s Pillow was founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn and was home to his company of Men Dancers till the outbreak of WWII. On first glace the Pillow looks like a collection of barns and out-buildings – some of the structures did indeed start out life as barns for the original C18th homestead, but now they are interspersed with two theatres (as well the iconic outside stage), studios, student cabins, administrative buildings etc.

My ‘office’ for the next three months is Blake’s Barn – a large red barn which now houses the Pillow’s extensive archive. The basement contains an impressive collection which includes over 6000 videos of past performances and talks as well as an exciting collection of trunks – labeled with Denishawn Company and Ted Shawn Dancers – which contain original props and costumes from the earliest days of the Pillow. You can take a peek at the collections here.

Jacob's Pillow Blake's Barn
Jacob’s Pillow Blake’s Barn

I have now been here for two weeks and it has been amazing seeing the property awaken like Sleeping Beauty from her winter sleep. More people seem to arrive each day and there are now over 60 people working, eating and living together – much in the same way the Shawn had intended in the 1930s. In  fact we all still eat in the same dining room that was built by the Men Dancers and has served the festival for most of its existence!

Jacob's Pillow Inside/Out Stage
Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Out Stage

Look out for more of my adventure next week!