Ella Baff of Jacob's Pillow Two

Receiving the National Medal of Arts

By: - Apr 04, 2011


Part Two

Charles Giuliano Given the limited population of the Berkshires and its many arts organizations, all facing the same challenges, to what extent are the sources for funding tapped out. Are you and the other arts organizations bumping into each other?

Ella Baff By the way do you know that I’m on the board of directors of Mass MoCA? Our relationship with Mass MoCA is very important to us. We co present events there and hope to be doing more of that. In the next few years. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas which is coming on April 30th is a co presentation of Jacobs Pillow and Mass MoCA.

CG We have been used to having a production in October. It extended the Pillow season after it shut down. Now you have shifted to spring.

EB I’m not sure we are going to claim any one particular time. It depends on what artists are touring when. And being interested in certain artists and when we would be able to have them. It also depends upon budgets and the schedule of events in general. We got into a pattern and I’m not sure we want to be in a pattern. Both organizations would like to do more.

CG A fascinating new piece of the Berkshire puzzle is the restructuring of the Colonial Theatre and its merger with Berkshire Theatre Festival. Is there any chance of the Colonial as a Pillow stage in the off season?

EB Do you have funding? (Laughs) It’s all about spreading the word of dance everywhere.

CG Has there been any dialogue? Has Kate (Maguire) broached that in a conversation with you?

EB No comment. Not to be so mysterious. I would just say that we would love to be able to do more dance in the region. With respect to the Colonial. No we haven’t talked about it. In general if we had more resources we would love to just present more dance. We would like to expand our program with Mass MoCA for example.

CG The Mahaiwe does Paul Taylor and Alvin Ailey.

EB Ailey Two. Which is a different company.

CG Right now there is dance in South County at the Mahaiwe and dance at Mass MoCA in Northern Berkshire County, which is just great for us. But we would love to see dance on the Colonial stage. It just makes sense.

EB Are you involved in the Colonial?

CG We are involved with all of the arts organizations in the Berkshires. Editorially we try to be a resource for the arts in the Berkshires. We try to be a matrix for the dialogue so we are supporters in that sense. During the summer we are out five nights a week. It’s just total insanity.

EB I know (laughs). Everyone is out five nights a week. Without that we would all be out of business.

CG My training is in fine arts and art history. That’s my comfort zone. But in the Berkshires we are covering theatre, music, dance. So the learning curve is off the map. Which is precisely why Astrid and I settled in the Berkshires. In terms of world class arts there is just nothing like it during the summer season.

I have a quick question. How did you manage to snag Mark Morris away from Tanglewood this season?

EB I don’t think we have snagged him away from Tanglewood. Why do you say that?

CG Mark Morris appears to have become the Tanglewood dance franchise.

EB He is at Pillow this season. So it is not a matter of snagging him away. Mark Morris and Jacob’s Pillow have had a relationship since the 1980s. We presented the company, oh, I can’t even count how many times over a very long period of time. But we don’t present the company every year. There’s no pattern to it.

I’m just saying that we present the Mark Morris Dance Group and so does Tanglewood. We do completely different kinds of programs. There are things which he can bring to the Pillow including some very special kinds of works some of which were either premiered at the Pillow. It is a very long and very wonderful and very special relationship between the Pillow and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

Mark’s 30th anniversary of the company is this year. So we really wanted to make sure that we presented the company. And to give them a very special place in the season which is to close the season (August 24 to 27).  So it is going to be a really beautiful closing celebration. They have been at the Pillow for many many years before the relationship began with Tanglewood.

CG I would like to raise the flag that perhaps Tanglewood might broaden its reach beyond just Mark Morris every year. There are other great companies that their audience would love to see. You get the sense that there are boundaries between their turf and your (Pillow’s) turf. Is that an element? Do you try not to step on each other’s toes?

EB I don’t know. Our primary purpose is to present dance. Their primary purpose is to present music. The Norman Rockwell’s primary purpose is to present the work of Norman Rockwell. It is just a matter of what is your core mission.

CG The unique factor of seeing Mark Morris at Tangelwood is the opportunity to experience the company performing with the superb musicians of the BSO. That synergy is very special. How often do you get to present live music with your productions?

EB I am very passionate about music and trying to present live music. There will be five or six presentations this season with live music. Including a terrific tango ensemble Tangueros del Sur ((July 6 to 9) from Argentina. The dancers are amazing and so are the musicians. And for the tango you’ve got to have the music and the dance together. Mark Morris will have live music and several others. You can’t have big orchestras.

CG Let’s talk about your recent visit to the White House and honor celebration.

EB Yes. There’s one more thing about live music. There’s a lot of music that is being composed electronically. Sampled from a lot of different places.

