BECKET — When MOMA invited Adam Weinert to reconstruct some of Ted Shawn’s early solo works in 2013 as part of its 20 Dancers for the XX Century dance program, he seized the opportunity. Like many male dancers, he feels indebted to the modern dance pioneer for forging a pathway for male bodies in that art form. Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers performed only until 1940, and Weinert speculates that it is perhaps because of the interruption of two world wars that Shawn’s work wasn’t “passed body to body” as it was for his contemporary Isadora Duncan and student Martha Graham. Since there was no one from whom Weinert could learn Shawn’s choreography, he undertook his reconstruction “from the outside in.” He began at the source.
When Ted Shawn purchased “Jacob’s Farm” in 1931 — it was originally settled as a farm in 1790 — it was a means to fulfill his dream of a space for his dancers to be surrounded by nature, training and rehearsing far from New York City. What began in 1933 as “Tea Lecture Demonstrations” by his company in a barn studio evolved into the country’s oldest international dance festival. That summer of 2013, steeped in the Pillow’s archival photographs, documents, audio recordings, and labanotation (a now-defunct form of choreographic notation), Weinert was surprised to learn how central farming was to the physical and creative training Shawn devised for his students and company members. Weinert recognizes the dual nature of Shawn’s focus on agriculture at that time: “It was idealistic and poetic, but it was also the Great Depression, and so it was very practical. They were growing their own food because if they didn’t, they might not have food.”
Parallel to his archival research, Weinert spent a four-week residency at the Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, a historic plantation and nonprofit educational farm on Shelter Island, N.Y., where he experienced his “ah-ha moment” of plants as moving bodies. Sylvester Manor cofounder Bennett Konesni introduced Weinert to his The Worksong Project, which documents worksongs and explores how they synchronize movement while also increasing productivity and joy. As Weinert continued his studies of the Pillow archives and farming techniques, he grew familiar with Konesni’s music collection while rehearsing Shawn’s solos in a barn at the Shelter Island Historical Society. When he performed at MOMA in October, his performance was infused with the summer’s visceral insights. Months later, inspired, he wrote his first proposal for “Jacob’s Garden.”
It wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that it got off the ground. Weinert believes the timing is no coincidence: “In a certain way, COVID pushed us through the finish line of actually committing to making this project happen.” Although he says he was initially “mostly excited by lofty conversations about art and agriculture,” the circumstances of COVID influenced the direction the garden took. “This last year revealed a lot about the vulnerabilities of our food system and supply chains and the importance of connectivity to place and people and each other.” As his conversations with Jacob’s Pillow leadership evolved, it became clear that by decreasing the distance from farm to fork and therefore their carbon footprint, the garden was a singular chance for the Pillow to advance its sustainability initiative, launched in 2018. During Phase I, this summer and next, Weinert’s goal is that the garden will provide up to 30 percent of the Pillow’s on-campus food needs. Looking ahead, Phase II would include more acreage, livestock, and 60 percent food fulfillment, while Phase III would provide as much as 90 percent. He points out that unlike universities and colleges, whose academic schedules don’t align with the harvest, summer festivals are ideally positioned to take advantage of the season. His dream is that Jacob’s Garden will be a scalable model that landowning festivals and nonprofits across the country will replicate.
In June 2020, the Pillow broke ground on Jacob’s Garden, a 1.5-acre parcel located along George Carter Road, which visitors pass after they turn off Route 20 to enter the Pillow grounds. While Weinert’s focus the first nine months was on such infrastructure initiatives as irrigation, deer fencing, and soil testing, his goal this summer is to experiment with mixed fruit, vegetable, and flower production, with guidance from Michael Roller, chef and owner of Savory Harvest Catering, who directs Pillow food services. On Roller’s advice, Weinert is beginning with crops that have a quick turnaround, including salad greens, radishes, and peas, so they can be used in the Stone Dining Room, where the dancers eat, this summer, as well as shelf-stable crops such as herbal tea, popping corn, and medicinal arnica. They’ll also experiment with tomatoes, squash, and corn, and plant perennial herbs, fruits, and berries in preparation for next year’s harvest.
Weinert had help this spring from the Berkshire-based Greenagers, whose paid Ag Crews cleared rocks and brush, shaped garden beds, and tilled soil. He and Thasia Giles, director of Community Engagement for the festival, are also in talks with Pittsfield-based Roots Rising, which provides young people with paid summer farming jobs. Mid-May, they began inviting the community into the garden by offering Saturday afternoon volunteer shifts.
As Weinert considers different models of financial sustainability for the garden, this July he and collaborator Brett Perry, a dancer-farmer based at Meadowlark Farm in Boise, Idaho, will offer a Jacob’s Garden “Digital CSA.” Members will access a podcast featuring Perry’s interviews with dancers-turned farmers, instructional gardening videos, Jacob’s Garden updates, and recipes from the Pillow archives, including a new entry: Dan Barber, chef and co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., will update Ted Shawn’s “carrot rings” recipe (which later inspired a well-known company dance move).
After opening remarks by Weinert and Pillow executive and artistic director Pamela Tatge, the public inauguration of Jacob’s Garden on July 10 will open with a spiritual offering to the earth by Kristen Wyman of Eastern Woodland Rematriation and will move on to a performance by Orlando Zane Hunter Jr. and Ricarrdo Valentine of Brother(hood) Dance! For his contribution, Weinert will re-stage and perform in “Tillers of the Soil,” choreographed by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis in 1916. The dancers he’s invited to participate are longtime collaborators who are deeply familiar with Ted Shawn’s work: Brett Perry, Cynthia Koppe, Brandon Washington, and Ching Ching Wong. As part of the online rehearsal process, the cast will discuss their relationships to food and growing, take class together, study archival video of a 1991 Pillow “Tillers of the Soil” performance by choreographer Livia Drapkin Vanaver and The Vanaver Caravan, and practice the performance from their respective homes in Florida, California, Idaho, New York, and Singapore before finally meeting in person to rehearse at the Pillow in July.
To appreciate the final segment of the July 10 program, turn to 2018, when Weinert first reconstructed one of Shawn’s ensemble works. He describes the rehearsal process for the 12 cast members of “Dance of the Ages” as the most challenging thing he’d ever done, both physically and mentally, in terms of teaching and managing the company. “One night, I walked out; I sat on a boulder and I started sobbing. I said, how did he do this? I can’t do this. This is too much. I cannot do this. And I swear Ted Shawn appeared to me in a tree. … And that’s when I realized, I can’t, we will. And the whole group came together, and we pulled it off.” It was this epiphany that fueled Weinert’s plan for the close of the July 10 event.
As the “Tillers of the Soil” performance concludes, it will segue into simple line dances derived from a suite of Shawn solos called “Four Dances Based on American Folk Music” (1933). Weinert has invited Louisville, Ky.-based line dance caller Alex Udis to lead audience members in COVID-safe dancing, with live music by Brett Miller and the Neon Moons. “Rather than inviting people to come to sit quietly in rows and watch me dance, I wanted it to be a celebratory and shared experience. We’re so hungry for that right now.” And, if Mother Nature cooperates, Weinert says, he’d like the audience to take a piece of Jacob’s Garden with them: “Garlic was the very first item planted in the garden by a collection of hands. … My hope is that audience members will get to experience handling garlic, taking it out of the earth, bringing it home and ideally planting a clove or two back out in their own gardens. … One of the great pleasures of growing food is sharing it with your community.”
Jocelyn Ruggiero can be reached at jocelyn@jocelynruggiero. Follow her on Twitter @jocelynruggiero.