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Dancers and choreographers simply call it “the Pillow.”

To the public at large, it’s Jacob’s Pillow — a name for both the dance retreat and its summer festival (the oldest in the U.S.) which draws spectacular dance talents of every variety from all across the world every year.

Its history and its flourishing present are vividly captured in director Ron Honsa’s “Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow: Never Stand Still,” a new episode in PBS’s “Great Performances” series, scheduled for local broadcast on KCTS at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 28, and 3 a.m. Tuesday.

A winner of the best documentary award at the San Francisco Dance Film Festival and Los Angeles’ Dance Camera West Festival, “Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow” alternates between present-day interviews and archival dance clips as narrator Bill T. Jones recounts how the place was founded and came to play a pivotal role in shaping American modern dance.

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It began in 1931 when dancer-choreographer Ted Shawn (1891-1972) purchased an abandoned farm in western Massachusetts called Jacob’s Pillow, shortly before Denishawn, the touring company Shawn ran with his wife, Ruth St. Denis, called it quits. The couple soon separated and Shawn settled into his rural retreat where he founded Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers.

Frederic Franklin, a former principal dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, recalls how surprised he was by Shawn’s project when he first visited it: “I didn’t realize that anything like this existed. There were no ladies to be lifted around. So it was the men. The accent was on them.”

Jacob’s Pillow started as a private affair rather than a performing venue. But by 1933, performances were opened to the public, attracting curious locals at first and then larger crowds from farther away.

By the 1940s, the dance offerings had expanded to include a female presence (Ruth St. Denis, Agnes de Mille and dozens of others). In the decades since, Jacob’s Pillow has served as a meeting place for ballet, modern dance, vaudeville, Indian dance and numerous other movement traditions.

Talents from the greater Pacific Northwest have appeared on its stage in recent years, including Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Pat Graney Company, 33 Fainting Spells and zoe juniper (all from Seattle), Kidd Pivot (Vancouver, B.C.) and Trey McIntyre Project (Boise). Washington-born choreographic talents Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Mark Morris have long been regulars at “the Pillow.”

Cunningham, who first appeared there in 1955, observes, “It was a place where people, quietly or not, think differently and act differently.” Choreographer Paul Taylor values it as “a place where people can birth things,” while Gideon Obarzanek, founder of Australia’s Chunky Move, calls it “one of the few places you can come and really feel and understand the past, in order to move into the future.”

As Honsa alternates between chronicling its history and surveying its current roster of visitors (including Mark Morris Dance Group, Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Bill Irwin), the spell of the place becomes clear. Part of its magic, Morris suggests, stems from its isolation: “There’s nothing else to do. You’re in the woods. You have to dance. That’s it.”

The archival clips can be frustratingly brief, yet even fleeting glimpses of Shawn’s athletic all-male troupe performing in the 1930s are fascinating. Excerpts from contemporary-dance offerings feel more generous, with the irresistible highlight being Bad Boys of Dance’s Rasta Thomas performing Milton Myers’ “Bumble Bee” in which, for a minute and a half, he becomes the buzzing bee he swats and swallows.

For those who want more, a 74-minute version of the documentary is available on DVD and an extensive video archive is online at (click on “Exhibits & Archives” and choose “Dance Interactive”).

Jacob’s Pillow was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003, and in 2006 Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times pronounced it “the dance center of the nation and possibly the world.”

“Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow” makes that claim ring jubilantly true.

Michael Upchurch:

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