For years I have read critiques that Ruth St. Denis, by all reckoning along with Isadora Duncan the matriarch of modern dance, staged ‘faux,’ or non-authentic, ethnic choreography. Her lack of performative integrity caused her artistic offspring — Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Jack Cole — to rebel. But what does that mean?
I find this beautifully colored video to be instructive. Right at the jump, at 0:35 she does a hootchie-koo walk that is far from Indian dance. It is more ‘Hot Mamasita.’ You can see the way St. Denis breaks the spell and kind of mugs in the middle. It’s amusing. It’s vaudevillian, and she was a veteran of that circuit. But that would certainly be beyond the realm of acceptability to serious dance nuns like ‘Mirthless Martha’ Graham. It’s more than the mugging … her positions are vague, kind of ‘approximated.’ St. Denis did study Indian dance with her personal friend, La Meri. But it seems she did not go all the way. The bottom line is — she is entirely effective as she is. She is a good dancer. Audiences of her time would find her most compelling!
A yet earlier version of the St. Denis nautch dance here. It falls unambiguously more on the side of ‘entertainment’ than art: