Dance on Film: Jacob’s Pillow “Never Stand Still” A Candid Look Behind the Scenes

A moment from Never Stand Still. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Never Stand Still is a brilliant feature length documentary on Jacob’s Pillow by award winning director Ron Honsa and narrated by Bill T. Jones. Its release coincides with the 80th Anniversary Season of America’s longest running dance festival. Never Stand Still will have its theatrical premiere on May 18, 2012 at New York’s Quad Cinema, to be followed by openings in Los Angeles and additional cities.

Film Festival Honors

Last October the Willliamstown Film Festival paid tribute to Jacob’s Pillow with a special screening featuring the director Ron Honsa who talked about the film and answered questions afterwards. The Pillow is not only a Berkshire icon and treasure, but belongs to the world. Never Stand Still has garnered much praise and a couple of awards along the way: it is the recipient of Best Documentary from both the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and the Dance Camera West Festival in Los Angeles.

For Dance Lovers, a Four Star Film

Watching the film again this observer was struck once again with its unique balance of performance dance footage and the behind-the-scenes interviews with the dance makers themselves. Watching these intimate and candid conversations offers some amazing insights into America’s leading choreographers and dancers: Suzanne Farrell, one of the greatest ballerinas in the world, recalls some of her first performances; Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin marvels at the physical humor of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; celebrated dancer Rasta Thomas discusses his “bad boy” image; former Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo star Frederic Franklin recalls the early days of the Pillow, where Joseph Pilates taught his now ubiquitous body-strengthening methods; Mark Morris talks about his love of music; and Merce Cunningham, in one of his last interviews, describes why dance “is not for the timid.”

Also interviewed are Paul Taylor, Judith Jamison, and a new generation of artists and companies from around the world, including Chunky Move, Shantala Shivalingappa and Stockholm 59° North, who appear in performance and off-stage during their creative workdays.

Peeks at the Distant Past

The film also takes us back into the dusty past with rare – and I mean truly amazing – archival footage. Ted Shawn never turned down a request to film and photograph his company’s work, and we owe a great deal to stalwarts like John Lindquist whose own body of work beginning in 1938 is a compendium of decades at the Pillow. Never Stand Still has some amazingly high quality footage of Ted Shawn and his men dancers from the 30’s when the Pillow began. We see them building the place, rugged yet graceful men who are as home with a hammer as with a plié. The release of Never Stand Still coincides with the 80th Anniversary Season of America’s longest running dance festival. This collection of converted barns and farmhouses from the 1700s in the Berkshires of Massachusetts evolved into “the dance center of the nation” (The New York Times) – a destination for artists and audiences from all over the world. Like Wim Wenders’s Pina, (earlier article here) Never Stand Still immerses us in the lives of extraordinary artists and the power of dance.

74 Minutes of Pure Joy

Some of you may know I was recruited into ballet as a teenager which lasted all of three months before I turned to acting. Not enough to make much of a dancer out of me, but sufficient to instill a lifelong fascination with all things movement oriented. In the 1970’s I was fortunate to spend three seasons with the Boston Ballet as the director of earned income. In my final year there, we managed to earn a stunning 90% of our budget from ticket sales, program advertising and retail sales.

As overwhelming as my marketing responsibilities were, I found the time to sit in on rehearsals and view the process of making dance from beginning to end. It is likely that if you have done the same, there won’t be one minute of this 74 minute film that is not fascinating. In fact, my only complaint is that it is so tightly edited, with no extraneous footage whatever, that I think it should have been longer, or there should be a sequel. Ron Honsa has just scratched the surface as far as I am concerned. Never Stand Still is a great series of candid images of Jacob’s Pillow that tell us much about this venerable institution. But isn’t it time the place sat for a full portrait?

About Director Ron Honsa

Ron Honsa first came to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the early 1980s on a film assignment and was struck by the beauty and intelligence of the work that was being created at this exceptional place. This experience ultimately led to the making of Honsa’s award-winning 1985 documentary The Men Who Danced, the story of Ted Shawn and the first all-male dance company in America.

On his new film about the Pillow, Honsa states: “From the youngest dancers in this film to the legendary masters, it was obvious to me that a deep and creative vibration has always resonated at Jacob’s Pillow. Never Stand Still is a love letter to a rare place and the artists who dare to express the inexpressible through movement.”

Throughout his career, Honsa has had a personal passion for directing dance for television, including his work with Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Limon Dance Company, Savion Glover and video projects for the Balanchine Trust. His television and film credits include: CBS Reports, NOW with Bill Moyers, Saturday Night Live, America’s Most Wanted, Sesame Street, US Tennis Open, Head of State, Cadillac Man, The Fallen, True Colors, She Devil and Live from Lincoln Center.

About Jacob’s Pillow

Jacob’s Pillow began in the late 1700s as a New England farm named after biblical story of Jacob, who laid his head upon a rock and dreamed of a ladder to heaven. In the 1800s, Jacob’s Pillow played a role in American history as a station on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping to Canada.

In 1931, when modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought the abandoned farm he and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, were America’s leading dance couple. Their Denishawn Company had popularized a new dance form rooted in theatrical and ethnic traditions rather than those of European ballet. Together they spawned a new generation of dance and dancers in America, including Denishawn company member, Martha Graham and many others.

Jacob's Pillow - The Men Dancers

In 1933, Shawn recruited eight men for his new company. The tall and burly Shawn and his athletic dancers were intent on challenging the image of men in dance. They forged a new, boldly muscular style celebrating Pawnee braves, toiling sharecroppers, and Union machinists. The Men Dancers began performing for the public in 1933, and the Pillow’s programming expanded to encompass other artists after the Men’s company disbanded in 1940.

Despite hardships during World War II such as gasoline and tire rationing, audiences climbed the hill on foot and horseback to attend a wide array of programs at the Pillow: ballet, modern, mime, ballroom, folk, and classical dance. In 1942, the Ted Shawn Theatre opened, built by the noted architect Joseph Franz, as the first theatre in the U.S. designed specifically for dance.

Shawn’s trail-blazing spirit resonates in the 21st century, and the Pillow has been celebrated with many recent distinguished honors. In 2003, the Federal Government named Jacob’s Pillow a National Historic Landmark for its importance in America’s culture and history, thus distinguishing the Pillow as the country’s first and only Landmark dance institution.

In 2007, the Pillow was formally dedicated as a site on the Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, which celebrates people and places that hold pivotal roles in key events of African American heritage. On March 2, 2011, Jacob’s Pillow received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama at the White House, becoming the first dance presenting organization to receive this prestigious honor.

“An exhilarating, award-winning documentary about Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, featuring every kind of dance form imaginable in rapid, kinesthetically gripping visuals.” – Andrea Pflaumer, San Francisco Examiner

74 minutes, color, 2011
Directed by: Ron Honsa
Written and Produced by: Ron Honsa, Nan Penman
Narrated by: Bill T. Jones
Cinematography by: Jimmy O’Donnell, Etienne Sauret

2 thoughts on “Dance on Film: Jacob’s Pillow “Never Stand Still” A Candid Look Behind the Scenes

  1. Larry. Cudos, and much affection, for all you have contributed to illuminating the Internet Scene on Dance, and particularly Shawn and Jacob’s Pillow. It brings such great satisfaction to old gents of that World from which we, one by one, fade. Forrest Winston Coggan

    • Thank you Forrest, and you might also enjoy reading a little more history of the Pillow – and the behind the scenes dish – from this wonderful interview with Norton Owen, the Pillow’s historian and witness to much of the history.


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