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Pilates at the Pillow

The popularity of Pilates training is now so widespread that it can be surprising to learn that there was a single visionary responsible for developing this system of body conditioning. Perhaps even more surprising, Joe Pilates was a regular member of the Jacob's Pillow faculty for eight summers. The Pillow has set out to make these connections more widely known, and there have been two initiatives this summer to spread the word. An exhibition in the lobby of the Doris Duke Theatre continues through the end of the season, while a PillowTalk presentation took place in July and was recorded for the Pillow Archives.

Born in Germany, Joseph H. Pilates (1880-1967) toured as a circus performer and trained Scotland Yard detectives in self-defense before being placed in a British internment camp during World War I. While detained, he taught wrestling and self-defense at the internment camp and began devising his trademark exercises. Returning to Germany, Pilates crossed paths with the influential teacher and theorist Rudolf von Laban, and some of his exercises became integrated into German modern dance training. After Pilates emigrated to the U.S. in 1926 and opened a studio on New York's Eighth Avenue, he catered mostly to wrestlers at the old Madison Square Garden.

Ruth St. Denis was one of the first American dancers to venture into the Pilates studio in the 1930s, and she recommended this "fine body builder" to her husband, Pillow founder Ted Shawn. Shawn proclaimed Pilates "a genius" and brought him to the Pillow to teach from 1941 to 1951. The Pillow became such an important outpost for Pilates that he purchased a cottage on nearby Route 20 and remained a familiar presence here until his death. The Becket property, incidentally, is now owned by Sean Gallagher, who teaches the Pilates Jumpstart classes at the Pillow each Monday throughout the season. And it was Sean who has made available some of the rare films shown at the PillowTalk and incorporated into the exhibition. These films include an extraordinary workout session at the New York Pilates studio featuring Ted Shawn and Barton Mumaw in 1941, overseen by Pilates himself. Two other films shot at the Pillow show Pilates teaching class in the Tea Garden and at least one PillowTalk guest (Ginny Guernsey Weber, class of 1950) was able to recognize herself in this rare footage.

On one memorable occasion during his Pillow tenure, Pilates took part in a performance in the Ted Shawn Theatre, demonstrating his "Contrology" System of Physical Fitness in a remarkably diverse program that also featured works by Shawn and the Ballet Russe ballerina Nathalie Krassovska. The printed program from this event is on display in the current Pillow exhibition along with many other items that have never before been shown publicly. These artifacts help put a personal face on the man who first devised a regiment practiced by an estimated 10 million Americans today, and countless others throughout the world.

Don't forget to stop by the Doris Duke Theatre lobby before August 29 to experience the Pillow's exclusive Pilates at the Pillow exhibit.

Next PillowPages article: Welcome New Members

photos above: Joseph Pilates; John Lindquist ©Harvard Theatre Collection.
Joseph Pilates teaching in the Tea Garden at Jacob's Pillow; photo Eric Sanford, 1942

PillowPages August 2010:
Pilates at the Pillow

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