Choreographing a Game Plan
There are 10 weeks to the season at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival each summer, and two main theaters hosting productions. That means 20 dance groups get to appear during those extended weekends between late June and the end of August.
But that’s a tiny fraction of the number that would like to book a trip to the picturesque campus in the Berkshire County hamlet of Becket, noted Pamela Tatge, who said that to be chosen for one of those 20 spots represents what she called a serious “vote of confidence” for the troupe in question.
“This is a very powerful brand — to get to Jacob’s Pillow is a goal that choreographers across the country and around the world share,” said Tatge, who recently took over as director of ‘the Pillow,’ as it’s known, succeeding Ella Baff. “It is a gold standard.”
Choosing which groups get this vote of confidence is a team effort, but something at or near the top of a lengthy list of her job responsibilities, said Tatge, who arrived in April.
Others include everything from fund-raising to marketing; from preservation (this is a National Historic Landmark) to overseeing acclaimed education and residency programs; from so-called audience engagement (welcoming attendees to those aforementioned performances, for example) to working with the institution’s large board of directors to create a vision and set a tone, artistically and otherwise, for the Pillow moving forward.
And recently, there have been some additions to that list, or at least matters that have taken on a new sense of urgency.
These include efforts to work in greater collaboration with other Berkshire-area attractions and institutions to make the region an even greater destination, and work to develop new and different ways to diversify the audiences at those performances and, especially, engage more young people in dance, the Pillow, and the arts in general.
Tatge, who comes to the Becket campus from a lengthy stint as director of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University, embraces every line on that job description and the broad, overarching challenge of continuing a proud, 84-year-old tradition.
“I knew how precious this institution was,” she said while explaining this career move, “and what an incredible opportunity it would be to be invited to lead it.”
For this issue and its special Summer Happenings section, BusinessWest talked at length with Tatge about the Pillow, her vision for its future, and how she intends to carefully choreograph a game plan for this venerable institution for the decades to come.
The Next Steps
Tatge said she couldn’t recall how many times she had taken in performances at Jacob’s Pillow over the years, but made it clear she didn’t need directions to the Becket campus, located just off Route 20.
Created by Ted Shawn, one of the first notable male pioneers of American modern dance, in 1933, the Pillow has been not only a place to take in fine dance, she explained, but also a scholarly retreat, both literally and figuratively, in many respects, providing a window into the past, present, and, in some ways, the future of contemporary dance.
“Jacob’s Pillow has been in my consciousness ever since I was a dance presenter,” she said, adding that she considers her work with dance to be perhaps her signature accomplishment at Wesleyan. “It’s the place I looked to discover emerging artists, to see international work that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to see because I didn’t have the travel resources at my institution, and for its resources — the archives are so extensive and so important for dance curators like me to access.”
So when a headhunter called last fall inquiring about whether she would be interested in succeeding Baff, Tatge offered an enthusiastic ‘yes,’ thus setting the wheels in motion for what would become a much different kind of visit to the Becket campus.
Fast-forwarding to this past April, Tatge said that, upon arriving on campus, she set out to immediately fill the calendar with meetings involving a variety of stakeholders, from the staff to board members to the managers of other arts institutions in the Berkshires with which the Pillow collaborates.
She described them all as learning experiences that will be of great benefit as she goes about tackling all the responsibilities within that description.
She said her meetings with board members have been especially enlightening and eye-opening.
“They are palpably passionate about this dance form, and they are here all the time,” she explained, adding that she’s met with 21 of the 23 members. “I wanted to understand their connection, hopes, and dreams for the Pillow individually.”
Looking forward, she said she has a number of goals for the institution, and generally, they can be described as efforts to continue and strengthen traditions that have been in place for decades.
“I want to continue and deepen our investment in choreographers and the development of new work, using the campus at Jacob’s Pillow as a research site for artists,” she explained. “And think of the many ways we can leverage the assets we have at our magnificent site and our archives for the benefit of artists. I also want to continue our commitment to international work, making sure our audiences witness the world here, as they always have.”
Getting into greater detail, she said one of her goals is to continue work she described as cross-disciplinary.
Indeed, at Wesleyan, Tatge became known for work that brought different arts forms together in unique ways. In one, she brought a Japanese artist and a Wesleyan history professor together for a course on the history of the atomic bomb — the former through the work of artists in postwar Japan, and the latter handling the science and history.
Such work dovetails with initiatives already in place at Jacob’s Pillow, she said, listing, as just one example, a partnership with MASS MoCA in North Adams that brings dance and modern visual arts together.
“I’m fascinated by the intersection of art forms,” she explained. “And a lot of the work we will do at MASS MoCA will involve artists who are working at the crossroads of visual arts and dance, and I’m delighted to have that platform for that kind of work.”
Meanwhile, another priority will be work to broaden audiences — and the Pillow’s membership base — and draw more young people into the arts at all levels. This is not a challenge unique to the Pillow, she said, noting that arts institutions across the country face the same hurdle, nor is it a recent phenomenon.
Indeed, the Pillow has been engaged in a number of initiatives in this realm, everything from incorporating more live music into performances to taking its act (and acts) off site and into area communities.
As an example, she said the group scheduled to perform in mid-August, Brooklyn-based FLEXN, will conduct an advance visit to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield. It will include a dance-off (practitioners from across the region will be invited to participate), with members of the group taking part. The young dancers will be invited to take in one of the group’s performances in Becket.
“To engage new audiences, we need to leave our site and take dance into many different parts of our county,” Tatge explained, “as a way to expose audiences, on their turf, to what it is we do, and then invite them to come to our house after we’ve gone to their house.”
There are many other initiatives in this realm, she said, listing everything from visits to area schools to more intense use of social media to market the Pillow and its performances, to free admission to the so-called Inside/Out Stage, where groups beyond those chosen 20 perform each week.
As for that aforementioned work to decide which 20 groups get to come to Becket for a given season, Tatge said this is a challenging assignment as well, given the number of groups, or projects, wanting to get that vote of confidence she described, as well as the need to satisfy many different tastes for dance and its various genres, all while maintaining an international flavor.
She described the process of meeting that challenge with a single word — balance — and a commitment to creating it.
“I want to make sure that all of the appetites of our audience have to be taken care of,” she explained, adding that she is in the thick of creating the schedule for 2017 and is already thinking about 2018.
Elaborating, she said this assignment involves a mix of proactively seeking out choreographers and companies whose work represents “the intention and aesthetic I’m excited about for our audiences” as well as fielding entreaties from agents and groups about existing projects they would love to bring to Becket.
“What’s wonderful about the current Pillow program is how broad it is in terms of genre and geography, and I want to maintain that,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re a national center for dance, so we need to make sure that we’re being geographically represented when we’re considering U.S. artists, while continuing our commitment to international work.”
A look at the 2016 schedule, which includes groups from Stuttgart, Germany; Chicago; New York; Santa Fe; Seattle; and a host of other cities, reveals this geographic diversity, said Tatge, adding that this is certainly a tradition that will continue.
Beyond the Routine
When asked how she intended to make her mark, or put her stamp, on Jacob’s Pillow during her tenure, Tatge said one obvious answer would be the manner in which the schedule for those 10 weeks each summer is filled.
But from a larger-picture perspective, the answer lies in how, and how successfully, she addresses each of the many lines in her job description — from broadening the audience to creating those collaborations with other arts institutions, to securing a solid future for this eight-decade-old tradition.
When it comes to that assignment, Tatge has been given her own vote of confidence, and she intends to make the very most of that opportunity.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]