A place of solitude and dreams: Jacob’s Pillow celebrated in an inspiring new documentary

Never Stand Still, a film about a dance festival, launched the Spring Dance festival in Sydney this week.

It’s a deeply engaging documentary tracing the past and present of the 80 year old Jacob’s Pillow festival held every summer on land that was once a farm in Becket, Massachusetts.

The name has its origins in the history of the farm – the original owners called a large boulder on their property ‘Jacob’s Pillow’. They imagined the boulder as the rock on which Jacob laid his head and dreamed of a ladder to heaven.

Dreams, peace, inspiration – they’re all part of the fabric of the festival that reflects the spirit of the land, a place that has offered “creative, protective solitude” for thousands of dancers and choreographers over the decades.

Never Stand Still, directed by Ron Honsa, is one of the most impressive dance films I’ve seen, showcasing so many dance personalities of the 20th and 21st century, among them Merce Cunningham (in his last film interview before his death), and Mark Morris, who not only talks of his work and the festival’s importance but is also seen taking a bow in his trademark shorts and sandals. He must be the least pretentious choreographer in the dance world today.

Narrated by Bill T Jones, the film gives us glimpses of Margaret Craske (Peggy van Praagh’s mentor), Frederic Franklin, the Ballets Russes’ dancer who first came to the festival in 1941, Ruth St Dennis, (William Shawn’s wife, and the co-director of their company, Denishawn), Joseph Pilates, Marge Champion, Merce Cunningham, Suzanne Farrell, Nikolaj Hübbe, Bill Irwin, Judith Jamison, Gideon Obarzanek, Rasta Thomas and the charming Paul Taylor whose work, Obarzanek says, represents a major turning point in 20th century dance.

For me, the most fascinating elements were the fragments of archival film of José Limon, Martha Graham, Cunningham and Shawn’s male dancers whom he recruited in 1933 as a way of showing a new muscular style of dance. These men built some of the buildings still in use as theatres and studios at Jacob’s Pillow.

The archival film is interspersed with interviews and performances by recent artists at the festival, including Suzanne Farrell and her company, the Royal Danish Ballet and the charismatic solo dancer, Shantala Shivalingappa.

The screening at the Spring Dance festival at the Sydney Opera House was a once only event, but a DVD of the documentary, distributed by First Run Features, is available on Amazon.

Never Stand Still Trailer from DANCE:FILM on Vimeo.

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