Ella Baff, 2016 Dance/USA Trustees Awardee: Sustaining a Dance Mecca in Western Massachusetts

Ella Baff

Photo: courtesy Ella Baff

Editor’s note: With this profile From the Green Room begins a brief series looking at four true leaders in our field, each of whom will be honored at Dance/USA’s annual conference  June 8-11, 2016, in Austin, Texas. 

By Janine Parker

When Ella Baff was a child, she thought she might like to be an archaeologist someday. She also, as young people do, dabbled in all kinds of other endeavors. Some, including music and dance, she pursued more seriously. While she became neither digger, dancer, nor music-maker, the adult Baff was nonetheless infused with and influenced by those early passions. As this year’s Dance/USA Trustees awardee, she is being celebrated for her great contributions to dance —particularly her extraordinary seventeen years at the helm of Jacob’s Pillow Dance — but the breadth and humanity of her interests have informed the various avenues of her professional life. Her title at the Pillow was executive and artistic director, but it may just as well have been movement anthropologist.

Baff has enriched our field; I recently asked her about the imprint the art and artists have left on her. “As I thought about your question,” she wrote in response, “the list of memorables grew.” Her, as she calls it, “painfully winnowed list” includes some charming little anecdotes and encompasses — as one would expect from this adventurous movement anthropologist — a wide stylistic range, reading like a lovely paean to the vast universe that is dance.

Baff grew up in New York City with her parents — “two of among the most interesting people I’ve ever met” — and her sister Regina. Her mother, a shoe designer, Baff said, had a lot of interest in the wider world, taking the two girls to much that the city had to offer in terms of culture and art, an exposure that left a deep imprint on Baff.

After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, Baff began to put the wide-ranging cultural knowledge of her upbringing to work, serving as program director for that institution’s Cal Performances, where she commissioned and presented music, dance, and theater.

Given her adoration of music, Baff might well have become a musician herself. “I love just about all forms of music,” she told me via e-mail last summer. “Music is clearly one of the greatest things that ever happened.” Growing up she said “music was in the house, from opera to rock ’n’ roll.” She studied violin, piano — “I wish I had continued” — and even harp. “The harp was lonely,” Baff remembered, regret mixing with impish humor: “You can’t bring it over to someone’s house and jam.”

Her sister, meanwhile, became an actress, appearing in films, television and on Broadway, so Baff was exposed to that world too, but “she was the extrovert, I was the opposite.” Indeed, though Baff studied ballet and contemporary dance for several years in New York, New Mexico, and California, “I enjoyed being a student [but] I wasn’t interested in performing and dreaded it any time I did.” Fortunately, her curiosity was made of stronger stuff and she also took classes in other genres including, Baff said, “Classical Indian, Balinese, and African dance, ” and these experiences not only expanded her world view, but also deepened her appreciation for the craft. “I understood the impossible reach for perfection.”

Baff’s increasingly catholic tastes in dance, each form with its rich history, also circled back to the archaeologist in her. “The past,” she mused, “personal and psychological or historical, holds riddles and revelations.”

‘If you were to do something here, what would it be?’

Was it thus written in the stars that Baff would wind up at Jacob’s Pillow? Located on a former farm in the beautiful Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts, the historical importance of this beloved Mecca of dance is legendary.  

The property had originally been bought by the American modern dancer Ted Shawn in 1930; while part of Shawn’s personal mission was to elevate the status of males in the field, it was the Pillow itself, and what grew from his early vision, that has had a lasting impact. Over the years, Shawn and others converted the property’s former barns into studios, and eventually a theater was built. The Ted Shawn Theatre, which opened in 1942, became the first performance space in the United States designed specifically for dance. Since then, the annual summer “festivals” have featured performers from around the world, and have presented a wide palette of dance styles to audiences.

The 2016 Festival — the last full season Baff curated — is a prime example of the programmatic diversity that is now typical Pillow fare. During the season’s ten weeks, the two main theaters will present African-based dance, ballet, contemporary, flamenco, hip-hop, modern, and tap, as well as several hybrid styles that represent the field’s continuing creative growth. Though the range wasn’t nearly as extensive during Shawn’s tenure, certainly the medley was something he’d begun. “I have a great appreciation for the style of programming that Shawn did for [the time period],” Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow, told me near the end of last summer’s festival. “Even though it looks antiquated to us today … it was the time of ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and so it wasn’t strange to see ‘the ballet number’ and then ‘the Spanish dance number’ and then ‘oh and here are the modern dancers.’” Although now each company (or soloist) is presented on its own program, the roots of today’s diverse seasons grew from this tradition.

