The Jacob’s Pillow Story

Jacob’s Pillow began in 1790 as a hard-scrabble mountaintop farm at the top of a twisting, climbing stagecoach road between Boston and Albany. Local folk viewing the zig-zagging road from the bottom of the hill thought it resembled the rungs of a ladder, so these biblically minded New Englanders dubbed it “Jacob’s Ladder”. Boulders dotted the farm pastures, among them a curiously-shaped one located behind the farmhouse. Given the rock “pillow” and the farm’s proximity to “Jacob’s Ladder”, the Carter Family, who settled the property, furthered local allusions to the Book of Genesis (which tells of Jacob laying his head upon a rock and dreaming of a ladder to heaven) by giving their farm the name “Jacob’s Pillow”. The Pillow has long been a site of pioneering spirit, even before its establishment as a dance organization; in the mid-1800’s the farm was known as a stop on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada.

In 1931, modern dance pioneer, Ted Shawn, bought the farm as a retreat. At that time, Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, were America’s leading couple in dance. Their Denishawn Company had popularized a revolutionary dance form rooted in theatrical and ethnic traditions rather than those of European ballet. Their trailblazing work and cross-country tours paved the way for the next generation of legendary modern dance pioneers such as  Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey, who were all Denishawn members. But Shawn and St. Denis were soon separated, personally and professionally, and in the fall of 1931, Shawn conducted the last rehearsals of the Denishawn era at Jacob’s Pillow.

Shawn had long harbored a dream of legitimizing dance in America as an honorable career for men. In 1933, he recruited eight men, including Denishawn dancer Barton Mumaw and several physical education students from Springfield College–then a men’s school–for his new company. The tall and burly Shawn and his athletic dancers were intent on challenging the “sissy” image of men in dance; they forged a new, boldly muscular style in dances celebrating Pawnee braves, toiling Black sharecroppers, and Union machinists. In their “off-time”, they built many of the structures still used today at Jacob’s Pillow.

1933-1942: Festival Roots

In July 1933, Shawn and his Men Dancers started using the deck in front of the Bakalar Studio to give public “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” to promote their work–and to pay the grocer! The first audience of 45 curiosity-seekers expanded weekly so that by summer’s end, people were turned away: roots for what was to evolve into the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival were established.

From 1933 to 1940, a period Shawn termed “seven magic years”, Shawn and his Men Dancers toured throughout the United States and Canada, Cuba and England, performing more than 1,250 times in 750 cities. All the while, they continued the summer “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” at the Pillow. With the Selective Service Act of 1939, Shawn felt his personal and professional crusade had been a success–the public, press, and educators were accepting the dance as an honorable profession for men. In May of 1940, The Men Dancers disbanded and joined the armed forces.

Deep in debt, Shawn proposed selling Jacob’s Pillow to Mary Washington Ball, a dance teacher who leased the property with the option to buy, and who in 1940 produced the Berkshire Hills Dance Festival on site. Shawn credited Miss Ball for beginning the diverse programming that was forever after the Pillow’s hallmark, but the summer was a financial disaster. Shawn leased the Pillow again in 1941, this time to British ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin.

Their International Dance Festival was so successful that local supporters formed the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Committee, raising $50,000 to buy the property and build a theatre (performances had been held in the barn studio). Shawn was made director in 1942. Despite wartime hardships, such as gasoline and tire rationing, audiences climbed the hill on foot and horseback to attend a wide array of programs: ballet, modern dance, mime, ballroom, folk, and classical dance of many cultures.

1942-1979: America’s First Dance Theatre

On July 9, 1942, the Ted Shawn Theatre, the first theatre in the United States designed specifically for dance, opened its doors. Architect Joseph Franz, who also built The Music Shed at Tanglewood, had agreed with Shawn that the theatre exterior must harmonize with the existing farmhouse and barns. Franz also handcut the weathervane atop the theatre, which depicts Barton Mumaw, Shawn’s leading dancer. Within the theatre, and flanking the proscenium, are life-size paintings of Shawn in his Hopi Indian Eagle Dance, and Ruth St. Denis as Kwannon–the Japanese Goddess of Mercy. Both were painted during the Denishawn era by Albert Herter (whose son won greater fame as Governor of Massachusetts and later as Secretary of State under Eisenhower).

Aside from a one-year sabbatical for an Australian tour in 1947, Shawn remained at the helm of the Pillow until his death in 1972 at the age of 81. For a time the future of Jacob’s Pillow seemed uncertain. Shawn’s designated successor, John Christian, was unable to serve more than one year (1972) due to illness. Next was dance critic Walter Terry (1973), but a huge deficit sent the Pillow’s board of directors searching again, and in the interim Charles Reinhart took on the Pillow in addition to the American Dance Festival (1974). A measure of stability came with the appointment of Norman Walker (1975-79), who revamped and upgraded the Pillow’s educational and presentational standards.

1980-1997: A New Lease on Institutional Life

Liz Thompson (1980-90) initiated an artistic resurgence by welcoming new artists and audiences. Her innovations, such as the popular “Inside/Out” presentations and open access to the grounds and studios, are today an integral part of the Pillow’s personality, and Thompson was also the catalyst for the construction of the Studio/Theatre, now known as the Doris Duke Theatre. Samuel A. Miller, who had worked in partnership with Thompson since 1986, followed in her footsteps (1990-94) with the sorely needed renovation and enlargement of the Ted Shawn Theatre and the installation of Blake’s Barn.

From 1995 through 1997, Sali Ann Kriegsman led the Pillow through a difficult period, eliminating a potentially disastrous $4.8 million debt and then orchestrating a range of new projects to celebrate the 65th anniversary season. After Kriegsman’s tenure ended successfully in 1997, the Board launched an extensive nationwide search and selected Ella Baff to guide Jacob’s Pillow into the 21st century.

1998-2015: Recognition and Growth

Ella Baff began her extraordinary 17-year tenure in 1998, eventually becoming the longest-serving director since Shawn himself. She engineered an unprecedented period of institutional growth and hard-won stability, building the organization’s first endowment and winning legions of new dance fans, both onsite and online.

The Pillow’s national status was underlined in 2000 with two noteworthy distinctions: it was included on the Dance Heritage Coalition’s list of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2003, the federal government named Jacob’s Pillow a National Historic Landmark for its importance in America’s culture and history, thus distinguishing the Pillow as the country’s first and only Landmark dance institution. In 2007, the Pillow was formally dedicated as a site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, which celebrates people and places that hold pivotal roles in key national and international events of African American heritage. In 2011, President Barack Obama honored the Pillow with the National Medal of Arts, and the 80th Anniversary Festival was celebrated in 2012 with an extensive retrospective exhibition in Blake’s Barn.

2016 – : The Dream Continues

In January 2016, the Jacob’s Pillow Board unanimously selected Pamela Tatge as the next leader to carry on the ideals originally envisioned by Ted Shawn and expanded upon by his successors: to create, present, and preserve an unparalleled variety of dance forms; to educate young artists; and to engage audiences deeply and meaningfully in the great art form of dance.

The friendly, down-home traditions at Jacob’s Pillow, such as the ringing bell announcing that the Ted Shawn Theatre is open for seating and pre-curtain speeches, are carried over from Shawn’s day. Through careful and considered expansions and renovations of Jacob’s Pillow programs and campus, this historic site in American dance retains the rustic ambiance of “the farm”, as Shawn called it, while continuing to open new doors for dancers and audiences from around the world.

Ready to learn more?

An illustrated history, A Certain Place: The Jacob's Pillow Story, authored by Norton Owen, the Pillow's Director of Preservation, is available for purchase.

Buy Now