Modern dance builds on strong legacy in Berkshires

The Berkshires provides a natural backdrop for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, held in Becket, Mass., every year since the 1930s. --Photo courtesy of Christian Duggan
The Berkshires provides a natural backdrop for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, held in Becket, Mass., every year since the 1930s. –Photo courtesy of Christian Duggan

We can all attest to the Berkshires’ lush natural beauty. And most of us also know that the region abounds with cultural opportunities, with destinations like MASS MoCA and events such as the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Less known, however, is the area’s rich history in modern dance. From Bennington, Vt., to Becket, Mass., the Berkshires and the surrounding area are one of the birthplaces of modern dance – a legacy that the College and its neighboring institutions carry on today.

Bennington School of Dance, founded in 1934 on the campus of Bennington College, was the first school for modern dance in the U.S., according to the Dance Heritage Coalition. Home to around 1000 students from across the nation and overseas, the school encouraged experimentation and rebellion against the increasingly rigid standards of dance. Most of its students were dance teachers at schools whose dance programs were relegated to the physical education departments – and many of those students returned to their institutions to expand their dance programs after taking courses at the School. Its core faculty included some of America’s most influential choreographers, such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Hanya Holm and Charles Weidman.

The Bennington School of Dance produced equally renowned dancers. Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke, the founder of the College’s own dance program, earned her undergraduate degree from Bennington School of Dance. She established the dance department at the College (dance had previously been part of the P.E. program) in the 1970s when the College first became co-educational. Beinecke also ran her own school of dance in Williamstown and brought several prominent dance companies to the area. The College’s second and current director of the dance department, Senior Lecturer in Dance Sandra Burton, is also a fellow graduate.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance, another major center for modern dance located in Becket, Mass., “had local, regional and national impact on the field of dance and continues to have that impact,” Burton said. According to its website, Jacob’s Pillow was a farm in the late 1700s and a stop on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. Like Bennington School of Dance, it began as a center of dance in the 1930s, when prominent choreographer Ted Shawn bought the property. With his all-male company, Shawn worked to fight stereotypes surrounding male participation in dance and held public lectures and performances at Jacob’s Pillow during the summer. In the 1940s, after brief changes in ownership, Shawn established both the Jacob’s Pillow Summer Festival and the Ted Shawn Theatre, America’s first theater created exclusively for dance.

Today Jacob’s Pillow, now led by Ella Baff, continues its summer festival, as well as year-long classes, performances and exhibits. It is recognized by the Dance Heritage Coalition as one of “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures,” and it is a National Historic Landmark with archives that dance students at the College use in their research. Burton adds that the College is a “supporter and collaborator” of Jacob’s Pillow. Burton has been on Jacob’s Pillow’s board of directors, performed there in a company and had her own work performed as well.

Williamstown, like its fellow cultural meccas in the Berkshires, has a busy fall season of dance opportunities this year. The fall season will continue the historical trend of thriving dance programs in the Berkshires.

Starting in September, Will Rawls ’00 will be in residence at the College to work with students both in the dance and art departments in preparation for his upcoming performance, The Planet Eaters, an eclectic homage to Balkan folklore. He will be showing his work in progress at the end of his residency before it premieres in New York City this November. “It’s a pleasure to welcome back an alum who is making his mark in the field of dance and performance,” Burton said.

In October the College will present Word Becomes Flesh, a collaboration between the dance department, the Davis Center and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA). The College has been collaborating with MCLA’s dance department for a couple of years now, according to Burton, and this piece will be performed at both campuses.

MASS MoCA will also be hosting two exciting dance events in October. “The dance department maintains a wonderful relationship with MASS MoCA,” Burton said. Dance students will have the opportunity to see the David Dorfman Dance company and the Shin Wei Dance Arts company; both performances are in partnership with Jacob’s Pillow.