By Debra Cash
With great sight lines from every one of its 216 seats, the Doris Duke Theatre space made for intimate, often enthralling encounters with movement.
When the Doris Duke Theatre on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow burned to the ground this morning, it represented much more than the loss of a busy black box venue for summer performances in the Berkshire hills.
The Pillow is a cherished place. On the National Register of Historic Places, it was the first campus in the United States created with dance in mind and for over 80 years has been a place of study, performance, and celebration. Many of the greatest Western dance artists of the 20th and early 21st centuries have graced its stages. While founder Ted Shawn’s DIY orientalism has come under scholarly scrutiny in a time of changing perspectives, the Pillow has also introduced important culturally specific dance forms to the public in a context of deep appreciation and inquiry.
The Doris Duke Theatre, named for the dance-loving tobacco heiress and the foundation that continues to support performing arts in a sustained and consequential way, was built on the Jacob’s Pillow grounds in 1990 under the leadership of then-Pillow director Liz Thompson. More flexible than the larger, proscenium Ted Shawn Theatre, it created a way to diversify indoor programming. With great sight lines from every one of its 216 seats, the Duke space made for intimate, often enthralling encounters with movement.
Over the years I have been privileged to give preshow talks from the Duke’s wraparound porch. As I spoke from behind the microphone, I could see people eating at picnic tables and strolling down the path past tastefully placed boulders, sweeps of wildflowers, and a cattail-edged fire pond dredged on the property expressly in anticipation of this sort of emergency. Thank God it was there.
In the teeth of the pandemic, the Pillow was one of the first Massachusetts cultural anchors to announce the cancellation of last summer’s season, and whether the 2021 season – what would be the Pillow’s 89th — will happen has not been determined. After some summer pop-up performances and the presentation of a number of virtual classes and performances from its archives, the Pillow had just reopened its off-season Covid-19-compliant residency for working choreographers in the beautiful new Perles Family Studio building across a grassy quad from the Duke. By all reports, that building was not damaged this morning and everyone is safe.
No one who loves the Pillow can help but be heartbroken. Dancers consistently describe their sense of performing at the Pillow as standing in the shadows of previous artistic generations and for some, the first time of experiencing themselves as a part of that history. In an art form too often under-resourced and always ephemeral, this is an irreplaceable gift.
It is a gift Jacob’s Pillow as an institution will continue to offer.
Debra Cash, Executive Director of Boston Dance Alliance, is a founding Arts Fuse contributor and has served as a Scholar in Residence at Jacob’s Pillow.