Dance Matters: Back to the Future

June 27, 2011

Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin at Jacob’s Pillow.
A video clip of the pair in Massine’s

Gaité Parisienne
in 1948 is available on the Pillow’s Dance Interactive minisite. Photo by John Lindquist, © Harvard Theatre Collection, Courtesy Pillow Archives.



If you’ve ever had time to kill before a performance at Jacob’s Pillow, and you have an affinity for out-of-the-way places, chances are you’ve stumbled upon the Jacob’s Pillow Archives. Tucked away in Blake’s Barn, one of the many rustic buildings dotting the scenic campus, this small library contains a wealth of dance films dating back to 1937, with footage from almost every performance that passed through the festival in the last 30 years. It’s an irresistible collection for dance history buffs—and for everyone else, just a lot of fun.

“People poke their heads in and say, ‘Oh! What’s this? What’s playing on these video screens?’ ” says Norton Owen, the Pillow’s director of preservation and archivist extraordinaire. “I take very seriously the opportunity to make that happenstance discovery a delightful one.”

Until recently, having that delightful experience meant getting in the car and driving to Becket, Massachusetts. With the advent of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive, the latest in a series of “Virtual Pillow” features, all you need is an internet connection.

An online resource several years in the making, Dance Interactive brings together a hundred (and counting) video highlights from the archives, for educational—and potentially addictive—browsing. The clean, user-friendly site, designed by the digital campaign firm ClearMetrics, allows you to search for clips by artist, genre, or era. Alternatively, you can “Dive In” for a random sampling—jumping from Baryshnikov to tapper Dianne Walker to Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers—or click “Guess” for a game of match-the-video-to-the-artist.

“I have to be careful not to start playing with it myself,” says Pillow executive director Ella Baff. “You can just keep exploring and exploring.”

The project comes at an already momentous time for the organization. In March, Baff went to the White House to accept a National Medal of the Arts on behalf of the Pillow, the first dance presenter to receive this prestigious honor. “Barack Obama was the most gracious, focused, intelligent, wonderful person,” she says of meeting the president, who led the award ceremony and shook hands with each recipient, “and Michelle Obama as well.” At one point in the afternoon, Baff recalls, “he said, ‘Michelle, wouldn’t it be great to go to Jacob’s Pillow?’ and he turned to me and said, ‘You know, they don’t let me out of here very much.’ ”

Back in Becket, it’s been business as usual. The festival’s 79th season, now underway, includes companies from nine countries, with four world premieres, five U.S. premieres, and three U.S. company debuts.

While audiences are sure to devour the offerings on the Pillow’s three stages, Baff is excited about the audience-building potential of  “our fourth venue”: cyberspace. “I see Dance Interactive—and all of our Virtual Pillow activities—as an electronic stage,” she says. “The more you give people access to the broadest variety of dance, the more their appetite is going to expand.”

Dance Interactive grew out of a similarly designed touch-screen kiosk in the archives (created in 2007 for the festival’s 75th anniversary), which proved popular among visitors. “One of the most frequent questions we got was, ‘Can I get this online?’ ” Owen says. Thus began the process of transforming the kiosk’s contents into a web-based library, accessible anytime, anywhere, on any computer or mobile device.

The clips, averaging one to two minutes and accompanied by short descriptions, are tailored more to limited attention spans than scholarly inquiry. Still, before seeing Kyle Abraham’s premiere (a collaboration with Camille A. Brown) this August, a critic might enjoy watching excerpts of his previous Pillow appearances. And anyone—dance amateur or aficionado—can appreciate the at-your-fingertips availability of rare 1940s and ’50s footage: Asadata Dafora, Pearl Primus, early Cunningham. You can’t find those on YouTube.

For Owen and project manager Lisa Niedermeyer, one goal was to re-create the experience of perusing the physical archives—that sense of a treasure trove waiting to be unearthed. “We wanted it to feel endless,” Niedermeyer says, “as if just around the corner there’s another discovery.”