Once again, dance beckons from the Becket hills

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BECKET — On the kind of sun-washed breeze-kissed June afternoon in the Berkshires you want to bottle and keep for those far less comfortable and comforting days, Jacob's Pillow was, for the time being, an island of calm.

Not for want of activity.

A small group of workers navigated the outer edge of the line of massive white tents that fill the Pillow's Great Lawn.

In a separate white tent along the main gravel walkway, diagonally across from the Ted Shawn Theatre, another group of workers had finished laying down a floor and were discussing the physical arrangement of yet-to-be delivered chairs and tables for what will be the new public dining facility at the Pillow, run this year by the New Marlborough-based Old Inn on the Green, which, through its Southfield Store, also will be operating the Pillow's cafe and coffee/snack concession.

Inside the handsome new Perles Family Studio, student dancers in The School at Jacob's Pillow's ballet program, who had arrived only one day earlier, were, under the watchful eye of choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, learning the choreography for a world premiere they would be performing only four days later in the Ted Shawn Theatre as part of the Pillow's traditional season-opening gala.

Even Hunter House, the heart and pulse of the Pillow's operations, felt quiet, tranquil, a far cry from the sharp change in tempo that will begin this weekend; nowhere more so, perhaps, than the second floor corner office of the Pillow's director, Pamela Tatge, who is in her third season at the helm. It is the second season she has programmed. This summer speaks of both the Pillow's history and what is to come, she said, settling into a chair at her desk near a window that gives her an impressive view of the hills to the west.

In a sense, Saturday's Gala says it all. New and old. Reaching out to the Berkshires community at large; drawing the Berkshires community at large to the Becket hills.

In addition to the young ballet students, the Ted Shawn stage will host a tribute to Honorary Chair and 2018 Kennedy Center Honoree Carmen de Lavallade performed by Dance Theatre of Harlem's Amanda Smith. Choreographer-director Faye Driscoll, who will be at the Pillow later in the season, will receive this year's Jacob's Pillow Dance Award. There will be a cocktail hour performance in the new Perles Family Studio by Scotland's Janis Claxton Dance's "POP-UP Duets," which also will be seen Tuesday on the streets of Great Barrington and Thursday in Pittsfield as part of the city's Third Thursday. Ephrat Asherie Dance will perform "Odeon" prior to its world premiere at the Festival beginning Wednesday in the Doris Duke Theatre.

Through the summer, Tatge says, "there is so much to access. Favorites [Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Limon Dance Company, Michelle Dorrance, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Bathseva Young Ensemble] are coming back. Companies we haven't seen in a long time who are doing exciting new work, among them, Houston Ballet, which hasn't been at the Pillow in nearly three decades," Tatge said; also ODC San Francisco, Philadanco, Royal Danish Ballet, "whose first appearance here in 1951 became such a turning point for them," Tatge said, "so much so that the King of Denmark knighted [Pillow co-founder] Ted Shawn, an honor he held very close."

Looking ahead to a season whose performances get under way Wednesday with Royal Danish Ballet in the Shawn and Ragamala Dance Company in the smaller Doris Duke Theatre, Tatge says she is excited about "the balance we have between national and international; historic moments to look forward to; work we've been invested in through the Pillow Lab. I get the happy job of calling these companies and saying 'I want you here.'"

Among highlights for Tatge:

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- a two-week Gaga dance institute built around dance movement exploration and research by Batsheva Dance Company director and teacher Ohad Naharin, who will be at the Pillow, Tatge says, for the second week of the institute. "He'll do a Gaga happening on the property while he's here," she said;

- Houston Ballet in mid-August;

- Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Eastman performing "Fractus V" in the Ted Shawn, July 11-15. "This work has been performed only once, at Ohio State University," Tatge said. "Larbi is one of the most in-demand choreographers. This is a big production for the Shawn;"

- an emerging interest in contemporary Spanish dance, highlighted by Compania Sharon Fridman in the Doris Duke (July 25-29) and two Spanish companies on the Inside/Out stage, "sort of a mini-festival within the festival," Tatge said;

- the Pop-Up Dance on the streets of Pittsfield and Great Barrington from Scotland's Janice Claxton Dance in their U.S. debut, courtesy of the Scottish government which ponied up full travel expenses, according to Tatge;

- "Happy Hour," an audience participatory event created by Monica Bill Barnes and Company, July 26-28 and Aug. 2-4, that will turn Sommers Studio, former home of The School at Jacob's Pillow, into an after-hours office party, crashed by Barnes and Anna Bass.

The Pillow Lab, which nurtures the development of new work, is especially close to Tatge's heart. The Lab, which pairs donors interested in new work in dance with young artists, plays to Tatge's image of Jacob's Pillow as a generator and incubator of new work. "I think the Lab will become a signature program," Tatge said. "We're connecting our audiences with dance pioneers. We're increasing dance literacy through our Lab links with colleges. It's an important for dynamic for us." Indeed, in March, the Mellon Foundation awarded the Pillow Lab a 36-month, $300,000 grant.

Over her two-plus years in Becket, Tatge says she has come to value and fully appreciate the devotion of the Pillow audience. More than that, she has come to acknowledge "the gravity and insight of the choices I make in service of artists here and abroad." She also has discovered an appetite for dance in the broader community that emanates not from the Pillow, Tatge says, but from within communities themselves. That dynamic fuels her determination to make strong connections between the Pillow and Berkshires communities.

But for Tatge, perhaps the most sobering thought about her job is that "we have only 10 weeks of festival and we have an earned income goal we must reach [to support the Pillow's $6.5 million operating budget]. That's something I fully understand now," she said.

"We have 220 acres and 36 buildings that require a lot of support and maintenance and that occupies my time in ways I couldn't possibly have imagined.

"This is our site," she said firmly and positively. "It must be maintained for what we are known and loved for."

Jeffrey Borak can be reached at jborak@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6212


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