Helen Samuels 2018-01-19 14:20:12
When Jacob’s Pillow, one of America’s premier dance festivals and schools, requested grant funds in 1982 to create an archives to house their historic records, the granting agency suggested that the Pillow work with a consultant to determine how to proceed. I was chosen to be the consultant, as the granting agency knew of my background and interest in dance. At the time, I was the archivist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During my visit to the Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, I worked with Norton Owen, who had been assembling and caring for the collection since the late 1970s, to review the records. It was clear that there was valuable and fascinating material. Modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought the Jacob’s Pillow farm in 1931. Shawn had long harbored a dream of legitimizing dance in America as an honorable career for men, and in 1933, he recruited eight men for a new dance company. In July 1933, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers started offering “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” in their barn studio (now known as the Bakalar Studio) to promote their work, establishing roots for what was to evolve into Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. By 1982, the accumulated collection of materials was stored in unheated shacks. I recommended that the records be given to a repository such as the dance collection at Lincoln Center in New York City. I even returned for a follow-up visit in 1989, and, while reiterating that the records should reside in New York, I did agree that some records should be retained at the Pillow for administrative purposes. Although that seemed to be the logical recommendation, what I did not yet appreciate was the vision, energy, and determination that Norton had, not just to create an archives, but to ensure that the collection would serve as a significant asset for all that the Pillow does. I am grateful that Norton has forgiven my misjudgment and did not take my advice! Recently, I talked with Norton about how he got involved in the Pillow’s history and established and grew its archives. HS: How did you find your way to Jacob’s Pillow? NO: The biggest step between Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, and Becket was Adelphi University. I chose it so that I could continue my work in theater, dance, and music within commuting distance of New York City. Adelphi’s theater and dance programs were part of a newly constituted Performing Arts Department, headed by Norman Walker. Since he was also the director of Jacob’s Pillow, there was a clear path for Adelphi students to go to the Pillow to study in the summer, and I was offered a full scholarship when I graduated from Adelphi in 1976. HS: When did you become interested in the Pillow’s history? NO: Though perhaps always more attuned to the Pillow’s past than some of my fellow students, my interest was truly kindled by Jess Meeker, the accompanist for my ballet classes. Jess had been at the Pillow since 1933 when Ted Shawn hired him as his composer and accompanist, and I often engaged Jess in conversations after class. I remember being enraptured by the “presence of the past” at Jacob’s Pillow, exemplified by Jess’s keen sense of humor and knack for storytelling. I hungered for more information, though there was little available at that time. Norman gave a short presentation on the Pillow’s history to the student body and another night showed Ted Shawn films, but not much else was accessible. Nevertheless, a door was opened and I walked through it. HS: How did you become committed to gathering and preserving that history? NO: A benefit performance of a Denishawn program kicked off my second season at the Pillow in 1977. I remember thinking that some effort should be made to connect this event with the Pillow’s past. Knowing that there were trunks of Denishawn costumes stashed backstage in the theater, I borrowed a couple of mannequins from a local department store to display them. It was a painfully naive project for me to undertake and I shudder to think how amateurish it must have looked, but I think it says something about my instincts to bring the Pillow’s history into the open. HS: Who has supported your archival efforts? NO: Each Pillow director played a role in some way. Norman Walker kept me on as his assistant, typing contracts and correspondence and assembling scrapbooks of performance photos to give to the New York Public Library. During this time the Pillow commissioned an art poster from a graphic designer who envisioned filling the background with names of famous dancers from the Pillow’s history. This was a project I attacked with gusto and I pored through old programs to find and alphabetize names. I segued into the role of assistant publicity director in 1978, becoming the principal connection between dance writers and the Pillow. I was called upon to furnish all kinds of information for which no systems really existed. “When was the last time that Paul Taylor performed at the Pillow?” “Are there any photos of Twyla Tharp?” “What former Pillow students have gone on to prominent careers?” I had only my own ingenuity and boxes of records to figure out the answers. Jess Meeker, of course, continued to be an inspiration. If not for his presence, I doubt that I would have had the chutzpah to write to the Men Dancers and invite them back for the reunion which would lead to the documentary The Men Who Danced. And it was my desire to honor Jess’s role at the Pillow that led to the succession of NEA projects in the 1980s to add soundtracks to the silent films of Shawn’s Men Dancers films—perhaps the most historically important work I had done up to that point. There were other champions—board members like Kitty Cunningham and Joe Marks who revered the Pillow’s history and applauded my interest in it. Shawn’s own pioneering spirit in recording his legacy was always a beacon. It was Sam Miller who first gave me the position of director of preservation. He also enabled the building of Blake’s Barn, which became a home for the archives. But it was really the work itself that continued to be the biggest teacher. The reward was to see how the work I was doing would go out into the world in various ways. When I tracked down a photo or scrap of information and it ended up in print—that was an enormous incentive and motivational force. Many of my efforts have served institutional goals. My work in archives made it possible for the Pillow to be named to the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark. This in turn helped make the case for us to be awarded the National Medal of Arts. Now I often observe how new board members and directors see the archives as an essential and organic part of the Pillow’s identity. This is, of course, enormously gratifying, though I sometimes have a hard time explaining that the archives haven’t always been such a presence. Far from it, as I well remember when they didn’t exist! HS: What archives programs informed your work? NO: The Dance Collection at the New York Public Library remains a role model. And I always keep my eyes open when visiting any sort of library, historical society, or museum, looking for new ideas and observing, adapting, and copying. My work with the Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC) has been both educational and inspirational. When we first got involved with them in the early 1990s, I felt incredibly presumptuous about sitting at the same table with representatives of the Library of Congress, Harvard Theatre Collection, and the New York Public Library. But I grew to recognize that we had our own strengths that were distinct from those of larger institutions. They had more staff and vastly larger collections, but the way in which we interacted with the “everyday visitor” was unique. DHC has also allowed me to see areas that need improvement. I owe a great deal to my colleagues within DHC, particularly for initiatives such as the pioneering work in defining fair use for dance materials, which enabled the development of our online resource, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. HS: You have used the archives not just as a resource for scholars, but on a daily basis to promote and provide historical contexts for all that the Pillow does. How do you envision the full scope of the program? NO: I try and stay closely attuned to what resonates with our audiences. Where I operate from my little corner in the reading room, I can both see and be seen. Even when I seem to be paying no attention, I may be eavesdropping or observing what catches the eye of any visitor. And I’m fiercely committed to the integration of the various areas that I oversee. The archives would exist as an isolated island if not for the Blake’s Barn exhibitions in the adjacent gallery and the PillowTalks that happen under our roof. My favorite time of day is the busy hour just before performances when the place buzzes with activity. My work in archives made it possible for the Pillow to be named to the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic Landmark. This in turn helped make the case for us to be awarded the National Medal of Arts.
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