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Dance and ‘Never Stand Still’

Sometimes comfort and pillows aren’t about laying around and staring at the TV or the ceiling. At Jacob’s Pillow, it’s about literal and mental leaps of faith and setting new ideas into motion because, the narrator Bill T. Jones, intones dance can “never stand still.” “Never Stand Still” is the name of Ron Honsa’s documentary about Jacob’s Pillow Dance because dance isn’t about standing still and The Pillow pushes to explore dance as an ever-changing medium.

“Never Stand Still” opens this Friday, 6 July 2012 for a one-week engagement at the Music Hall in Beverly Hills. If you love dance, make a dash and be inspired.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance is located in Becket, Massachusetts. Once an abandoned farmhouse, it’s the location of the oldest summer dance festival in the United  States and in 2003 was listed as a National Historic Landmark District.

Called The Pillow, the first settlers came in 1790 and the route that zigzagged up the hill looked like a ladder to the locals who made a biblical connection, and there was a large stone that resembled a pillow. Thus the name.

Modern dance pioneer, Ted Shawn bought the place in 1931 when his partnership and marriage to Ruth St. Denis had gotten rocky. Their Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts was based in far-off Los Angeles. Founded in 1915, that school had students like Martha Graham and silent movie star Louise Brooks. Yet the Great Depression and a clash of two creative egos, brought Denishawn to an end in 1929.

Shawn sought refuge in Massachusetts and the company of men. His Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers sought to redefine dance in terms of masculine movement. This documentary has plenty of talking heads who begin speaking to the camera but end up narrating movements–dance rehearsals or performances. From old black and white photos, to grainy archival films to more modern clips, we see a virtual who’s who of modern dance and not just in America.

Those who were there at the beginning such as Merce Cunningham and Barton Mumaw reminisce. Alvin Ailey was mentored here and debuted his “Revelations.” (We don’t see Ailey, but we do see someone perform his piece) Mark Morris talks about his time there as does Bill Irwin who brought a bit of vaudeville to The Pillow stage. We see Irwin perform and consider what does a dancer do when he gets old, and more contemporary pieces from younger dancers such as the Lombard Twins. The Pillow was a comfortable, safe place to meet, experiment and make dance.

Of course, it wasn’t only men who danced at The Pillow. St. Denis and Graham performed there the documentary notes. There’s an extended passage devoted to George Balanchine’s muse Suzanne Farrell who protests that there is freedom of expression in ballet. If you’ve watch the CW’s “Breaking Pointe” you’ll realize that personality and personal expression is important for someone who wants to be a principal dancer.  When we think of classical dance, we also have to consider other countries. Shawn and Denishawn had their “Oriental” dances, but here in the documentary we see Asian dance performed by someone who was trained in that tradition: Shantala Shivalingappa.

Some international dance troupes made their U.S. debuts at The Pillow: The Royal Danish Ballet, the New Zealand male-centric Black Grace and the Hofesh Shechter Company. Modern dance companies also formed here such as Bad Boys of Dance or Chunky Moves.

Yet Honsa’s documentary is more a celebration of a successful movement. He doesn’t dwell on the hardships and financial problems that The Pillow faced as the documentary “Joffrey: Mavericks of Dance” did. It almost seems as if Shawn did things well enough that under his leadership The Pillow and his company did not suffer and this wasn’t true, particularly during World War II.  Shawn, however, did remain in charge, teaching classes until a few months before his death in 1972 at age 80.

This history of The Pillow, “Never Stand Still,” celebrates in dance, what The Pillow was and is. In light of its prior history as a waystation in the Underground Railroad, The Pillow resonates as a haven for those on the margins of culture.  Dancers talk about what The Pillow meant historically and what it meant to them. Some former students have come back as teachers, suggesting a tradition of sharing that is likely to continue. The diversity of disciplines, cultures and training fuses to create an energizing impulse that can be felt internationally.

The movie just opened in Los Angeles this Friday at the Laemmle Music Hall, but is playing across the country. The festival itself is in full swing and if you’re lucky enough to be in the area, check it out. There seem to be plenty of opportunities to see what happens when a bunch of dancers get together and assemble a new program or a new company or a new collaboration. Summer really is the time to get out and dance and this documentary comes in time to inspire you to “Never Stand Still.”