‘No one can really know what this place is like unless they come here,” says dancer Shantala Shivalingappa in “Never Stand Still,” director Ron Honsa’s 2011 documentary about Jacob’s Pillow, the beloved, world-renowned dance festival and school located in Becket. Nonetheless, in his feature filmmaking debut Honsa manages to capture some of the Pillow’s ineffable beauty while offering a delectable glimpse into the art that is created and performed there.
Both celebration and primer, “Never Stand Still” weaves archival film and photographs with footage from the 2006 and 2007 summer festivals, amply demonstrating the Pillow’s rich diversity on the stage and its dedication to training. Interviews with multigenerational performers and choreographers are augmented by Bill T. Jones’s narration illustrating the Pillow’s history.
The importance of this history cannot be overstated. In their brief time together, the work of modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis is legendary. After the couple separated, Shawn set out to educate the public about the male dancer; during touring breaks, his company would return to Shawn’s farmhouse in the Berkshires, sometimes conducting public demonstrations of the “Men Dancers.” Interest and audiences grew enough so that a larger venue was warranted: Thus the Ted Shawn Theater — the first theater designed specifically for dance in this country — opened in 1942.
The film touches on the long list of greats who have graced the Pillow’s stages, while the more recent footage serves as a typical snapshot of the impressive international variety of dance presented at the Pillow each year. Luminaries Merce Cunningham, Suzanne Farrell, Judith Jamison, Mark Morris, and Paul Taylor speak with wit and sagacity while up-and-comers such as “Bad Boy” Rasta Thomas shimmer with youthful precocity.
These different generations speak lovingly, admiringly of each other, and indeed, one of the proudest aspects of the dance world is its awareness of tradition and lineage. Gideon Obarzanek, director of the Australian company Chunky Move, says that the Pillow “. . . is one of the few places you can come . . . and understand the past in order to move into the future.”
Honsa has called “Never Stand Still” his “love letter” to Jacob’s Pillow: He presents his subjects with an almost hushed reverence. While this homage is deserved, the tone is a tad buttoned-down, one of the documentary’s few weaknesses. The film flies by: Longer clips of classes and rehearsals — and much more archival footage — would have been welcome. (For those who crave more, an abundance of material is available in the archives section on the
Jacob’s Pillow was designated a national historic landmark in 2003. Honsa’s film shows why it continues to be an American treasure.