Crickets, Bonfires And Dance Alfresco
The Mount Tremper Arts Festival is a summertime dance destination in the Catskills where cellphones aren’t much use.
By CLAUDIA LA ROCCO
Published: July 15, 2010
MOUNT TREMPER, N.Y.
THE photographer Mathew Pokoik swears he didn’t choose this charming Catskills town as the home for an interdisciplinary festival because of its almost total lack of cellphone reception.
“Although it also makes for a perfect residency experience,” he added in an e-mail message about the summer-long event he founded with the choreographer Aynsley Vandenbroucke, his wife.
Dance companies “tend to panic when they first get here, and then settle down to work without that distraction pretty quickly.”
What a luxury it is for artists and audiences to sink into a show knowing there won’t be a single electronic trill to break the spell. And how lovely to experience serious art while surrounded by nature.
The Mount Tremper Arts Festival is one of several events that allow New York dance enthusiasts to get a choreographic fix while escaping the city.
“There’s something about breathing the night sky while you’re dancing, or during the day when it’s super warm,” said Gretchen Smith, a corps dancer with New York City Ballet, which is performing in the open-air Saratoga Performing Arts Center through Saturday. (The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company will also perform there on July 28.) “You can see the people sitting in their seats with wide eyes. It’s a really cool experience.”
Saratoga Springs, Mount Tremper and Jacob’s Pillow, in Becket, Mass., are three of the summer’s most promising dance destinations. All offer plenty of small-town charm, with quirky shops and restaurants and outdoor activities galore to fill up a visitor’s off-theater hours.
As Katryn Geane, the Pillow’s marketing and communication coordinator, put it, there’s “quintessential Main Street cuteness” everywhere you look.
Whether the thought of a night in the mountains without cellphones inspires bliss or terror is a pretty good litmus test for how much you’ll enjoy a trip to Mount Tremper, a delightfully homespun but highbrow summer series running through Aug. 15 in Catskill Park. How do you spot the newly arrived tourists? Look for the folks wandering up and down the main drag of nearby Phoenicia, phones held aloft in a vain search for wireless hot spots.
For a more, er, lively distraction, try a short hike up the nearby Kaaterskill Falls. It’s an easy trek, but whether you make it to the top may depend on how deeply you dig into the mountainous stack of pancakes at Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia. If hiking is out of the question, amble over to Homer and Langley’s Mystery Spot Antiques, a treasure trove of miscellany: homemade bric-a-brac, a decent selection of art books and even desiccated taxidermy.
The evenings are quickly filled with performances by the likes of Miguel Gutierrez and the Powerful People or Foofwa d’Imobilité, just a few of the interesting names that are making the young festival a draw. For a postshow bite, Mr. Pokoik cooks a mean pork belly, and there are often yummy things to sample (some plucked from the garden he maintains with Ms. Vandenbroucke) while sitting around a bonfire. Friday night conversations and in-progress showings include entire home-cooked meals.
One of the chief pleasures of all of these areas is how far away they seem from Manhattan even though you can get there quickly. “It feels like an escape, but you’re close enough to the city so you’re not terribly inconvenienced,” the City Ballet principal Daniel Ulbricht said. Referring to the grounds surrounding the Saratoga theater, he added, “In the depths of the park you really feel you’re away from civilization.”
Visitors can get even farther away by renting a boat on Lake George. Keep an eye out for City Ballet dancers, who often spend free afternoons enjoying the water. Others prefer civilization when they’re not performing in, say, an all-Jerome Robbins program, as on Friday, or a mixed bill on Saturday. And Saratoga’s vintage spot, according to several dancers, is the Reruns Consignment Shop — “the best vintage store in the world,” Ms. Smith declared.
Clothes-minded attendees at Jacob’s Pillow might consider staying in Lee, Mass., at the Appleton House Bed & Breakfast, which is run by Tamy Heeren. She’s also the proprietor of FancyPants Consignment Café, specializing in designer labels.
“I tend to be my own best customer,” Ms. Heeren said, laughing and twirling in a flowing green skirt. She also bakes delicious apple turnovers, served as part of a free breakfast at the Appleton.
But the must-try culinary experience near Jacob’s Pillow is at the storied Dream Away Lodge, a restaurant, bar and music spot tucked in the woods of Becket. Visitors are welcomed by a bonfire, the warm neon glow of a Coors Light sign (though the cocktails are the thing to order) and fabulously idiosyncratic décor: chicly mismatched table settings, eclectic art and indefinable knickknacks. I enjoyed fresh strawberries and cream on a tray and a tart gin concoction while listening to the folk singer-songwriter Gretchen Witt.
“It’s been described as Brigadoon,” said Daniel Osman, a former actor who has run the Dream Away since 1997, and who seems to know pretty much everyone — many of them artists — who walks in the door. GPS devices don’t even know how to find the lodge, as its Web site cautions. But Amy Loveless’s sophisticated menu would be at home in Manhattan.
In keeping with the festival’s natural setting, hiking and swimming are options during the day. The Appalachian Trail runs across Route 20 just south of Becket. Or visit the nearby Becket Land Trust Historic Quarry and Forest and walk the trail leading to a lake surrounded by dramatic rocky outcrops. The evenings, of course, are taken up with performances through Aug. 29. (Armitage Gone! Dance and the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company are scheduled this weekend, along with classes, free exhibitions and outdoor performances.)
One of the best things about seeing dance outside of New York is the chance to have more personal encounters with artists. One night at a Mount Tremper bonfire, I listened to the choreographers Nora Chipaumire and Souleymane Badolo and the drummer Obo Addy talk endearingly of their fears of harmless garden snakes. The next night I watched them perform “I Ka Nye,” a powerful cycle of duets, in the studio built by the festival. As night fell the mountains darkened to silhouettes, and the sound of crickets and bullfrogs drifted in through the open windows.
“You tend to forget how much beautiful nature there is really close to New York,” said Ivan Talijancic, a New York multidisciplinary artist who had come up to see the show. “We all need to get out more and hug trees.”
JACOB’S PILLOW DANCE FESTIVAL Through Aug. 29, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Mass.; (413) 243-0745, jacobspillow.org; $10-$68 and more than 200 free events.
APPLETON HOUSE BED & BREAKFAST 455 Chapel Street, Lee, Mass.; (413) 243-9093, appletonhouse.com.
BECKET LAND TRUST HISTORIC QUARRY AND FOREST Hikes and more, 456 Quarry Road, Becket, Mass; (413) 623-2100, becketlandtrust.org.
DREAM AWAY LODGE 1342 County Road, Becket, Mass. Web site has driving directions; (413) 623-8725, thedreamawaylodge.com.
FANCYPANTS CONSIGNMENT CAFÉ 28 Park Street, Lee, Mass.; (413) 243-0011.
MOUNT TREMPER ARTS FESTIVAL Through Aug. 15; (845) 688-9893, mounttremperarts.org; all events, $15.
HOMER AND LANGLEY’S MYSTERY SPOT ANTIQUES 72 Main Street, Phoenicia, N.Y.; (845) 688-7868, lauralevine.com/mystery-spot.
KAATERSKILL FALLS TRAIL localhikes.com, search for “Kaaterskill Falls.”
SWEET SUE’S 49 Main Street, Phoenicia, N.Y.; (845) 688-7852.
CITY BALLET Through Saturday, Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; (518) 584-9330, spac.org; $18-$72.50.
DOCKSIDE LANDING Boat rentals, 47 Canada Street, Lake George, N.Y.; (518) 668-4300, lakegeorgeboats.com.
RERUNS CONSIGNMENT SHOP 1 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; (518) 583-9153.