In Conversation with Norton Owen: Video & Preservation at Jacob’s Pillow

by | Sep 10, 2023 | Warm Note

Video is essential to dance documentation and preservation.

That’s why I sat down with Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, on Instagram Live this summer to talk about what makes the Pillow’s Archive so special.

I am so honored that my team and I get to contribute to such an important dance archive. It’s what we love to do!!!

The conversation between past and present

That’s what makes the Pillow such a special place. Dancers come here to perform and engage with the artists that came before them in the Archives. And audiences can experience the present in context with the past. It’s really amazing to see!!

It’s not just about documenting the work so the Pillow has a record, but so that we can share it!

Norton said,

“We can do all the archiving we like, but if things haven’t been documented to begin with then we have nothing to share. Documentation needs people to access it. It can’t be stored away somewhere. It needs to be accessible! The beauty of having it is that we can share it with others!”

We also talked about different ways of filming and documenting dance. Norton really likes to have a wide shot of the entire performance, but we always do multi-camera shoots too.

The Pillow keeps every single camera’s recording as well as the mix. So even if we focus on just one dancer for a minute or two, we still have other shots of the same performance. We capture it all!

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive is a really special resource

and a perfect example of how the Pillow makes its archive accessible to the public. It’s an ever-growing collection of dance videos filmed at Jacob’s Pillow from the 1930s to today, plus multi-media essays and a related podcast.

Most of the videos on JPDI are 1-2 minute snippets of performances. I asked Norton to talk what he looks for when curating these snippets.

“It’s different from the clips on Youtube or random places. It’s not just a random excerpt, we’re trying to pick something that is meaningful and that is representative of the work.”

JPDI is really about showing the essence of a performance or artist, doing our best to choose the snippet that best and most holistically represents the work.

We talked about how most people are using JPDI for this reason. They’re not necessarily looking to watch an entire evening-length dance, but they want to get a gist to remember a performance they saw live a few years ago, or maybe they’re thinking, “Oh that piece I heard about! What does it look like?” and they can view it pretty quickly!!

Dance historian and writer Wendy Perron commented during this part of the live: “Yes. The snippets on Dance Interactive are really a true education.”

It’s really exciting to be such a big part of this project. 

When researchers come to the Archives

I asked Norton how dance researchers utilize the Archives, and I learned that it always comes back to wanting to see dance.

They don’t just want to read about it, they want to see it!

Norton said he’s also become very aware of what the Pillow doesn’t have, like video documentation of what Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers were doing in daily class. They have written accounts, but they can’t actually see what class was like.

This awareness has helped the Pillow become more strategic about archiving, which helps my team become more strategic about documentation.

“What we don’t have [from back then], which is what we have now, is real time recordings of a particular class, like Milton Myers teaching a class or another choreographer teaching a guest class like Ronald K. Brown. We can say, ‘would you like to watch part of it?’ instead of going to a written account.

So awesome.

Tracking the evolution of the field

Another thing documentation helps the Pillow do is track the careers of dancers and companies.

Norton discussed how it’s impossible to predict if a dancer in The School or a member of a company will become a “mover and shaker” in the field twenty years from now, but if we document as much as possible, we can track the evolution of those artists.

His example is Nikolaj Hübbe, Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet.

“When we first videoed everything in the 1980s, during that time in The School’s Ballet Program there was a 17 year old named Nikolaj Hübbe. We didn’t know at the time that he would be a principal with New York City Ballet or Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet, but we knew he was talented! So when it came time when we were doing a documentary of the Pillow we could go back to showing him in ballet class, not because we were featuring him, but just because he was in that class!”

That is the beauty of what video documentation can do!!!

Norton and I agreed that it’s consistency that builds an archive. It would be stunning at this point if something that was performed at the Pillow wasn’t on video. We have it all!

I have to share… my team and I have shifted strategy over time and certainly tightened things up. We have a schedule for filming The School these days, but when I was an intern at the Pillow I would just be filming them for hours! (But I became a very good handheld shooter because of that!!)

“Welcoming the World” exhibit in Blake’s Barn

The “Welcoming the World” exhibit in Blake’s Barn this past summer is a perfect example of everything Norton and I discussed. Norton curated it with Tanisha Jones and Hari Krishnan, and it celebrates the return of international companies to the Pillow—something they have done for decades—after pandemic-related travel restrictions.

“We are now back to welcoming back many international companies to the Pillow, and we’re looking at all the international artists who have been here before and featuring nearly 100 of them. There are ways for people to grasp the enormity of this… and the fact that people have been traveling here since the 1940s!”

Documenting for Jacob’s Pillow every summer is one of the best parts of my job. My team and I feel so honored to be apart of this important archive of dance history!!

Watch my full conversation with Norton on Instagram @nelshelbyfilms !!!

PLUS: Check out this super fun video the Jacob’s Pillow Media Team put together this summer!!

Nel Shelby is Owner & Filmmaker for Nel Shelby Productions, her New York City-based company dedicated to dance videography and editing. Nel shares her mission to preserve and promote the art of dance with her husband, Christopher Duggan, a dance and wedding photographer. They collaborate on projects with dance companies of worldwide renown, up-and-coming choreographers, dance educators, dance schools and more. Nel is Video Producer at Jacob’s Pillow and Vail Dance Festival and is also the proud Director and Producer of PS DANCE! — a New York Emmy-nominated documentary about dance education in NYC’s public schools.