Archivist choreographs the strands of history at Jacob's Pillow

BECKET — In the minutes leading up to Doug Varone & Dancers' and Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion's performance on an August afternoon at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, spectators could take a quick detour into Blake's Barn, the home of the Jacob's Pillow Archives, and back in time, viewing videos of the companies' past performances at the storied venue and talks with their founders.

A placard next to a monitor displaying Varone's last appearance at the Pillow read, in part, "This video from 2009 shows the company performing "Castles," "Short Story" and "Lux," all with choreography by Varone. The company will perform three works; "Boats Leaving," "ReComposed" and "Nocturne," which is a World Premiere and features Varone himself."

Succinct and informative, these tidy ties between past and present are ubiquitous at the archives. With more than 8,000 videos documenting dancer talks, community events and performances (including nearly every show since 1982), spectators can educate themselves about the dancers they'll see, or have seen, that day — or practically any dancer, for that matter. Stocked bookshelves in the Norton Owen Reading Room and photographs plastered on the entrance area's walls also grab people's attention, but the videos, which can be watched in full only on-site, are the main draw.

This dance between past and present, however, is far from effortless. Just ask its chief choreographer, Director of Preservation Norton Owen, who has been associated with Jacob's Pillow since he was a student at the festival in 1976. Though his current role began as a part-time gig in 1990, by the early 2000s, it was full-time. "Sometime after that, it became more than full-time," Owen quipped during an interview at the archives.

The archives' growth during Owen's tenure is inextricably linked to the development of Blake's Barn, the maroon structure that has occupied a space along the campus' main walkway since the early 1990s. When Jacob's Pillow first made the archives publicly accessible in 1996, the building was little more than an incomplete visitors center with empty areas for a kitchen and bathrooms. Owen would sit in these spaces from 5 to 8 on performance night, hoping somebody would notice him; now, the facility is open from noon until final curtain Wednesday through Sunday and from noon until 5 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday during the summer festival, hosting a steady stream of festival first-timers and researchers alike. The archives are also accessible by appointment during the remainder of the year.

By 2001, Owen had garnered enough interest in the archives for Jacob's Pillow to invest in breaking down walls inside the barn, unifying the space. The renovation also included an addition that provided covered access to the downstairs area where much of the collection was stored. Previously, staffers had to access the lower floor by exiting the building and entering through separate doors.

In 2011, the barn's reach was once again extended, but not in a physical sense. After gradually increasing its online presence, Jacob's Pillow launched its largest digital archival project to date — Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive. The site allows users to browse the archives' full collection of videos, providing short excerpts of footage that are sorted by era, genre, artist and playlist. Dance Interactive has driven some users to make the trip to Becket to see the videos in their entirety or check out other forms of documentation.

"That's one of the things that makes my heart sing," Owen said, "when somebody comes here in person — and maybe for the first time — and they say, 'Oh, I've been watching your site, and I love what you're doing online.'"

In 2015, the barn's most recent renovation tripled the upstairs viewing space and doubled the downstairs storage area. For Owen, who has held a number of different positions during his 42 seasons at the historic dance site— including a box office gig and a stint as the director of educational programs — ensuring that the vast collection doesn't overwhelm visitors is critical. Thus, the archives offer a curated experience that highlights the day's performers.

The spectators aren't the only ones who benefit from the readily available resources. While Owen grants that some dancers aren't attuned to the art form's history, others appreciate it, drawing inspiration from their predecessors or even themselves. Earlier that week, Varone had stopped into the reading room, watching his first performance at the festival in 1981, according to Owen.

"All these generations, these different strands of history that come knocking up against what's going on right now," Owen said of the archives' different elements, "and I think that that ... congruence is really the heart of what makes the Pillow special."


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