Dance world on fire, at Jacob’s Pillow

Architecture & Design · Dance
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Heart-rending sight, courtesy BerkshireEdge.com

The dance world responded with shock and sorrow on Tuesday to the news that an early-morning fire had completely destroyed the Doris Duke Theater at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. 

Located on a bucolic 220-acre campus in the Berkshire area of Massachusetts, the internationally-known Festival had added the more intimate Duke – a flexible space down a bucolic path away from  the busier central area – in 1990 to supplement the programming offered in its venerable Ted Shawn Theater, which dates back to the 1930s.

The festival used the 230-seat theater to present weekly programs by smaller, more adventurous, often international companies during its summer seasons. The Duke was also often made available  used by companies during spring and autumn creative residencies the Pillow offered to support and nurture new projects. 

After remaining empty of artistic activity since March due to the restrictions of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jacob’s Pillow had been able to organize several carefully planned and monitored Covid-compliant Pillow Lab residencies in recent weeks. The companies of Brian Brooks, Kyle Abraham and Emily Johnson had each spent ten days living and working on the campus. No company was in residence at the time of the fire; Johnson and her dancers had been there through Monday.

The fire began shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday. Thirty firefighter from six local fire departments responded. No one was injured by the blaze, but the theater was completely destroyed; only a sign bearing its name remained. No cause has yet been identified.                        

Jodi Melnick, David Neumann August 2011

Pamela Tatge, Jacob’s Pillow Artistic & Executive Director, said in a statement on Tuesday:  “While we have lost some precious, irreplaceable items, those experiences and memories will last forever. We are heartbroken and we are relieved that no one was hurt. On behalf of everyone at the Pillow, we are grateful for the firefighters and officials who have responded so quickly to this devastating emergency on our grounds. We are grateful for the outpouring of support from around the world we have already received. We will rebuild.”

Jessica Lang Dance performing before wooden barn door of Doris Duke Theatre

When longtime freelance choreographer Jessica Lang decided to form her own company in 2012, it was at at the Doris Duke Theater that Jessica Lang Dance was launched. The troupe became a Pillow mainstay during the following years, and worked in that space when the Pillow offered a creative residency for the development of her full-evening work The Wanderer.  The news of the theater’s destruction hit her hard.

“When I had the opportunity to create in the Duke, when it was in its bare state without all of its theatrical elements that make it a theater, I remember the rich warmth of the wood walls and how comforting the space felt. It felt magical because the walls contained so much energy from all the creators and companies who had been there before,” Lang wrote in an e-mail today. “We loved performing for our audiences in that space year after year and even though we eventually transitioned into the Ted Shawn, the memories of the Duke still resonate strongly in our hearts. The whole of Jacob’s Pillow is magical and losing any part of it feels tragic and of course we pivot towards hope knowing the community will rebuild. But for now there is some heartache for what it has been to all of us.”

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages and contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Australia and other publications.

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