BECKET — Moments before 2 p.m. Wednesday, music composer Donavan Dorrance grabbed hold of a cord and tugged, setting off the clang of an old farm bell that resounded across the hills. The bell announced the start of a performance, the first public performance of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival 2021.
No one had tugged on that cord in 674 days.
“Opening day!” Norton Owen exclaims moments later. “Where’s the confetti?”
Owen, a staff member since 1976 of this legendary dance center, school and performance space in the Becket woods, is excited. Many people are.
Out in the parking lot, with an inscribed cardboard “Pillow Fan” on a stick, Paul Domotor of Millerton, N.Y., fans himself in the high heat. He's “a major, hardcore Pillow fan.”
“He’s been talking about this day since November of last year,” says his friend Kestral Thorne-Kaunelis of Norfolk, Conn.
“Yeah,” Domotor admits. “By February, when it started to become clear this all might happen, I was getting jacked up.”
Yes, it’s happening. Dorrance Dance’s performance Wednesday marked the first live, in-person public performance at the Pillow since 2019. Like nearly every major arts organization on the planet, Jacob’s Pillow shut down last season due to the coronavirus pandemic. But the Pillow’s woes took a singularly tragic turn on Nov. 17, when a fire destroyed the 30-year-old Doris Duke Theatre, one of two indoor stages.
The Pillow plans to rebuild. For now, that portion of the campus is level earth, empty except for an excavator, and surrounded by fencing. A second indoor space, the Ted Shawn Theatre, the first theater in the nation specifically designed for dance, is undergoing renovations and upgrades and will reopen in 2022.
So 2021 will be a season like none before it. Running through Aug. 29, the festival will be held outdoors only, at the Henry J. Leir Outdoor Stage (which has new seating, with backrests) and throughout the campus. In addition, some performances will be streamed online only, through Sept. 23. Also, with a portable stage, “Pillow Pop-Ups,” a free performance series, will take place in neighboring Berkshire towns over two weekends.
“After months of planning, it’s exciting to finally be welcoming artists and audiences back to the Pillow. What joy,” said Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director. “We so need to be together again and bear witness to our capacity as humans to create works of beauty that transform us and give us hope.”
As the world emerges from the pandemic lockdown, Tatge said, “We need the healing potential of dance.” She promises an extraordinary festival at an extraordinary time.
The festival will feature commissioned works and world premieres, including performances created specifically for the Pillow’s forested campus. The line-up gives a platform to hundreds of artists whose performance opportunities over the last year were deeply curtailed, if not entirely shutdown.
Through performances, exhibits and talks, the festival will reflect on the past and how the past must inform the present and future. High regard will be directed to the essential role Black and Indigenous artists have had in the development of dance. The site is inseparable from these matters. Indigenous people once inhabited these hills. The site was along the Underground Railroad.
Since the festival is outdoors, performances will also underscore the restorative quality of nature and human beings' obligations as stewards. On Wednesday, the New York City-based Dorrance Dance led a daytime matinee performance taking audiences on a roving journey that showcased the Pillow’s 220-acre campus.
Throughout the summer, the festival will take opportunities to reflect upon the history of Jacob’s Pillow itself, founded on a former farm in 1933 by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn.
“Build me a theater,” he said to the German immigrant and Renaissance man Joseph Franz.
Franz built him a theater. Jacob’s Pillow has since become a National Historic Landmark. Dancers have performed here continuously, every season, through the Great Depression, through World War II — up to 2020.
Those words “Build Me a Theater” now serve as the title for an exhibition assembled by Owen himself. He sees it as a rallying cry to the post-pandemic world to take in "the big picture." For Jacob's Pillow, for the world beyond, “We’re in it for the long haul," Owen said. "We can draw a lot of strength from the obstacles we’ve overcome.”
He certainly has. Owen, the Pillow’s director of preservation, recalls getting a phone call at 7 a.m. on Nov. 17, the morning of the fire. He lives three-quarters of a mile away. He peered out his window.
“I could see the plume of smoke,” he says, shaking his head.
Jacob’s Pillow survived the Great Depression, World War II, a worldwide pandemic, and a devastating fire, “and here we are,” Owen said, triumphantly. “Nothing’s stopping us.”
Back in the parking lot, Pillow fan Domotor feels like he's just shaken off the shackles of a very trying time. He couldn't feel any better.
“It is absolute magic here,” he said. "It is out in the middle of nature, fresh air, sunshine, the trees, the flowers, the history, all the people, the staff — and dance that you never knew existed.”