Celebrating Dance Magazine Award Honoree Norton Owen
For Norton Owen, the director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, archives activate a place where the past is in dialogue with the present. Owen’s efforts have helped dance feel like a bigger place, and dance history like an evolving story that unites us all. “We are connected to what happened before, especially at the Pillow, where we are soaking in our history,” Owen says.
Whether someone is wandering into the Jacob’s Pillow archives out of curiosity or researching an upcoming book, Owen and his staff offer a warm welcome. He regularly holds court in the newly expanded space that bears his name, The Norton Owen Reading Room, named in honor of his 40th anniversary. Owen particularly enjoys the thrill of a first-time visitor. “When I hear people say, ‘It feels so welcoming here,’ it’s music to my ears,” he says.
Owen himself wandered into the Pillow after college in 1976. During his first decade at the organization, he worked in almost every department, from the box office to the press team. In 1990, then-director Sam Miller named him director of preservation, where he now oversees the scholar-in-residence program, PillowTalks, pre- and postshow talks, and exhibitions. Carrying on Pillow founder Ted Shawn’s drive to document, Owen has prioritized video and continually upgraded the quality of the organization’s performance recordings, from three-camera shoots to live mixing. “It’s about paying attention to what people want and need, and capturing the audience experience,” says Owen.
Creating Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, the Pillow’s acclaimed digital archive, is his ongoing passion project. It started with free-standing kiosks at key locations on campus, where viewers could access 50 videos via a touch screen. Today, the digital archive includes hundreds of videos, essays, and playlists organized by theme, as well as the “PillowVoices” podcast series. “It’s limitless,” says Owen, “and we aim for that same welcoming spirit.”
Owen’s dance life has extended beyond Jacob’s Pillow. His longtime association with the Limón company includes directing the Limón Institute for 14 years. He has served as an exhibition curator for the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, the Harvard Theatre Collection, and the National Museum of Dance in Saratoga Springs, New York. And his tireless work has not gone unnoticed: He has been honored by Dance/USA, the Martha Hill Dance Fund, Dance Films Association, the José Limón Dance Foundation, and the Theatre Library Association. “I’m a citizen of the dance world,” he says.