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"Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob's Pillow"

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This PBS documentary was shown in my neck of the woods last night and it was pretty good. It would be worth seeing if only for last glimpses of interviewees Merce Cunningham (looking a little wan) and Frederic Franklin (bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever). Structually it’s a little loose – we hop from choreographer to choreographer and clip to clip – but the dance segments are enjoyable and the setting of course is beautiful. Also heard from are Rasta Thomas, Judith Jamison, Bill Irwin, Paul Taylor, and Mark Morris (his work isn’t for everyone, but it’s for anyone? Gee, where did that come from?)

We get some history at the beginning, with a few shots of Denishawn and Teddy with Miss Ruth. The marriage is mentioned, Shawn’s homosexuality is not – come on, people, it’s the 21st century – and the manliness of Shawn’s enterprise is reinforced with photos of shirtless young men with saws and hammers, building Jacob’s Pillow with "their bare hands," as Bill T. Jones’ voiceover helpfully informs us.

I was pleasantly surprised by the interview with Suzanne Farrell and to see extended clips from her company (although you could argue that time from those clips could have been more fairly distributed to lesser-known troupes). The longstanding association between Jacob’s Pillow and the Royal Danish Ballet also gets screen time, with remarks from Nikolaj Hubbe.

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I thought it was an interesting documentary, with many thoughtful interviews. I might have reduced the amount of time spent on the trials and tribulations of Rasta Thomas in preparing his show, as that became boring relatively quickly. I especially enjoyed comments from Mark Morris, Judith Jamison, Merce Cunningham, and Freddie Franklin.

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There was an advertisement at the end for the "74-minute" version on the DVD. After I edited the broadcast to remove all but the central documentary, I clocked in at 53 minutes, or another 21 minutes (about 40%) of material. I suspect it's more commentary and footage by the same people. If anyone purchases the DVD, I'd appreciate it if you'd post to tell us what we missed on the broadcast.

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I had my usual mixed feelings, mainly about the busy, intrusive presentation of the dance material: Constant cutting, "clever" angles on material generally meant to be seen from the front, etc., constantly drawing attention to the video production and away from the performance content in those bits; upstaging them, really. If this program was supposed to have promotional value, would that have been weakened or reduced if the viewer were let sink into the performances?

In spite of that, I had some enjoyment of such things as Shawn's "manly" dances, which I'd only heard about, and other things I'd never seen. Jacob's Pillow does have an extensive archive to draw on, as well as seemingly all manner of current movement ideas under development. Or maybe in ferment is the phrase! I, too, was agreeably surprised by the amount of time given to Farrell, a very intelligent lady and verbally articulate, and her troupe, although here again I wish they had been better photographed.

I'm curious about whether the long version of the program has material of an essential different kind, or what? Frankly, I'm not sure this is a keeper as it is.

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