BECKET — This summer at Jacob's Pillow was to have been a summer of commissions, U.S. debuts and landmark anniversaries. Now, all that is gone.
On Wednesday, citing safety concerns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Executive and Artistic Director Pamela Tatge announced that the 220-acre National Historic Landmark for dance was canceling its entire 2020 season. It was the first time the Pillow has made such a move in its 88-year history.
"Who could ever have imagined such a thing could happen?" Tatge said in a subdued tone during a telephone interview from her home in Becket.
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic "has devastated our field," she said in a prepared statement released Wednesday. "The arts and entertainment industries have proven to be one of the most vulnerable sectors. We face a harsh and disheartening reality."
Jacob's Pillow officials began facing that reality at a March 11 board meeting, during which, Tatge said, an executive committee was formed to take charge of the matter.
Over the course of four meetings the group developed several options.
"We first thought of holding off making a decision about the summer until May 1," Tatge said. "But, as we saw the statistics about coronavirus intensifying and the effect of the virus in other countries, we asked ourselves, 'What would we know May 1 that [based on what has been happening in Europe and now in the U.S.] we can't already expect?"
Running a shortened season, Tatge said, was cost-prohibitive, given staffing, marketing and equipment rental, especially for the barnlike Ted Shawn Theatre, the larger of the Pillow's two indoor performing spaces.
It didn't help that six foreign dance companies due to appear at the Pillow had travel issues either because the U.S. government halted visa processing and/or respective foreign governments withheld travel money.
A third option was cancellation.
This is the fourth season Tatge has programmed here. The 2016 season had been set by Tatge's predecessor, Ella Baff, by the time Tatge came to the Pillow in April 2016.
Among the American firsts she planned this summer was the U.S. debut of Lava, a contemporary dance company from Tenerife; and the U.S. premiere of Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton's "Where There's Form," a Pillow commission created in collaboration with experimental German composer Hauschka, performed by Aszure Barton & Friends.
The season — it was to have run June 24 through Aug. 30 — also would have seen performances marking the 75th anniversary of Limon Dance Company, from New York; the 50th anniversaries of New York-based Ballet Hispanico and Denver-based Cleo Parker Robinson Dance; and the 40th anniversary of MOMIX, based in Washington, Conn.
Canceling the season will mean a 50 percent cut in revenue. The Pillow's board has moved to cushion that blow with a dramatic series of staff layoffs and salary reductions.
The question for Tatge became, "How can we realize our mission without a festival?"
She has turned to the internet. Together with several faculty members at The School of Jacob's Pillow, "we've come up with a number of ways to deliver programs online," she said. She also wants to involve some of the canceled dance companies.
Jacob's Pillow's Director of Preservation Norton Owen is developing an expanded series of PillowTalks, drawing on material from the Pillow's extensive archives. And, Valerie Locher, of Valerie Locher Horticulturists, will take viewers on a Jacob's Pillow garden tour.
"I want to create an overall digital platform that will give viewers a quintessential Pillow experience," Tatge said.
And in a continuing effort "to take dance off the mountain," Tatge is expanding a number of community initiatives, many in Pittsfield.
Any other year at this time, the Jacob's Pillow campus would be springing to life. Summer season staffers would begin arriving. Marketing strategies would be finalized. Tatge would be in negotiations with dance companies for the 2021 season.
Instead, she said, there is an uncustomary quiet on campus.
"My hope," she said, "is that we will be able to welcome people to this campus before the summer is over. If we are allowed to congregate again in August, I would create some kind of event here on Aug. 30; some kind of celebration to welcome everyone."