CG Let’s discuss receiving the National Medal of Arts and the global status of the Festival. More than a part of the regional mix of the Berkshires The Pillow is on the world map.

EB Yes it is. You would be amazed at where I travel and people know about The Pillow. Some of that comes out in a documentary that is being made about Jacob’s Pillow. There are people who are interviewed and they are from all over the world. India, Stockholm and everywhere. Of course what we present on our stage, our faculty, our students, are from all over the world. You will hear a lot of different languages spoken at The Pillow if you stick around for a day. You will hear people from Greece, and Japan and Africa. It makes it very exciting as an international center for dance.

CG To what extent are you on the road seeing these companies in their natural settings?

EB As much as time and budget will allow.

CG Let’s discuss the awards ceremony for the National Medal of Arts.

EB Have you seen the video on line it’s about twenty minutes. The people who are there for the Humanities and arts medal are all extraordinary people. In the history of the medal only 17 organizations have been given the medal and Jacob’s Pillow is the only dance presenting organization to receive the medal. We are incredibly honored. Meeting the President and First Lady was a peak experience.

What you don’t see in the video is when all the medal winners were in the Green Room. They give you a lot of instructions and say at some point you are going to hear the fanfare and that’s your cue to proceed into the East Room. While we were waiting for the fanfare the President just walked into the Green Room. He said “Hi everyone and welcome to the White House. I’m here a bit off script and off schedule. My staff is a bit annoyed with me because I’m not supposed to see you until the ceremony. But I wanted to congratulate all of you individually.”

He proceeded to walk around the room and talked with each one of us individually. He knew what Jacob’s Pillow was. He talked about it in an informed way and he also said something very sweet. He turned to Michelle. This was later on when we had photo ops there was a little bit of chatting among me the President and First Lady, he turned to Michelle and said “It would be great we should go to Jacob’s Pillow.” Then he turned to me and said “You know they don’t let me out of here very much.”

They were the most gracious and intelligent and warm people. It was a great honor for Jacob’s Pillow and for Ted Shawn I wish he had been around. And for all the people who have contributed their time their money their souls. My board chair Joan Hunter was able to attend. It was great to share these accomplishments over the years with so many people. In our community and in the dance world and in the larger arts field. It meant a lot for the visibility of the arts and the visibility of dance. I am hoping that beyond Jacob’s Pillow it will have some meaning for the field and it will inspire people to support the arts.

CG One feels that you are a true ambassador for dance.

EB I hope so but as I said to somebody the next day I was home from the White House and back in the trenches. These honors are wonderful but it is really about doing the work. And sharing art with the public.

CG How challenging is it to put together a schedule. It would seem that you have to balance a lot of factors from availability to touring schedules. Then make it fit into all of the slots would seem like solving a Rubric Cube puzzle.

EB That’s a very good description. There are so many variables and you know them all. It’s great not having to explain it too much. It’s exactly what you are describing. There are the companies that are available. The kind of work it is. Budgets. Technical requirements. Reasons why specific works will not fit into the space. There are all kinds of timing issues. There are curatorial issues. You want to have a festival which has a certain rhythm and shape to it. Not to have eight ballet companies in a row not that there is anything wrong with that. Each week of the festival is very precisely planned. So the public has an experience that is rich and dynamic.

CG Over the past year how many nations have you visited?

EB I’ve been in Montreal a lot. There has been a lot that has come through Montreal that has been more efficient than flying to Zimbabwe. I hope to do a lot of traveling next year. I made an important trip to Havana. That’s why the two groups I’m bringing this year are from Cuba.

CG Was it your first trip?

EB No my second. Los Muñequitos de Matanzas have been covered a lot. There were these gorgeous big pictures in the New York Times. I hope that’s good for ticket sales. It’s coming right up at Mass MoCA. The company that I discovered down there DanzAbierta is a wonderful company. I saw 30 dance companies in five days. Attended meetings and went to lots of rehearsals. When I go on trips to other countries they are very intense and condensed. I see an enormous amount of work in a short time.

CG How many videos do you get submitted?

EB I get hundreds.

CG How many do you get to see?

EB I watch them all.

CG Do you have a committee or advisors who screen them and make recommendations?

EB My title is executive and artistic director. I do both jobs and as artistic director I make decisions about what we are going to present. I’m open to suggestions from anyone in the world of what is interesting to present. So there is no formula and rules. I love to hear about things that people have seen and that they think I should see. I have a program manager Ginger Menard who is my right hand. She does a lot of the cataloguing of the videos and is instrumental as a co curator of the programming of the outdoor stage. There are suggestions from all over and I have a terrific right hand person but I see everything and I make all of the decisions.

CG Do you have a personal life?

EB What’s that? (laughs) Jacob’s Pillow claims my entire attention.

Interview Part One