Still, while there is no doubt about the precious gift that Shawn’s efforts continue to offer the dance world, his own preferences weren’t as all-embracing. Shawn, for example, was not a fan of tap dance. During Baff’s tenure, however, continuing the particular efforts of her predecessor Sali Ann Kriegsman, the genre has become a familiar presence. In 2010 the summer school at Jacob’s Pillow — overseen by Pillow Director of Education “J.R.” Glover and composed of several intensives for pre-professional students — offered its first-ever tap intensive program, which joined ballet, modern and jazz in the summer school. The tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance — whose eponymous company, one of the two tap groups performing in this summer’s Festival, is marking its fifth appearance in six years. Dorrance is fast becoming a household name within the dance world and her dizzying ascent was strongly propelled by early support from Baff and the Pillow.

It’s startling to realize that Dorrance, an artist who has received several prestigious honors, among them the Princess Grace Award and a MacArthur fellowship, is so new to the scene. In 2011, her fledgling company performed on the Pillow’s Inside/Out stage, a free venue that provides performance opportunities for both pre-professional and promising young choreographers, dancers and companies. Following that, Dorrance recently told me, Baff called her with a simple yet breathtaking question. Offering her a coveted week in the Pillow’s smaller ticketed space, the 220-seat Doris Duke Theatre, Baff asked, “If you were to do something here, what would it be?”

Dorrance shared her dream: an evening-length dance that would show how “blues [music] and tap dance come from … a very similar historical context.” Still, the tap dancer stated, “honestly, if Ella had not presented the possibility, I don’t think I would have dreamed that big.” The Blues Project, the dance that grew out of Dorrance Dance’s first Duke appearance in 2013, has become a company staple and an audience favorite; when it was reprised in 2015, it moved into the Shawn Theatre, which has nearly three times the audience capacity of the Duke’s. In 2014 the company presented ETM: The Initial Approach, which will be offered again this year, expanded and retitled ETM: Double Down.

Meanwhile, during this relatively short time Baff gave Dorrance two Creative Development Residencies. These week-long visits include unlimited studio use (with at least some production instruments so participants can experiment with light and/or sound) and room and board, offering artists a rare opportunity for the holy grail of artistic creation: freedom. “It’s really hard to find that kind of space and time in New York [City, where her company is based]. It’s incredibly unaffordable” and dancers often deal with “these crazy rehearsal scenarios, up and down stairs, or in stairwells, or whatever.” Dorrance added, “The Pillow is this alternative reality … something that you would seek out to be a part of your life.”

Oh, and: in 2013 — before The Blues Project even premiered — Baff presented Dorrance with the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, an annual prize given to “an artist of exceptional vision.” Sometimes that artist has been an established figure in the dance world — Bill T. Jones and the late Merce Cunningham are among the recipients — but sometimes the honoree has been a relative newcomer.

It does sound like the stuff of dreams, doesn’t it? Yet time and again artists, when discussing their experiences with Baff at the Pillow, speak in almost hushed tones of awe, gratitude and respect. Contemporary dancer and choreographer Kyle Abraham, another rising star who has enjoyed an abundance of Pillow support and success (four Pillow appearances, two Creative Residencies, winner of the 2012 Pillow Award), recently told me that Baff has “… such a supportive, nurturing intelligence that I think really celebrates history and artistry.” Noting that companies of icons such as Martha Graham are Pillow regulars, too, Abraham added that for Baff “to give me a residency so early on and then continue to support me in the work for years to come really shows … the ways in which she values artists at different points in their careers.”

One of the many ways that Baff helped to share the Pillow’s history during her tenure is in the expansion of the formidable archives, which includes nearly a century’s-worth of documents, photographs, film and recordings of dance of all styles and genres. Last year the online “Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive,” composed of recorded performance excerpts dating back to the 1930s, was improved, offering visitors to the site an even richer experience. Of course, nothing equals the feeling of “being there.” Tradition, legacy, history: they are embedded in the Pillow’s very boards and foundation. “When somebody walks onto our grounds and sees our hundreds-years old buildings,” Owen, who celebrated 40 years at the Pillow last year, said, “whether [they’ve] read dance history or not, there’s a palpable message that dance is for the ages.”

