Four Nights in the Berkshires – June/July 2015
New England offers many groovy summer destinations, but few places in the world concentrate so many top-notch cultural opportunities as the Berkshires. These include the internationally-famous classical music festival at Tanglewood; perhaps the country’s most interesting dance village, Jacob’s Pillow (vintage photo on left); arts festivals, theaters, and dead writers/artists homes. And the landscape is phenomenal. You can get to the Berkshires from Boston in two to three hours. I love vacations I can drive to, but still feel that I’ve entered new ether. The Berkshires is creative and visual catnip, with its well-preserved old homes, dazzling landscaping everywhere, broad emerald lawns, rivers, and lakes. Just driving around the well-kept roads (compared to Boston’s pock-marked streets) is a vacation in and of itself.
This report covers a four-night stay in the Berkshires and gives you the flavor, if not a blueprint, of how to experience cultural immersion without exhaustion. I tried to include one daytime and one evening experience each day, with a few food and accommodation tips as well.
Monday, June 29
Despite the 10-mile backup on the Mass Pike due to road works that delay me by an hour or so, and a GPS that seems to believe that the longest possible route is the only choice, I arrive at my Airbnb condo in Housatonic with delight at how spacious, modern, handsome, and comfortable it is. If you’re headed this way and you’re looking for a two-bedroom rental, I recommend Alicia’s place. Check it out here.
I cruise to the nearby working class town of Great Barrington only to find my favorite second-hand and vintage stores are no more. I window-shop past a real estate office and even go scope out a couple of nearby, affordable ($200,000-ish) riverside condos. I skip the Monterey (nearby and fancy) listings that all hover close to $2 million. I return to Housatonic, stopping for dinner at the Brick House Pub (don’t miss the seductive sweet potato fries.)
Tuesday, June 30
BERKSHIRE CANOE TOURS
I start the cloudy day on the Housatonic River with Hilary Bashara of Berkshire Canoe Tours. My podiatrist had recommended her. Hilary is gregarious, knowledgeable, and besotted with the Housatonic River, which she’s lived close to her entire life. Bring a hat and sunglasses and she’ll supply you with a kayak or canoe and escort you through this exquisite part of the river. The water is like a mirror and because it is late June after a rainstorm, the banks are a palate of greens dotted with copious wildflowers. Hilary can spot turtles from across the water; she can name every bird and tell you how they organize their lives; and she knows more about beavers than beavers themselves. This is a unique Berkshires opportunity, and, rain or shine, it’s the perfect day-time foreplay to an evening of music, theater, or dance.
SHAKESPEARE AND CO
There are a ton of wonderful theatres to visit in the Berkshires area, but the one I try never to miss isShakespeare and Co in Lenox. Like their famous cousins - Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood – this company sits on a large campus with multiple buildings and provides both performance and educational programs, as well as Intensives for professional actors. Founded in 1978 by Tina Packer, they now have over 30 staff, 150 artists, and serve 60,000 theatre-goers every year. Their robust youth educational effort includes kids known to the juvenile justice system.
Tonight I’m seeing their Henry V, in which eight talented actors play all the roles of Henry V in a style this company calls “bare Bard” – no scenery or elaborate sets. The director Jenna Ware’s staging is impressively rich considering that she only employs chairs, cloths, chests, and the actors’ costumes on an otherwise empty stage. From that she creates a fire, a fence, gallows, and a castle. Henry V is about war and class, and about how marriage between enemy aristocratic families is used as political glue.
In an interesting twist from Shakespeare’s day when men used to play all roles, here we have women playing men’s roles. The intimacy of the small theatre amplifies the emotional impact of this Henry V, not the least the scene of a gallows hanging that delivers a disturbing jolt to the audience.
The rest of this year’s season at Shakespeare and Co is varied, for not only do they mount Shakespearean plays and other classic work, they also present contemporary works with social relevance for a casual and hip audience.
Wednesday, July 1
Many writers’ homes have been turned into museums in the Berkshires, an area so naturally beautiful that it attracts bundles of creative people. Edith Wharton’s home, The Mount, is perhaps the best known author’s residence. But Herman Melville’s home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield is truly a gem. The hourly tours are full of the inside dope on the life of Melville.
My erudite tour guide, Barbara, outlines Melville’s lifelong connection to the Pittsfield area and then hones in on the 13 years of 1850-1863 – before and in the early years of the Civil War – that Melville spent in this fairly simple farm house. Melville built a piazza (porch) on the north side for its view of Monument Mountain. The house was originally built on 150 acres in the 1780s and has been in the hands of the Historical Society for 40 years, serving about 5,000 visitors each season, according to Peter Bergman, head of their public relations, and a writer himself.
Using a quill pen, Melville finished Moby Dick and several other books in his study by keeping to a strict writing schedule, but was never able to make a living from his writing. Despite financial help from his father-in-law, a Revolutionary patriot and the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Melville had to leave the Berkshires for a Customs House job in NYC. (His friend and mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne also did a stint in a Customs House.)
Of the four children he had with his wife Lizzie, Melville outlived both sons, and only one daughter married and had children. He turned the details of his life experience into literature and, for his readers, a visit to his home gives added layers to his work.
A girl has got to eat and luckily Taft Farms is just down the road in Great Barrington. Founded in 1961, it has remained a Tawczynski family endeavor for generations. Besides its totally fresh-from-the-earth fruits and vegs, they have a bakery that is scandalously fabulous. I started with the most perfect biscuits (no sugar), scones (just like the best in the UK), baguettes (took my taste buds to France), mac & cheese (hard not to overeat), but most of all, the most scrumptious rhubarb and strawberry pie.
