Toby Old's Jacob's Pillow dance images hold dynamic stillness
BECKET -- Toby Old's mind was filled with dance.
The long-limbed ballerinas from Degas' paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art had left an impression on the New York City photographer, known best for his portrayals of the 1970s disco scene and state fairs. So when he saw a photo of a Jacob's Pillow performance in the New York Times' summer culture listings, he made a cold call to see if he and his camera would be welcome at the dance mecca in Becket.
As it turned out, they were very welcome. Five years after he began to shoot there, an exhibit of Old's depictions of life in rehearsal spaces and on stage at the Pillow is on display in the Ted Shawn Theatre.
"Once I discovered the Pil low, [my interest in dance photography] just exploded," said Old, 66. "That was a real stimulus to dig deeper."
"Old/Pillow" at the Ted Shawn Theatre and "Ivan Cher mayeff Designs" at the Doris Duke Theatre open only an hour before each performance. A third exhibit, "Decades of Dance," explores the Pillow's history through archival photographs and is open from noon to closing time. All three honor the Pillow's 80th year.
"You want people to have their eyes open," said Norton Owen, the Pillow's director of preservation. "Part of how we want to prime the visitors' experience is to present them with interesting things to look at even before they're sitting in a theater seat."
"Ivan Chermayeff Designs" collects for the first time all of the marketing images the world-renowned graphic artist created for the Pillow between 1983 and 1993. In a 1984 print, the image of a dancer with a leg raised high behind her emerges from six simple scraps of paper. In a 1990 work, a silhouette of a dancer pops out of ardent splashes of blue paint.
These images, originally for souvenir programs, brochures and mailings, are now art on the walls. In a letter written about the Pillow's collaboration with Chermayeff, on display with the works, former director Liza Thompson describes the institution struggling to dust off its image at its 50th anniversary -- and Chermayeff helped to reverse the "slow decay."
"I asked if he could convey the energy so obviously generated by movement," she wrote. "This prompted the first design -- the bold brush stroke."
Chermayeff, who with his business partner Tom Geismar created such indelible brand images as NBC's rainbow peacock, Showtime Network, Mobil Oil and many more, made sure that the Pillow could afford to work with him, Owen said. He conceptualized the designs but had them executed by another designer who wouldn't cost the institution money it didn't have.
The result, Owen said, are works that continue to be eye-catching.
"Some of this imagery looks as fresh today as it did when he first did it," Owen said.
Back in the Ted Shawn The atre, about 16 framed Old images taken at the Pillow are set alongside a screen showing about 40 of Old's works from other places, including the Kentucky Derby, Mardi Gras and the boxing ring.
Olds said hefound a new challenge on the dance stage, where lighting is often low and dancers are sometimes moving faster than his film's shutter speed can catch.
"I went off on a limb on that project, and found myself kind of in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory," he said. "Everybody was so welcoming there and let me find my own way."
While he does occasionally dabble with a digital camera or his iPhone to snap pictures, Old still uses film for all his "serious" photography, he said. That habit, which means he naturally takes fewer frames than the quick-click of digital photography, Owen ties back to Old's overall ability to self-edit and discern the best of his own work.
"Very rarely do you see more than one image that's been taken from a certain shoot," Owen said. "He's been shooting [here] for five years, so you know [the show does not have] one representing each artist that he's shot, or even each visit, or even each year."
Some of the Pillow photos appeared in a Paris gallery last November and December, but this is the first time they're on display in the United States. Old plans to include a few of them in "American Moments," a book project capturing images from his more than 35-year career.
He also plans to come back to Becket to shoot again.
"Everybody who was anybody in the dance world has been there, so there's all that energy," Old said. "There is a certain magic there that I find, and the beauty of the place."
If you go ...
What: ‘Decades of Dance,' ‘Old/Pillow' and ‘Ivan Chermayeff Designs,' three exhibits
When: ‘Decades of Dance' in Blake's Barn, noon through final curtain, Tuesday to Sunday; ‘Old/Pillow' opens 60 minutes before performances in the Ted Shawn Theatre. ‘Ivan Chermayeff Designs' opens 60 minutes before performances in the Doris Duke Theatre.
Where: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, 358 George Carter Road, Becket
Information: (413) 243-9919, jacobspillow.org