And, Baff was dedicated to demonstrating that dance is for everyone. “You can’t tell people what they should experience with art,” Baff said, speaking of the various angles the organization seeks to create audience engagement. These include  pre- and post-performance talks, program notes and handouts that suggest ways for viewers to consider a performance. Baff said that these prompts are meant “to get people to feel comfortable with their own experience of [dance],” and noted further that a recent survey found that half the audience was made up of first time attendees. “There’s an impression among some people that it’s always the same people that come to the Pillow, and they all know everything about dance. But that’s not true at all!” she added, laughing. “It’s impossible to overestimate the lasting value of the audience engagement programs, which were expanded during her tenure and exponentially grew the number of members and audiences,” new Pillow Director Pamela Tatge wrote to me in a recent e-mail.

To be sure, the Pillow has a large number of dedicated “regulars.” “What [audiences] have come to expect,” said Owen, and what he praises Baff for consistently delivering, is “a meaningful experience. What they will be shown on the stage they may or may not like in terms of personal preference — somebody can’t like everything — but it will be of a high level of excellence.” Indeed, “their confidence bolstered by the Pillow’s reputation for excellence,” the eminent dance critic Deborah Jowitt told me in an e-mail, audience members “rarely say ‘that’s not dance!’ Even more seldom do they walk out of a performance.” Owen recounted a favorite Baff anecdote, in which a Pillow regular who was put off by a performance, “cornered her in the lobby,” telling her “in no uncertain terms why he didn’t think it was any good … and then he caps off the conversation by saying, ‘Well, all right, see you next week!’”

Abraham noted “the beauty in the way that Ella curated each festival really helped her audiences to trust her. It’s risk-taking in a thoughtful way …. She didn’t want to alienate her audiences but maybe provoke, [invite] questions and conversation: ‘What are you seeing and why are you seeing it … and why is this enjoyable and how did we kind of weave between entertainment and art?’” Virginia Johnson, Dance Theatre of Harlem artistic director and Dance/USA Trustee echoed that sentiment in a recent e-mail. “Ella has a lovely way of advising and not imposing. I learned a lot from the questions she asked.”

For all of its magic, the Pillow, like so many other arts organizations in this country, has had serious financial struggles. Yet, in the years under Baff’s leadership revenue went up by more than $2 million dollars annually, while the institution’s investments increased by nearly $13 million between 1999 and 2014. Baff left the organization on a high note:  leaving it in healthy fiscal shape, which includes cash and capital reserves. In addition, under Baff’s leadership, the Pillow was designated a National Historic Landmark, and received a National Medal of Arts by President Obama. The already-spacious grounds have been expanded with recent purchases bringing the acreage up to 225, much of it woodlands to preserve the natural setting. Baff “succeeded in building a strong structural foundation for a legendary institution … and building an endowment, which now holds the promise of sustaining the institution well into the future,” says Tatge.

“While Jacob’s Pillow has a long history as sacred ground for dance,” Johnson observed, “under Ella’s stewardship, it became both Mecca and source in that it was a destination in which once could see the best, most diverse, most interesting dance and the place where dance was studied and developed at the highest level. Her passion for dance in all forms infused that legendary institution with vitality that I hope will last long after her.”

Janine Parker

Janine Parker has been teaching for more than 25 years. She has had a long affiliation with the Boston Ballet School, as faculty member and associate principal, and continues to teach in its Summer Dance Program. Previously, Parker ran the Children’s Dance Extension Division at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and was the assistant director for the school’s Summer Dance Workshop. In 2003 Parker moved out to Western Massachusetts, where she served as artistic director for Pioneer Valley Ballet. She has been a regular or guest faculty member/choreographer at various schools in the Western Massachusetts area, including Deerfield Academy and East Street Dance Center. In 2007 she joined the Williams College Dance Department and, as artist-in-residence, teaches several levels of ballet technique as well as history of and choreography from the ballet repertoire. She co-directs the department’s contemporary dance ensemble. Parker danced with various ballet and modern companies in Massachusetts, and continued to perform character roles when she retired from dance. Since 1989 she has written about ballet and dance extensively, formerly for The Boston Phoenix and currently for The Boston Globe and The Arts Fuse.


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