This Summer’s Dance MVP: The Weatherman

BECKET, Mass. — A week after the Jacob’s Pillow season opened here, five dancers were rehearsing in the vegetable garden for a site-specific work, “Tillers of the Soil.” They tied up tomato plants, practiced wielding a machete and learned about the Native planting practice known as three sisters — growing corn, beans and squash together. The sky was clear.

“Paul said it’s going to rain at 3:30 p.m.,” said the choreographer Adam Weinert — and at almost exactly that moment, a balmy afternoon erupted into showers. The dancers fled the garden, laughing, wheelbarrow in tow.

Paul is Paul Caiano, an affable Albany, Mass., weatherman who this summer took on the role of first-ever resident meteorologist for the Pillow.

After last year’s festival was canceled because of the pandemic, Jacob’s Pillow moved its summer dance festival totally outdoors this year. But that has posed a new set of worries from an uncontrollable factor, namely the weather.

Even festivals and theaters that have had outdoor performances for years have found this summer singular thanks to extreme weather paired with Covid-19 precautions. Events outside in the elements have proliferated alongside record-breaking heat waves, sudden storms and flash floods.

At Jacob’s Pillow, that’s where Caiano, 50, comes in. He’s been a weatherman for almost three decades, delivering spirited daily reports for NewsChannel 13 and WAMC public radio. “I thrive from trying to give people the information they need to make decisions,” he said, “whether it be just to go golfing, or a bigger thing like having 10,000 people at their performance.”

Before this summer at Jacob’s Pillow, Vinny Vigilante, director of technical production, made weather calls on his own. It was lower stakes because there were fewer outdoor productions and less equipment involved. “This year, because we moved outside, I definitely was like, ‘I need help,’” he said. He’d heard that the Tanglewood Music Center nearby worked with a meteorologist. “And that turned out to be Paul,” he said.

In 2012, Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, invested in state-of-the-art weather-tracking software. It even installed a Thor Guard device, which the Coast Guard and NASA use to measure electrostatic energy in the atmosphere and to predict when lightning is likely to strike. Still, help was needed to interpret the complicated data, so the facilities manager Bobby Lahart began searching for a meteorologist. When Lahart cold-called WAMC, Caiano picked up. He’s been forecasting severe weather for Tanglewood’s outdoor stages since then.

Becket, the Western Massachusetts town that Jacob’s Pillow calls home, is a microclimate that’s difficult to accurately forecast. The grounds are surrounded by mountains, valleys and ocean winds. Caiano says the landscape is like a moisture-trapping bowl that wind blows right over, leaving foggy, wet conditions within. The grounds might be experiencing sudden showers, as on the day Weinert and his dancers had to cut their rehearsal short, while just 20 minutes away, the town of Lee is sunny, dry and clear.

That variability is an enjoyable challenge to Caiano, a lifelong weather nerd who idolized the meteorologists on the Weather Channel when young. But it’s been tough for the festival, which has had a 44 percent cancellation rate of performances so far this summer. (The festival continues through Aug. 29.) When there’s a rainout, ticket holders can either receive a full refund, rebook for another show or donate the ticket amount.

Every morning, Caiano checks his computer models first thing. He evaluates whether the predictions he made before going to sleep the night before have panned out and makes any necessary adjustments to his forecast. He then writes a detailed synopsis of the day’s weather for both Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood, including precise information about jet streams and wind shear. He also boils it down into layman’s terms: “If it comes right down to it, there’s only a 30 percent chance” of rain, reads one. “Let’s do this.”

A cancellation is not something Caiano takes lightly. Every show the weather disrupts means lost revenue, disappointed ticket holders and artists who don’t get to perform. It’s a difficult balance to strike. Be overcautious and a perfectly clear day goes to waste; be too bold and put the performers, audience and equipment at risk.

The final decision about whether a performance will proceed must be made four hours before showtime, to give ticket holders fair warning if it’s canceled. Once that call is made, Vigilante tells patron services, which emails ticket holders three hours in advance.

“They send you a nice email during the day,” said Enid Hoffman, who had tickets to see a performance by the Latin dance group Contra-Tiempo that was canceled because of rain. “They handled it beautifully, but we were looking forward to it. It’s like, you look forward to Christmas and then somebody stole Christmas.”

At Shakespeare & Company in neighboring Lenox, where outdoor performances have long been the summer norm, the artistic director Allyn Burrows and his colleagues consult weather apps and pore over the minutiae themselves. They huddle in the box office watching weather patterns on Burrows’s computer, or argue via group text about whether to cancel a show. “We’re as animated about the weather discussions as we are about Shakespeare’s text, so the debates are vociferous,” he said.

More than half of Shakespeare & Company’s shows this year have been postponed or moved indoors because of weather, and Burrows said that the concern isn’t just rainstorms, but extreme heat, exacerbated by climate change. Recently, he and his team fashioned a makeshift shade out of black mesh cloth on the fly on a particularly sweltering day.

“I’ve been performing outdoors for 30-odd years now and this year feels different than any other year,” he said. “Part of me likes to think of it as an aberration, but my better self is saying, continue to make plans.”

Further north, Williamstown Theater Festival in Williamstown, Mass., is also hosting its first fully outdoor season this year, on found stages, including the Clark Art Institute’s reflecting pool, where Grace McLean stars in “Row.” The musical lost nearly 60 percent of outdoor rehearsal time because of the weather, and six of the first seven scheduled performances were canceled. “It’s just been kind of disappointing and frustrating, because we’re not getting to do our job,” she said.

The sky was dreary, gray and damp the day before “Tillers of the Soil” — Weinert’s adaptation of a dance originally choreographed by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis in 1916 — had its premiere at Jacob’s Garden. The dancers spread straw on the soft, wet ground before the performance, but their feet still grew muddy and soaked as they danced. “We were able to still be in the moment with everything that was happening,” Brandon Washington, a dancer, said. “It ended up being super sunny and beautiful.”

For dancers, weather, especially rain, has meant being ready to be frustrated — or ready for the show to go on in tough circumstances. On July 3 at Little Island, a new park on the Hudson River in Manhattan, Hee Seo, a principal for American Ballet Theater, did not know until showtime whether her “Dying Swan” solo would happen. Even then, the rehearsal and show were both delayed, and when Seo started dancing, she could feel raindrops. “But we didn’t stop,” she said. “I carried on. I finished my piece.”

Artists and audiences have been hungry for performances, even as the cancellations pile up. The Trisha Brown Dance Company canceled performances on June 8 and 9 at Wave Hill in the Bronx because of rain. The company’s director, Carolyn Lucas, said the dancers rehearsed amid the drizzles until they couldn’t. “After this year of Covid, I think everybody is missing dancing and performing so much,” she said. “They were very flexible to sort of do something a bit more extreme just to get the show on the road.”

It’s unlikely there will be another summer with quite this particular mix of circumstances. And at Jacob’s Pillow, the hope is that there won’t need to be another outdoor-only season. But ever adaptable, dancers will continue to make the most of what’s thrown at them. As Washington said of his performance in the garden, “With everything that was happening leading up to the performance, the wet ground was kind of the least of our concerns.”

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