BECKET -- The big pre-season gala Saturday evening at Jacob's Pillow is sold out.

"We're really thrilled, and I rented the biggest tent we could find to fit on the Great Lawn," said Ella Baff, the Pillow's executive and artistic director. She said that the gala is limited by the number of seats -- 600 -- in the Ted Shawn Theatre, where the evening's performance will take place.

Aside from cocktails, dinner, dancing and mingling with the artists, gala-goers will be treated to performances by members of the Hong Kong Ballet, which begins a Pillow engagement next week; Carmen de Lavallade, the legendary dancer and actress whose new show receives its premiere later next week; dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project in McIntyre's "Bad Winter"; and dancers of The School of Jacob's Pillow in the world premiere of a work by Jessica Lang, prepared in just four days.

At the gala, choreographer John Heginbotham will accept the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award, a signal honor that includes a $25,000 cash prize. One of the largest awards in the field of dance, it may be used in any manner the recipient chooses. Michelle Dorrance received last year's award, and earlier winners have included Crystal Pite, Kyle Abraham, Merce Cunningham, Big Dance Theater, Alonzo King and Bill T. Jones.

"John was a dancer with Mark Morris for 14 years," explained Baff in an interview with The Berkshire Eagle. "He decided to leave the company and start his own group. He talked to me about it a few years ago." Baff said she invited his group to perform on the outdoor Henry J. Leir stage, followed by an engagement at the Doris Duke theatre the following year.


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Recently, Heginbotham was given a creative development residency at the Pillow, a program for creating new work, and the result, "Chalk and Soot," with live music of Colin Jacobson and Brooklyn Rider, will receive its world premiere by Dance Heginbotham, July 30, in the Duke.

"He is a very imaginative choreographer, with a very original style, and he experiments with live music and stage design," said Baff, "and I think at this time in his career the award will help him gain recognition."

The award itself is a glass sculpture custom-designed by Tom Patti, the Berkshire artist whose work is in the collections of several institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Those who cannot get to the gala are urged by Baff to check out "Gotta Dance," a new exhibition of movie posters in Blake's Barn.

"It's a terrific exhibit curated by Norton Owen, our director of preservation, working with Mike Kaplan who has one of the great movie poster collections of all times." Among the star dancers shown on the posters are Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse and Astaire and Rogers, with, as Baff noted, "a special salute to Marge Champion -- who gave the Pillow Blake's Barn -- on the occasion of her 95th birthday."

Baff encourages attendance at everything this season, but several engagements are on her absolutely must-see list:

n Hong Kong Ballet has "a very exciting program, and the dancers are stunning; it's contemporary ballet, not classic story ballet." The company performs Krzysztof Pastor's "In Light and Shadow," set to Bach; Nacho Duato's all-male work "Castrati" ("people shouldn't be scared by the title," Baff cautioned); and a poetic trio by National Ballet of China resident choreographer Fei Po, "A Room of Her Own" (June 18-22, Ted Shawn Theatre)

n Trey McIntyre Project. "This is a major event in the dance world, the final performances by the company," said Baff. "You don't need to know anything about dance to come and enjoy the performance." McIntyre's valedictory effort will include "The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction," inspired by the surreal imagination and pen-and-ink drawings of Edward Gorey, performed with live music by Trio Solaris; and "Mercury Half-Life," set to music of the rock band Queen. (June 25-29, Shawn)

n Circa, from Australia. "This is circus art," said Baff. "Many things are recognizable -- aerial work, feats of strength, daring movement, circus art in a very choreographed way. It expands people's ideas about movement." (July 30-Aug 3, Shawn)

n Unreal Hip-Hop. Baff assembled and produced the show with three different artists, Decadancetheatre, Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie and The Wondertwins, with distinctive styles -- "the vocabulary of Hip-Hop across the board," Baff says. (June 25-29, Doris Duke Theatre)

n Companhia Urbana de Dança, a company from Brazil Baff is bringing back. "It's a mixture of modern dance and hip-hop, and I think it's taking the fusion to a new place," she says. (Aug 13-16, Shawn)

Baff said she hopes people will visit the Pillow for more than the ticketed events. The daily dance classes are one attraction.

"We have some of the most famous master teachers who are giving technique classes, teaching choreography or teaching new dances. People can stay as long as they wish, and watch how the dance masters train dancers who attend the School at Jacob's Pillow," she said, noting that the dancers, 16 and older, most on scholarship, are at the pre-professional or professional levels in their careers.

Baff also hailed the popularity of the Pillow's free Inside/Out performances on the open-air Leir stage, which attracted more than 21,000 visitors last summer. The stage has provided a platform for new choreographers and companies just beginning their ascendance in the dance world to the main stages at the Pillow and other halls of dance. Among those first seen at Inside /Out were Dance Heginbotham, Andrea Miller and her company Gallim Dance, Monica Bill Barnes and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet.