Film Review: Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob's Pillow

<i>Never Stand Still</i>, a documentary about Jacob&#8217;s Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., and its founder Ted Shawn, is much more than a historical text or hagiographic celebration. It wittily, visually demonstrates the wild muscularity of co

It was quite clever of veteran documentarian Ron Honsa to begin his dance documentary Never Stand Still about Ted Shawn’s Jacob’s Pillow—a kind of think tank but for dancers in the Massachusetts Berkshires—by focusing on Rasta Thomas, the head of Bad Boys of Dance. Thomas tells us he was an unruly kid “punished” by being forced to take ballet classes, and reveals that he then fell in love with the form in spite of himself. A clip shows his hyperkinetic “Bumble Bee,” wherein he seems to have swallowed said bee (you’ve got to have a hook, he explains), and he tells us about his mission, inspired by dancer/choreographer Ted Shawn, to “make male dance acceptable.” Thomas amends that to hoping to make dancing by men appeal to the MTV generation.

A clip of Shawn’s 1934’s male dancers’ “Mechanized Labor” is directly followed by the Bad Boys of Dance performing a nearly identical routine. Charles Yurick is responsible for the crisp editing throughout; when precious archival footage is used, such as a clip of José Limon or of Martha Graham, it is never didactic. The influence of Shawn still reigns, underscored by talking-head bits from first-tier dancers and choreographers Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, Suzanne Farrell and Merce Cunningham (his last onscreen interview), all of whom have appeared or taught at Jacob’s Pillow. Taylor observes that dancing is a tough life, Cunningham says it’s not for the timid, Morris explains the appeal of his own work—“it’s not for everyone; it’s for anyone.”

But Never Stand Still is all about the dancers. They share the influence of Shawn the dancer and his vision, and the lifeline of Jacob’s Pillow—a safe house in the woods for creativity and fellowship. Situated on a farm in the Berkshires, with some of the original structures from the 1700s renovated by Shawn and his men, seen hammering away in early footage, Jacob’s Pillow is the dance equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival, but with training workshops. (The place name refers to the Biblical Jacob’s Ladder and a Massachusetts stone there resembling a pillow.) In a tight 74 minutes I learned that the well-known dance team of Shawn and Ruth St. Denis, then married and proponents of modern dance, not ballet, bought the farm as a retreat. St. Denis left after a year, but Shawn stayed and in 1931 decided to use an abandoned farmhouse on the land as a center to prove that dance is not sissified when men—and only men—perform it. In 1933, the first festival demonstrating this took place. (“Shawn and his Men Dancers” also went on the road—the Depression-era photo of them next to their van is startling.) Today, performances at Jacob’s Pillow are not “for men only.”

The Massachusetts woods have their role too, particularly in work sparked by the historical vibes of the place. Joanna Haigood, artistic director of the Zaccho Dance Theatre, says the sanctuary-like spirit of Jacob’s Pillow inspired “Invisible Wings”—we see African-American dancers interpreting the experiences of those who stopped on the Underground Railroad, a site-specific historical fact about Jacob’s Pillow. This sequence may be a bit too extended but it’s never dreary, for Haigood includes the joie de vivre of daily life in the slave culture. (Similarly disproportionate—if wonderful—is footage of Farrell and her dancers at the Pillow. Most already know quite a bit about her; a less familiar troupe is that of Brazil’s Jomar Mesquita, which gets comparatively short shrift.)

Dance mavens might recognize some material from Honsa’s 1986 television documentary The Men Who Danced, but it’s mainly new footage: the work of Australian troupe director Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move), Jens Rosen (Stockholm 59 North), and Shantala Shivalingappa, soloist dancer/choreographer. Yet the mix of past and present jumps out in a funny interview with Frederic Franklin of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, also the founding director of Washington, D.C.’s National Ballet. Franklin recalls an instructor named Mr. Pilates showing dancers the importance of body-strengthening exercises. A cute anecdote, but when we see decades-old footage of dancers lifting a troupe member high above their heads, another kind of point is made.

In Never Stand Still (Obarzanek’s phrase—a dancer’s version of a salesman’s “Always Be Closing”), winner of Best Documentary at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, you will learn the difference between classical ballet and modern dance, and Ted Shawn’s unique contribution. Above all, along with the audiences who are drawn to Jacob’s Pillow and glimpsed periodically—this year is the 80th anniversary of “America’s longest-running dance festival”—you will pick up on the excitement of young dancers studying with inspirational figures, the camaraderie of a secluded, creative compression of talent and practice. It’s not Pina, but it’s very good.