These Vintage 1941 Photos Show Rustic Life at Jacob's Pillow, and the Star Dancers Who Saved It
This year, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Massachusetts, is celebrating its 85th season. Over the years, some of the world’s greatest dancers of the 20th and 21st century have performed here. But without the help of two of Britain’s biggest ballet stars during World War II, the festival might not have survived at all.
Founded by modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn, the “Pillow,” as it’s come to be known, had been home to his company of Men Dancers since the early 1930s. By 1940, due in part to the outbreak of World War II, his company had disbanded, leaving Shawn deeply in debt and eager to realize his assets.
In 1941, British ballet stars Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin leased the property, with the help of benefactor Reginald Wright. There they established The International Dance Festival, a school and summer residency for Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre). Many of the participating dancers, including Markova, had just left the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo for Ballet Theatre, and the residency was a way of keeping them together. The dancers were not paid, so many survived on $10 a week in unemployment benefits, contributing $1.00 a day towards food and lodging.
That summer the Pillow saw some of the era’s greatest ballet stars, as well as choreographers like Agnes de Mille, Bronislava Nijinska and Antony Tudor. The event provided much needed publicity for the Pillow and following year the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, under Shawn’s direction, began to flourish.
Here are some photographic gems from the Jacob’s Pillow Archives surrounding the summer of 1941.
Markova (center) with Irina Baranova and Nora Kaye. Photo by Hans Knopf, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives.
Alicia Markova (b.1910 – d.2004)
Markova was responsible for organizing all the meals at the Pillow on the tight budget of $10 a week. “The feeding of the five thousand – nearly produced nervous collapse,” Markova recalled in her memoir. Meals were eaten in the stone dining room, which is still where artists, students, staff and interns eat today.
There was no running water at the Pillow in the early 1940s – I love the thought of these glamorous ballerinas effectively “camping out” in the woods of Massachusetts. According to Markova’s biographer Tina Sutton, before coming to the Pillow Markova consulted a New York camping shop and bought a portable zip-up rubber bath, which she used in her room!
This wonderful clip shows Markova performing the Sugar Plum Fairy Variation on the outside stage in 1941.
Dolin (center) with Irina Baranova and Alicia Markova seated on the steps of the original farmhouse. Photo by Hans Knopf, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives.
Anton Dolin (b.1904 – d. 1983)
Dolin ran the school that summer and classes were held outside on the Tea Garden stage. Dolin later described Jacob’s Pillow as “a summer of heart-aches, bills, work, lessons, rehearsals and headaches.”
Despite wartime and gas rationing, people flocked to the festival for the weekend performances, much to Dolin’s delight.
Baranova posed in the Tea Garden. Photo by Hans Knopf, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives.
Irina Baronova (b.1919 – d. 2008)
One of George Balanchine’s famed “baby ballerinas,” Irina Baronova also joined the residency. She lodged at local woman, Ruth Derby’s, farmhouse – a short walk from the Pillow. This house is now owned by the festival and continues to house artists today.
Baronova recalled that “Mother Derby was quite a character – she reminded me of those cozy-looking grannies in children’s books. She fed as well and we abided by her strict rules.”
Billy Skipper (right) and Frederic Franklin hand-washing their clothes under the water pump.. Photo by Hans Knopf, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival Archives.
Frederic Franklin (b. 1914 – d. 2013)
Freddie Franklin also came to visit his many friends at the Pillow that summer. This wonderful picture shows him and dancer Billy Skipper washing out their tights under the pump in the service yard!
Franklin would return to the Pillow as a performer with his long-term dance partner Alexandra Danilova in 1946, 1948 and 1952.
This wonderful clip is from their 1948 appearance. At a talk in 2006, Franklin explained that he and Danilova are not wearing the actual costumes from Gaîté Parisienne, as the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo wouldn’t allow them to borrow them.
The archives at Jacob’s Pillow have extensive records surrounding all performances at the Pillow past and present. The catalogue can viewed here. You can also see video clips from the collection here.