Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers in Kinetic Molpai, 1935.
Dance is notoriously hard to capture on film–or at least to capture well. Film squishes an intrinsically three-dimensional art form into two, and fails to capture the electricity of the live performance, including the undercurrent of danger that accompanies even the most mannered performances–that sense of doing the impossible, whether leaping or hurdling through space or just balancing en pointe. (Unless, of course, you’re Wim Wenders, whose Pina is the best film representation of dance I’ve ever seen [though being Pina Bausch’s biggest fan, I may not be the most impartial judge…])
Never Stand Still, Ron Honsa’s documentary about Jacob’s Pillow, on view at the MFA July 5–11, works well as a dance film largely because it focuses not solely on dance but also on the stories behind the place and the people who’ve made it what it is. There’s plenty of spectacular dance thrown in, of course, but with such a great story, the pressure’s off.
The documentary tells the story of how the late Ted Shawn, a father of modern dance bought an abandoned farm in Western Massachusetts in the 1930s, then set out to prove that dancing was a “viable profession for men.” He formed an all-male troupe that always came back to the farm between tours, working there and building what would become America’s premiere dance festival with their own bare hands. The footage from that time shows the merry male dancers cavorting around, dancing and working on the farm, and includes one of my now favorite dance images of all time: a dancer painting on a ladder, stretching out into an elegant arabesque to reach a far spot.
The film also outlines the festival’s more recent history, with appearances from some of the most important late-20th century dancers and choreographers, including Suzanne Farrell, Judith Jamison, Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, and the late Merce Cunningham. Bill T. Jones narrates, and there are performances by current risk-takers the Bad Boys of Dance and Shantala Shivalingappa (who’s danced with Pina Bausch).
“For those of us who choose a life in dance,” says narrator Bill T. Jones at the beginning of the film, “we have to insist on taking risks. Risks of ideas, and what the human body can express. There’s a place called Jacob’s Pillow where artists have done just that: taken leaps of faith, setting new ideas in motion. Because dance can never stand still.”