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Theater & art

For Jacob’s Pillow at 80, a documentary: ‘Never Stand Still’

Kellye Saunders is featured in “Never Stand Still,’’ a film about Jacob’s Pillow.

Christopher Duggan/Jacob’s Pillow

Kellye Saunders is featured in “Never Stand Still,’’ a film about Jacob’s Pillow.

Dance lovers who visit the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival quickly recognize the spirit of the place. They sense the creativity in the studios, where young dancers find inspiration in master instructors, professionals rehearse for hours on end, and choreographers channel the muse. In the theaters, new works are premiered, beloved classics are revived, and companies from around the world make their debuts. And on the bucolic Becket grounds, picnickers lounge amid the lawns’ lush greenery and stroll trails leading into the forests of the Berkshire Hills.

Veteran filmmaker Ron Honsa was awed by the beauty and intelligence of the work he encountered when he first went to Jacob’s Pillow on assignment in the early 1980s. “I found a unique community of artists and creators supporting each other, and creative juices and energy flowing,” he recalls. “It was a kind of nirvana.”

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This powerful initial impression and a subsequent meeting with modern-dance pioneer Barton Mumaw led to Honsa’s award-winning 1985 documentary about Pillow founder Ted Shawn, “The Men Who Danced.” This season, in honor of the festival’s 80th anniversary, Honsa and First Run Features are rolling out a new documentary, “Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow,” which Honsa, its director, has described as “a love letter to a rare place and the dancers who dare to express the inexpressible through movement.” It will be shown at the Museum of Fine Arts July 5-11, and at Jacob’s Pillow on three Sundays in July and August.

Written and produced by Honsa and Nan Penman, “Never Stand Still” was shot over three seasons at the Pillow. The festival’s executive and artistic director, Ella Baff, is the film’s executive producer.

Alternating rare archival footage with contemporary action onstage and behind the scenes, the 74-minute movie won best documentary at this year’s San Francisco Dance Film Festival and at the 2011 Dance Camera West festival. Narrated  by choreographer Bill T. Jones, “Never Stand Still” provides context for the Pillow’s evolution into America’s premier summer dance festival and school. But it also attempts to capture what dance demands of those who fall under its spell. Interwoven throughout are interviews with some of the dance world’s most notable stars and creative visionaries.

“Capturing the excitement of performances with live audiences during the festival was essential. Putting artists at the center of the movie — from dance legends to up-and-coming talent — was also a must,” Baff says by e-mail. “Revealing their lively, inspiring personalities, how they think, and what they say about their work and their lives brings people close in to what dance is about and why it’s worthwhile and interesting. Showing a variety of traditions and styles was also important; dance is a vast, fascinating, beautiful, universal art form.”

The documentary drops in on rehearsals and live performances that showcase this extraordinary range, from new vaudevillian Bill Irwin expanding on the exuberant physicality of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to the exquisite expressivity of Shantala Shivalingappa evoking the essence of South Indian kuchipudi. Former Boston Ballet artistic director Anna-Marie Holmes notes the cross-fertilization that happens at the Pillow as students from around the world gather to learn a new ballet together each summer.

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Honsa interviews choreographers and performers about aesthetics and motivation, finding connections between disparate visions. In an interview with
Merce Cunningham, who died in 2009, the postmodern master says, “It’s when movement starts to become awkward that it starts to become interesting.” This segues into clips of Australian company Chunky Move and director Gideon Obarzanek illuminating the group’s off-kilter, collision-based work. Dancers talk about passion, commitment, and sacrifice.

It was important to Honsa to capture the palpable sense of history at Jacob’s Pillow. He and the festival’s director of preservation, Norton Owen, sifted through “endless amounts of material” from the festival’s vast archives, Honsa says. Interlaced throughout the documentary are rare archival clips, including interview snippets with Shawn and performance footage of pioneer Ruth St. Denis, Shawn’s onetime wife and Denishawn company partner, who is seen dancing, the theater’s back wall open to the trees. Legendary ballerina Suzanne Farrell, who danced at the Pillow at the peak of her career in the 1970s and recently brought her own young company to the festival, remembers feeling “the dust of the performers who had been here before.” Dressing room footage shows decades of names scrawled onto the walls like colorful graffiti.

Instead of presenting a linear history, Honsa wanted a more subtle linkage of past and present. He follows clips from the United States debut of the Royal Danish Ballet in 1955 with a modern-day European ballet student observing, “When you see other companies, you start to understand what’s special about the way you dance.” The filmmaker shows excerpts from Joanna Haigood’s site-specific “Invisible Wings,” an extraordinary moveable feast by Zaccho Dance Theatre that cast dancers as runaway slaves out in the woods surrounding Jacob’s Pillow. It was inspired by the site’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Honsa sought to connect the Pillow’s fertile artistry to the natural beauty of the place. Such a melding exists in one of Owen’s favorite moments in the documentary: A scene of young people playing in the lake dissolves to show a cluster of dancers in the studio, with Mark Morris talking about the fun of working with students. To Owen, the seemingly simple juxtaposition communicates an important truth: that “those experiences are meshed together here.”

Baff believes “Never Stand Still” will help build audiences, not just for Jacob’s Pillow, but for the world of dance in general. It’s a world that will continue to spin as long as performers find expressive power in the human body moving through space. As Farrell says, poignantly, “We need to dance. We would dance even if no one came.”

NEVER STAND STILL

July 5-11, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Tickets: $11, $9 seniors and students. 800-440-6975, www.mfa.org/film

July 15, July 29, and Aug. 19, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket. Tickets: $10. 413-243-0745, www.jacobspillow.org

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

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