Jacob’s Pillow is, for me, the jewel in the crown of the Berkshires. As a dance center, it is unique and exhilarating. There are three main performance areas, all of which I will enjoy today and tomorrow.
The biggest theater space is the Ted Shawn Theatre, named after the founder and continuing inspiration for Jacob’s Pillow. Dance companies the world over aspire to be invited to this premiere venue. Tonight I see the incomparable tap company Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and her BIGLovely band in a collaboration called The Blues Project. In fact, I saw this show in Boston some months ago and when Dorrance announced that she would be performing at Jacob’s Pillow, I decided that I would follow her to the Berkshires.
Prior to the show, a Jacob’s Pillow resident scholar, Suzanne Carbonneau, gives a riveting pre-performance lecture. (This is a regular JP tradition and service.) Michelle Dorrance is credited with the rebirth of tap dance popularity in what the lecturer says is its second golden age. Its heyday was during the 1920s and 30s. “Tap,” Carbonneau tells us, “is the danced blues… It’s the encounter of African and European cultures… The history of tap is the history of America.”
The Blues Project (photo: Morah Geist) bears that out. A truly diverse range of bodies, ages, ethnicities, races, talents, and backgrounds makes the combination of this extraordinary dance company with this magic jazz band especially exciting. The works involve changing combinations of dancers in choreography, interspersed with improvised solos. The sublime moment comes when Dorrance and Reagon form a duet, with Reagon singing “I can’t stop myself from falling down.”
The company injects lindy hop, hip hop, acrobatics, and jazz into tap, holding it all together with an attitude that is full of rhythm and of admiration between the band and the dancers. Although the performance seems both shorter and slightly less intense than their Boston debut of this work, there are few dance companies that can match their sensational work in The Blues Project.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
HOUSATONIC RIVER WALK
Housatonic River Walk in Great Barrington is just a few lovely blocks of a wooden path created and maintained by 2,300 local volunteers with the permission of home and property owners. It's a lovely day for a stroll and I do love rivers, having grown up in a town formed by three of them.
This civic effort is one of many attempts to deal with the contamination of the Housatonic by the General Electric company which dumped PCBs into the water. When this crime came to light, it seems to have infuriated the entire Berkshires population. It’s been mentioned to me every time the river is referenced.
I am back toJacob’s Pillow for three different activities. First I take the tour of the huge campus that is offered twice weekly by one of the 33 interns accepted to the program this summer. (There are 25 full-time staff.) This young woman tells the story of Ted Shawn’s marriage and dance collaboration with Ruth St. Denis. Oddly enough, she understates that “the marriage did not work out,” and moves to describe Shawn’s most famous dance creation, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, who performed across the country ostensibly as a way to make dance okay for guys. The surviving footage and photos show a highly homoerotic choreography and in fact Shawn went on to have two long relationships with men, first with a company member and later with a stage manager.
I am bothered by the de-gaying of Jacob’s Pillow throughout my time there this year. Even when they announce the annual Out Weekend (July 4th), they do it without saying any of the queer words. LGBTQ people think of Jacob’s Pillow as a gay venue and I see many gay people at all the performances. The reluctance to speak with candor about Shawn and about the Out Weekend, which is really the high point of the season with a gala party and all, is perplexing.
I also cannot help noticing that anyone with a microphone – those introducing, lecturing, guiding, announcing – are all white, the majority women. For arguably one of the most important dance institutions in the country, that’s a missed opportunity. American dance, of course, owes a great deal to African-American performers, choreographers, and musicians.
The second of the three performance venues is Inside/Out, a floor with no walls or roof, perched atop a hill where dance students perform. Imagine a rough amphitheater. The performances are free and it is always standing-room-only. Tonight I see two dance troops from Williams College who drum and stomp their way into the audience’s heart with their African- influenced repertoire.
The third venue is the Doris Duke Theatre, smaller but more modern than the Ted Shawn theatre. Companies that are on their way up the professional ladder appear here. Tonight I see the L.A. troupe Bodytraffic, after a pre-performance discussion by Resident Scholar Maura Keefe. She outlines the four pieces by separate choreographers that comprise their program.
Although co-directed by Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett, only the latter is present and dancing with the company. Berkett is, in fact, such an extraordinarily accomplished dancer, that she outshines the rest of her company. The men who work with her are more prominently featured than the women in Bodytraffic (photo credit: Christopher Duggan). However, since Berkett appears in all four pieces, it is hard to take one’s eyes off of her. Following the program, there is a charming Q&A with Berkett, moderated by Keefe. One of the dancers has Barbeito on his phone on Skype listening in right off-stage.
Jacob’s Pillow has a magnificent line-up of companies throughout the summer, and no visit to the Berkshires should skip the campus, with its worn wooden structures and sense of neighborhood. There is a pub, a restaurant, an ice-cream vendor. There is a photographic gallery and a dance archive. There is a dance school, including classes open to the community. There is space for top professionals to have artistic retreats to work out new choreography – filling the gap created by New York’s wildly expensive rehearsal space. There are places to picnic and people watch, with a break to check out the cool stuff in their store. Ain’t nothing like it nowhere.
Friday, July 3, 2015
I only have time to pack up, clean up, and lock up in the morning. I feel reluctant to leave the Berkshires for the city. To compensate myself, I make a pit stop at Tafts Farm. I've ordered a pie to take home. And some biscuits. And some mac and cheese. For days, back in Boston, I will have taste bud reminders of four days and nights well-spent in the Berkshires.
Photo: Housatonic River Walk by Sue Katz