Jacob’s Pillow, home to the longest-running and largest dance festival in the United States, has dealt with historic hurdles over the past two years.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Becket, Mass., center canceled its entire season in 2020, the first shutdown in its 88-year history. Then, that November, a fire tore through the iconic 230-seat Doris Duke Theatre, causing “catastrophic” damage but no injuries. And last year, it scrambled with a reduced staff to produce outdoor-only dance shows.
Now, thanks in part to a $500,000 donation from the Blavatnik Family Foundation, Jacob’s Pillow says it is making a triumphant return to the global stage.
Named for the iconic Route 20 switchbacks and cushion-shaped rock formations, Jacob’s Pillow serves as an instrumental group in the arts and dance space, providing an expansive archival collection, an esteemed school for aspiring and professional dancers and a year-round center for artist residencies and community programs.
With the donation, the Ted Shawn Theatre is being revamped in time for the Pillow’s 90th Anniversary season. The renovated theater will have an eco-friendly air cooling and ventilation systems, an orchestra pit, increased accessibility and more – enlivening the experience for attendees and performers alike.
“As the only National Historic Landmark dedicated to dance, Jacob’s Pillow is an important and vital cultural hub driving the dance community. The reopening of the historic Ted Shawn Theatre will ensure continued access to the arts,” said Len Blavatnik, founder of Access Industries and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.
Recognized by The New York Times as “the dance center of the nation,” Jacob’s Pillow had humble beginnings amid the Great Depression.
In 1931, Ted Shawn, who long harbored a dream of legitimizing dance in America as an honorable career for men, bought the Jacob’s Pillow farm. In 1933, he recruited eight men for a new dance company. In July of 1933, Ted Shawn and his dancers started offering “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” in their barn studio to promote their work, establishing roots for what was to evolve into Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Within the first 10 years, Pearl Harbor and World War II took place. Men dancers went off to war, with gas and other material rations hitting just as the venue was starting to build up, according to WGBH, a Boston public radio station.
And yet, it continued to grow, overcoming even more challenges through the years. “Difficulties are built into the DNA of Jacob’s Pillow in many ways,” Norton Owen, the organization’s archivist, told WBGH. “From the get-go, we were really about making something happen out of nothing, and making something happen out of adversity.”
Today, the anchor of the Pillow’s 220-acre site is the Ted Shawn Theatre, the heart of the campus, which opened for performances in 1942 and was the first theatre in the country built specifically for dance.
Given its history and age, it needed a number of renovations to provide the best performance space and visitor experience for the dance world moving forward, especially since the pandemic has called for more rigorous ventilation measures.
“We’re so grateful to the Blavatnik Family Foundation for their support in this project that has allowed us to uphold the Ted Shawn Theatre’s place in history as a haven for dance while centering the needs and comfort of artists and audiences,” said Jacob’s Pillow executive and artistic director, Pamela Tatge. “I can’t overstate how important this renovation is to the global dance community as we continue to welcome performers and audience members from around the world to our campus every summer.”