Take Five with Norton Owen, Jacob's Pillow's director of preservation

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BECKET — When he received Dance/USA's Ernie Award in 2002, Norton Owen, Jacob's Pillow's director of preservation, joined an elite group of "unsung heroes who have led exemplary lives in dance."

He has been integral at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival since he came there in 1976 fresh from college. And in the years he's been serving the Pillow, this much-honored, widely respected curator, writer and archivist also has served the dance community at large through leadership roles at the Limon Institute, National Museum of Dance, O'Donnell-Green Music and Dance Foundation, the Dance Heritage Coalition, and the dance panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.

As director of preservation, Owen oversees the popular PillowTalks series as well as all activities involving documentation, exhibitions, audience engagement and archival access. He also is the curator of Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive, an online video resource; and host of a podcast — PillowVoices.

The Norton Owen Reading Room was dedicated in his honor in recognition of his 40th anniversary at the Pillow.

We asked him to talk with us a bit about his work at the Pillow and particularly PillowTalks, which is marking its 25th anniversary this season.

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1. What brought you to the Pillow in 1976?

I first came here as a dance student, right after graduating from college. I didn't really know what I was going to do, and the summer scholarship here seemed like a good way to postpone the realities of supporting myself. I danced all day and ran the light board backstage for all the performances, up until the final week of the season when I performed along with some of my fellow students. I absolutely loved it, though, had no idea that Jacob's Pillow would become the primary home for my life's work. But I became more and more involved after my student summer, first working off-season with Pillow director Norman Walker as administrative assistant, then returning in 1977 to work in the box office and spending two seasons as the press assistant and house manager. I was later named associate manager and then Director of Educational Programs, so in my first decade here I was involved with nearly every facet of the organization.

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2. You've been director of preservation since 1990. How did you come into that position and why? What makes dance preservation so important?

I'm very proud that my position was created for me, though in some ways it was a role that I helped initiate for myself. I had always felt drawn to the Pillow's history, first introduced to it by Jess Meeker in 1976. He was the pianist who accompanied my ballet classes, and he told me about first coming to the Pillow as Ted Shawn's composer/accompanist in 1933. It blew my mind to hear Jess's first-hand accounts of touring with Shawn's Men Dancers in the 1930s, and it helped me realize how those stories had shaped what Jacob's Pillow had become. It was the first time that I really understood how history is created out of personal stories, and it's easy to see in retrospect how this gradually led to everything else. As I was becoming passionate about Pillow history, I also began to recognize that this was what made Jacob's Pillow unique, and so began my quest to help weave our past more visibly into our present.

3. How has the job, the craft of preservation, evolved over the years? What are the satisfactions in your work? What frustrates you; challenges you?

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As we started creating a more visible presence for the Jacob's Pillow Archives in Blake's Barn in the late 1990s, I became increasingly aware of how important our film and video collection could be — not only now, but into the future. While there's always a degree of interest in our "stuff" — photographs, documents, posters, etc. — movement is what people most want to see, and video is the best way to deliver that. So we have lavished a great deal of attention on creating and maintaining a video collection — nearly 10,000 individual recordings. Consequently, many of our preservation concerns now center around digital preservation, and I'm greatly helped in addressing these issues by our associate archivist, Patsy Gay. Without our video collection (and Patsy's expertise), we never would have been able to create the Virtual Festival that we're now presenting online. And I also want to give a shout-out to Nel Shelby, who came to the Pillow as a video intern in 2001 and has since worked with me to upgrade our video standards. One of the greatest satisfactions of my work is to connect people with the Pillow's past in a way that's meaningful for them, and to literally see the impact that this kind of connection can make. It's always a challenge to find that connecting point for each individual visitor, and the only frustration is that this kind of engagement takes time and a lot of personal attention — which isn't always possible.

4. Talk to us a bit about one of your more popular creations, PillowTalks. How did it evolve How does it fit into the Pillow scheme of things, especially in this time of the virtual?

Former director Sali Ann Kriegsman launched the PillowTalks series in 1996, which makes this our 25th season. It was a grant-funded program for the first few years, but then the funding ran out and it had become so essential and well-attended that we felt it had to continue. I took it over in 2000 and have delighted in making it a "way in" for people who might never have considered dance as a subject of interest. It has been thrilling to involve speakers who have surprising connections to dance, including Rachel Maddow, Jules Feiffer, Peter Yarrow and Annie Leibovitz, as these are personalities who can help enlarge the public's understanding of what dance is and what their relationship to it might be. We have continued to present PillowTalks even now that all our programming is online, and a series of eight new talks are available on YouTube or the Pillow website until the end of August. Some of them are online versions of what we were planning to present in person this summer, while others were created after the season was canceled. All of them draw upon fascinating people and they're all free — like always — so I urge one and all to check them out.

5. What attracts your interest, your leisure time, when you're not involved with Pillow matters?

Well, it wouldn't be entirely untrue to say that there's never any time when I'm not involved with Pillow matters, but I understand the intent in the question. I feel very lucky to be engaged with a career that gives me so much personal satisfaction, so it is sometimes tricky to separate vocation and avocation. When I spend time seeing dance performances or visiting the New York Public Library Dance Division (one of my favorite places), is that work or pleasure? I do enjoy traveling with my husband, David Dashiell, though even those pleasure trips often involve dance in some way. If it's not already apparent, I love what I do!


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