The National Museum of Dance shares a unique connection with Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival through Norton Owen, the Pillow’s extraordinary Director of Preservation. We are so excited to share our recent interview with Norton in which he discusses his long and wonderful career at Jacob’s Pillow and some of his favorite memories from the Pillow and the National Museum of Dance.
You’ve been associated with Jacob’s Pillow for more than forty years! How did you first arrive at the Pillow and how has your role evolved over these past four decades? Are you still discovering details of the rich history of the Pillow at this point?
I originally came here as a dance student in 1976, just after graduating from college, and my role has truly evolved over the years. I was on scholarship that first summer, so I danced and performed, and I worked on the backstage crew to fulfill my scholarship duties. I began working as an administrative assistant for the Pillow director when I moved to New York City after that first summer, and in 1977 I was given a choice between returning as a dance student or taking a job in the box office that paid $50 per week. I don’t recall it being a momentous decision to shift my focus from dancing to administration—just a practical one, as I had to earn a living at that point.
Even at that early stage in my career when I played a supporting role in the box office, there was something about the Pillow history that spoke to me and made me want to share it with others. In conjunction with a performance of Denishawn dances that second summer, I remember creating a “display” of Denishawn costumes that had been packed into trunks for many years. I had no idea what I was doing, but I felt compelled to make a visible connection between what we were presenting onstage and the Pillow’s own beginnings under our founder, Ted Shawn.
Through a succession of other positions at the Pillow (Public Relations Assistant, House Manager, Associate Manager, Director of Educational Programs), I continued my interest in Pillow history and found ways to explore that interest in various ways. For instance, I instigated inventories of the Pillow Archives and Costume Collection in the early 1980s and organized a 50th anniversary reunion of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers in 1982. The position of Director of Preservation was created for me as a part-time role in 1990 and that’s the job I still hold (now full-time) to this day.
The list of discoveries I have made over the years is limitless and I’m always learning more. One very proud moment this year was the publication of the first scholarly biography of Ted Shawn, by Paul Scolieri (published by Oxford University Press). I helped provide the impetus for this book by offering a number of research fellowships to Paul and have assisted him at many crucial stages along the way.
Visiting Jacob’s Pillow during the summer season, for me, is like entering a dance utopia – performances, exhibitions, educational programs, residencies, classes, workshops, artistic creation. How do you articulate the magic that is Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival?
Although it’s difficult to pinpoint the origins of something that is truly magical, I think there are three essential ingredients to consider. The ongoing dance activity at the Pillow is clearly key, as the performers, student dancers, and interns bring a palpable energy to our grounds. But what if that same activity were happening elsewhere? It might be every bit as worthwhile, but it wouldn’t create the same magic if the same performances and classes were being held in a high school auditorium or a college gymnasium.
So another ingredient is the place itself and all its evocative buildings and outdoor facilities. History seems to ooze from the ground here, and it’s immediately clear to almost any visitor that this is a well-established complex that is an attraction in itself. But would it feel as magical if it weren’t infused with the energy of all the seasonal dance activity? What if we operated only as “The Ted Shawn Historic Site” and welcomed visitors to a place that offered only exhibits and tours? (Ironically, that formerly unthinkable option will be largely how we’ll be operating this summer because of the coronavirus, though we expect this to be only a temporary arrangement.)
Third, of course, is the audience, as we depend upon an active and enthusiastic stream of visitors who engage in our programming and mirror back to us all of the energy and love that we have put into creating this oasis for dance. It’s a very delicate balance between these three elements—the dance, the place, and the audience—and each plays an essential role in making Jacob’s Pillow what it is.
Jacob’s Pillow has made dance in all its forms, from across the globe, tremendously accessible. Was this extraordinary vision part of Ted Shawn’s founding plan for the Pillow? What do you think has drawn the world’s foremost dance artists to the Pillow for nearly ninety years and counting?
One of Ted Shawn’s strongest beliefs was the universality of dance, and the primal role it plays in human existence. More than a hundred years ago, he wrote this statement as a founding principle of Denishawn: “The art of the dance is too big to be encompassed by any one system… Every way that anyone, of any race or nationality, living at any time in the world’s history, has moved rhythmically and expressively, is a vital and enduring part of the dance.” This same viewpoint became one of Shawn’s foundational ideas in establishing Jacob’s Pillow, and I believe his open and welcoming attitude towards dance and dancers of all kinds has continued to this day.
In addition to your work at Jacob’s Pillow you curated the most important and compelling exhibitions at the National Museum of Dance in the 1990s, honoring dance luminaries such as Ted Shawn, Merce Cunningham, Bronislava Nijinska, Paul Taylor, José Limón, and Anna Sokolow. Does one of these exhibitions stand out for you and would you share some highlights from its creation and installation?
I’m so grateful for my association with the National Museum of Dance, as I learned so much from each and every one of those exhibitions and from my colleagues there—designer Kevan Moss and directors Alison Moore, Joanne Allison, and Toni Smith. I would have to say that I still have a special fondness for the Paul Taylor exhibit because it enabled me to forge a strong personal friendship with Paul that lasted until the end of his life. When I still barely knew him and was tremendously awe-struck, I’ll never forget sending him a draft of the biographical overview that I had written to open the exhibit, waiting with great trepidation to hear his response. What he sent me back in return was a satirical riff on what I had written, using some of my prose but interspersing his own hilarious commentary in a mock-serious tone. Of course, it was his way of expressing approval for what I had written, and I have never felt so flattered or honored that he took the time to do that. Unforgettable!
What would you describe as your most memorable moment or moments at Jacob’s Pillow?
Having the opportunity to personally show some of our Denishawn photographs and costumes to Martha Graham in 1984 when she first brought her company here was pretty special! One of the things I love is the steady stream of unexpected visitors—sometimes people I knew long ago, but often total strangers who have a special story they want to share or a favorite dancer that they want to reconnect with through our Archives. One of the single most gratifying events was when we opened the newly-expanded Reading Room in Blake’s Barn five years ago, and I found out at the ribbon-cutting that the room was named for me. That was one of the best-kept secrets ever.
The summer season at Jacob’s Pillow will look very different this year, yet no less robust. What are you working on now and what lies ahead for the Pillow?
What lies ahead for the performing arts in general is a huge question these days, but we have nearly 90 years of struggles and triumphs that have strengthened our core for whatever may be coming. Long before the current pandemic, we started laying the groundwork for another expansion of Blake’s Barn, adding a new Special Collections Room adjacent to the Reading Room and also providing additional climate-controlled storage downstairs. We’ll break ground in the fall and open in Summer 2021, so our focus is ever-onward. Personally, I draw a lot of strength from Ted Shawn’s dogged perseverance in keeping this place going during the depths of the Depression and throughout the Second World War. He somehow found the means to keep going, no matter how broke he was or what obstacles stood in his way. How can we do any less than that now?
To learn more about Jacob’s Pillow please visit their website.