From the forthcoming The Making of Markova: Diaghilev’s Baby Ballerina to Groundbreaking Icon, by Tina Sutton, published by Pegasus Books, August 2013.
Located in the bucolic Berkshires, Jacob’s Pillow is a name now synonymous with dance. That historic association began in 1930 when modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn purchased the sprawling mountaintop farm as a retreat and rehearsal space. Far less well known is the role Alicia Markova, one of the greatest classical prima ballerinas in history, played in rescuing the retreat after Shawn encountered financial troubles. In 1941 she was instrumental in establishing the first international dance festival on the grounds, and the success of that venture — and Markova’s personal connections with the media and one very generous millionaire — saved Jacob’s Pillow from being sold off as vacation or development property for some wealthy landowner.
I discovered this story when researching Markova at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Center director Vita Paladino became friendly with the world-famous ballerina in the 1990s and encouraged her to entrust her professional and personal papers, correspondences, and memorabilia to the Gotlieb. Though British, Markova had lived and performed in the United States for many decades and maintained a storage unit of professional material in Brooklyn, New York. The contents became the basis of the center’s Alicia Markova Collection in 1995.
Several years after Markova’s death in 2004, the rest of her considerable archives was sent to the Gotlieb from London. I was privileged to be the first person given access to this intimate, never-before-seen material, which revealed many fascinating untold stories in dance history, details of the Jacob’s Pillow rescue being just one. Markova was quite a fascinating character herself, with a career of many firsts: the first openly Jewish — and first British — classical prima ballerina, the first to perform on television in 1932, and the first to become a “freelancer,” self-managing her career so she could travel the globe at will. It made her the highest paid, most celebrated ballet dancer in the world.
In 1915, Ted Shawn formed an avant-garde modern dance troupe with his like-minded dancer wife, Ruth St. Denis. The Denishawn Dance Company and school in Los Angeles were quite progressive for their time and would prove to be an invaluable training ground for many cutting-edge choreographers, including Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.
Shawn and St. Denis had what today might be called an “open marriage.” Shawn’s biographer Walter Terry, writing in 1976, reported that both husband and wife ended up having separate affairs with their handsome young male business manager. “This was not a new experience for St. Denis,” wrote Terry, “but for Shawn, if his words to me and to others are to be believed, it was the first time he had established a more than casual physical relationship with another man. The rivalry became intense.” And ugly.
St. Denis threatened to divorce Shawn and go public, which would have effectively ended his teaching career; in those days, no parents would trust their child to an admitted homosexual. But she later changed her mind, and though the couple split up, they never officially divorced.
In 1933, Shawn took the innovative step of founding an all-male company, appropriately — if not imaginatively — named the Men Dancers. A sturdy, athletic figure, Shawn wanted to promote dance as a fittingly masculine profession. He succeeded. Shawn’s testosterone-fueled choreography — a blend of sharp gymnastic and methodical modern dance movements — was kinetic and dynamic, often with themes concerning manual labor. For many years, the Men Dancers profitably toured throughout the United States, Cuba, Canada, and Germany.
“The first performances were held in the summer of 1933 at Jacob’s Pillow,” Terry explained in his biography. “Shawn didn’t think anyone would come, but he tried it and about fifty people showed up at seventy-five cents apiece. He talked about dance and his goals, the boys served tea and danced, the audience sat on the floor at one end of the barn converted into studio. For some of the heftier Berkshire dowagers who adored Shawn . . . and appreciated the nearly nude boys, camp chairs were provided. These were the modest antecedents of what was to become the most famous dance festival in the world.”
By 1940, most of the men in Shawn’s dance troupe had enlisted in the Army. “Creatively and artistically,” wrote Shawn in his 1943 memoir of Jacob’s Pillow, “the seven years’ achievement of the men dancers gave me a deep inner satisfaction. But financially, since I never had a cent given me outright as an endowment, or underwriting, I went deeper and deeper in debt.”Continued...