Nestled among the majestic mountains and lush landscapes of the Berkshires in Massachusetts is a little bit of heaven and a lot of dance history.
For decades, artists young and old, as well as dancers at heart, have made the pilgrimage to Jacob's Pillow each summer for what has evolved into America's longest-running international dance festival.
Its name has biblical roots; 18th-century settlers compared twists and turns in the paths leading to the property to Jacob's Ladder, and a cushion-shaped rock became known as "Jacob's Pillow." Modern dance trailblazers Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, turned the land into a dance retreat in the 1930s. Ever since, it's become synonymous with world-class dance of all genres and iconic companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Paul Taylor and Martha Graham dance companies.
Now it's helping to usher in another generation of dance leaders, some of whom have ties to Pittsburgh. At this summer's festival, Pittsburgh native Kyle Abraham and local companies Texture Contemporary Ballet and the August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble were among approximately 500 artists and 53 companies that packed nearly three months of programming, wrapping up last week.
"Pittsburgh is an active dance community," said Ella Baff, Jacob's Pillow executive and artistic director. "I'm interested in discovering more about what's happening in Pittsburgh."
Texture, a 2-year-old company under the leadership of Alan Obuzor and Kelsey Bartman, and Greer Reed's equally young AWC Dance Ensemble made their Pillow premieres at the Inside/Out series, staged at an outdoor amphitheater with picturesque views of the surrounding hills.
Both companies applied and were accepted because of their distinct styles and strong repertoires, Ms. Baff said. Texture shared its original ballet "Infinity," created last year with Pittsburgh-based sinfonia and chamber singer group OvreArts. The August Wilson Center Dance Ensemble performed works by Camille A. Brown, Terence Greene and Darrell Grand Moultrie.
For Texture, Jacob's Pillow was a chance to reach a new audience. The company is looking to expand touring engagements beyond Pittsburgh, artistic director Mr. Obuzor said. It also was the realization of childhood aspirations. When Ms. Bartman was a student at The School at Jacob's Pillow, she thought, "One day I'll have a company and I'll perform at Jacob's Pillow."
"I got to say that," she said. Dancers also got to sign their names on the backstage walls, a rite of passage at The Pillow.
"It's just an incredible place to be and know you're part of history," Ms. Bartman said.
Jacob's Pillow not only was a chance for the AWC Dance Ensemble to soak up history but also to start a new chapter of its own. The festival marked the last time it would perform under the August Wilson Center moniker. It now will be called Reed Dance, a change sparked by the hiatus in programming and financial support the August Wilson Center for African American Culture had previously provided.
"I can't believe I'm achieving this within such a short amount of time," Ms. Reed said about the invitation. "It's an ending but a new beginning."
Many of the ensemble's founding members, who have since moved onto other projects, shared the stage with current company members at The Pillow.
"This has been what we worked so hard for," Ms. Reed said. "We became a family. We're all going through this together."
This summer was the third time that Mr. Abraham had danced at The Pillow. In 2012, he received the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award of $25,000. At the Ted Shawn Theatre, he debuted "Restless Creature," the highly anticipated collection of duets between New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan and four of today's top male choreographers. His company, Abraham.In.Motion, also presented "Pavement," a full-length piece inspired by Pittsburgh's inner city neighborhoods that he premiered locally in February as part of Pittsburgh Dance Council's 2012-13 season.
"Each time, I can feel the energy of all of the illustrious artists who've spent time at The Pillow," he said. "The audiences are charged with thoughtful information from scholars in residence on the companies and work taking place in both the Doris Duke and Ted Shawn theaters. It's a rare and wonderful way of approaching the unfamiliar and a re-imagining of what you might have seen in the past."
His company closed the festival alongside the Martha Graham Dance Company, whose founder was born in 1894 on Pittsburgh's North Side.
"I don't think there's ever been an instance when two Pittsburgh dance makers were performing both in the Shawn and in the Duke [theaters]," Mr. Abraham said. "Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Martha Graham, Gene Kelly and even Paul Taylor. We have a great history in dance and I'm always happy to acknowledge all the wonderful talent coming out of my hometown."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or on Twitter @SaraB_PG.