Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Ted Shawn Theater
Route 20 (about eight miles east of Lee)
In 1915, modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and the Denishawn Dance Company in Los Angeles, whose most illustrious student was Martha Graham. In her autobiography, Graham wrote that Shawn was prone to auditioning men for Denishawn by requiring that they send nude photos of themselves. Shawn and St. Denis (who was 14 years older than Shawn) were legally husband and wife for 50 years, though each enjoyed outside affairs. In 1927, they unfortunately fell in love with the same man, Fred Beckman, whom they made their “personal representative.” Having the same taste in men caused an irreparable split in their marriage, and four years later, they began living separately and closed Denishawn.
Shawn (1891-1972) bought a colonial-era farm at this location in the Berkshires after his marriage collapsed. He called the site Jacob’s Pillow after a big, sloping rock near the main house. In 1933, he founded an all-male troupe called the “Men Dancers,” designed to showcase men’s contributions to the field of modern dance. Shawn and his young male dancers lived on the property in a rustic setting without heat or running water. (Shawn had a private shower and toilet, but the other dancers used an outhouse papered with covers from the New Yorker.) At lunch time, Shawn would read aloud to the dancers, who were all nude, on the terrace from books on art, physics, and history.
The Men Dancers gave their first performance at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1933. It was held in the barn/studio and attended by 50 people who paid 75 cents each. After that, the company held dance performances yearly, though they were then called “teas” and not a festival. Shawn’s company lasted until 1940, when he disbanded it and gave each member either a cash settlement or a parcel of land at Jacob’s Pillow. The rest of the land he sold the following year to a group who founded the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which continues today as one of the world’s pre-eminent performance festivals. In 1942, the festival converted the old barn into the Ted Shawn Theater, which retains the rustic charm of the early days of Shawn’s endeavor while being the first theater designed specifically for dance.