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Opinion / Analysis / Essays

The director of Jacob's Pillow

A refuge in the woods contrasts with life near the stage

OTIS -- After living together in the San Francisco Bay area for almost 18 years and being married for 16 -- the ceremony took place on the water under fireworks --Ella Baff and John Badanes found themselves house hunting on the opposite coast.

That was seven years ago, after Baff was named executive director of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. A board member who was also a real estate agent started faxing them possibilities, leading to a whirlwind week of looking at 12 prospective homes. They settled on a modern open-concept house tucked into the woods and looking out onto a sloping meadow. ''We walked in and said, 'This will do,' " said Baff.

''The craftsmanship leaves something to be desired, but we liked the vibe," she said.

One big attraction was that it had ''the right amount of privacy." Another was that it needed very little renovation or maintenance. ''I'm not good at maintenance or caretaking," said Baff. ''I can't even be responsible for a houseplant at this point in my life."

That's largely attributable to her job at ''The Pillow," as she refers to the summer showcase and conservatory for all things dance, where she leads both its administrative and artistic sides. That means she spends a great deal of her time schmoozing donors and scouting for talent. ''My life is a little bit like being on tour," said Baff, 51. During the off-season she is busy (with the help of a year-round staff of 20) raising the half of her $4 million budget not covered by ticket sales and special events. She also travels the country and the world to select the 44 dance companies that appear on the Jacob's Pillow stages each summer.

Her home is her refuge. She and Badanes, 58, a former acupuncturist and chiropractor who studied to become a pharmacist after losing faith in alternative medicine, appreciate their solitude and hardly ever entertain. ''We entertain each other," said Badanes, who fills prescriptions at the Brooks chain of drugstores.

He also does all of the cooking. His talent, they both agree, is producing delicious meals even when the cupboards seem all but bare.

The kitchen, dining area, and living room all run together on the middle floor of the three-level house. Anchoring the abode is a woodstove, which taps into the red brick chimney extending all the way from the oil furnace in the basement through the cathedral ceiling that covers the living room.

The decor reflects their taste: simple, international, and eclectic. They acquired much of their furniture and wall decorations through chance encounters. Emblematic of their aesthetic, which involves taking things in life as they come, is the mezuzah on the front door: It was put there by the previous owners, who were Jewish. Baff and Badanes' spirituality tends toward Buddhism, but they kept the symbolic Torah scroll because it reflects their heritage. They don't mind being referred to as ''Jewboos."

Baff prizes her collection of posters from all over the world in many different languages. ''I have a tremendous appetite for art," she said. And that includes books and music. There is a bookshelf in every room and the titles reflect her interests, which run from dogs and cats to history, archeology, psychology, and more.

A piece of furniture that holds special significance to them is a George Nakashima dining room set Badanes' father, a New Jersey home builder, bought from the famous Japanese-American craftsman in 1955. Nakashima's tables and chairs are now exhibited in places such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

''I grew up with this table so it has more sentimental value than you can imagine," said Badanes. ''I used to sneak peas into my brother's milk across this table."

Baff's talents as an impresario, both in her work and in her personal life, are characterized by her remaining open to possibilities, seeing beauty, and saying yes when opportunity presents itself. The fireworks display at her wedding is a perfect example. She chose the date, July 4, because she decided that their coming together was worthy of some ''production values."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

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