You go, Ruth & Ted! Denishawn revisited

Dance · Theater

It’s time to show some respect to Mom and Dad. In the lovable, but mildly dysfunctional family that is American modern dance, we kids all descend from the same parents. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were two brave souls who saw, then sought, a world beyond their respective birthplaces in rural New Jersey and Kansas City. And they took dance as a powerful entree point as they ventured into other cultures. Staging spectacles that were ‘best-effort’ approximations of cultural authenticity, they piqued the curiosity of their audiences.

I’m thinking that Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, to be presented the weekend of September 30 in New York, will be a spiritual experience — if not comparable to the rip-roaring Vaudeville presentations in which Ruth and Ted also avidly participated. There were several such forays into a commercial realm for this band of artistes starting in the teens; but it was the Ziegfeld Follies tour of 1927-28, beyond all others, that filled the coffers.

Antonio Fini, Siva, Nina Jirka in The Legend of the Peacock
photos by Costos

Ruth and Ted spawned all sorts of strange and wonderful offspring: boys, girls, in-betweens, and indefinables. And then there was Merce Cunningham, right?! Body people, all, they were claiming the right, in the sexually repressed and Puritanical early 20th Century, to express themselves, not through paint, not through scribbles on a page or a score, but through a most powerful instrument: their own bodies. Seizing upon this, they bent, stretched, and trained themselves to an unprecedented level of physical capacity. They took on the onus of expressing emotions and ideas; embodying ancient, exotic, and, in their view, primitive cultures and differing modes of being. All through dance. Yes, St. Denis held back a Black dancer, Edna Guy, employing as her dresser and maid. Yes, Shawn was gay and in the closet. Yes, the ethos of white supremacy and Antisemitism tinged and smeared the Denishawn legacy.

But please! Can we focus on what they did do, and not what they didn’t? In their era, they were not the reactionaries today’s woke scholars trip over each other to denounce. The truth is they were idiosyncratic, adventurous, entrepreneurial, individualistic, out-of-the-box-ish renegades. Out of this near dance-cult, Denishawn — birthed in Los Angeles circa 1915 and meeting its demise in the Bronx, circa 1931/2 — sprung an art form put to many purposes: narrative, conceptual, abstract, and decorative dance. Entertainment. Ethnic dance–theatricalized!

Jack Cole dancers George and Ethel Martin (Cole danced for Denishawn in its final years) put it this way:

Ethel: They were not technical dancers.
George: They were theater people.
Liza Gennaro, interviewing: It was highly theatricalized.
George: Very theatrical.
Ethel: Theatrical, beautiful.

George and Ethel Martin interviewed by Liza Gennaro, Goshen, N.Y., Jan. 17, Feb 25, 2003, sound recording transcribed, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
christine dakin, waltz/liebestraum

A roster of splendid New York dancers, modern-dance veterans, many whose placement on the Denishawn tree is clearly traceable, will partake in this performance. It’s a wonderful honor that they do so. Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn is the long-in-the-works labor of love of its producer Audrey Ross. The program:

  • Arthur Avilés, former member of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance and founder of BAAD!, will perform “Danse Américaine,” (1923, Shawn)
  • PeiJu Chien-Pott, former principal dancer and current guest artist with the Martha Graham Dance Co, will perform “A Javanese Court Dancer” (1926, St. Denis
  • Christine Dakin, former Artistic Director and longtime principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, will perform “Waltz/Liebestraum” (1922, St. Denis) 
  • Antonio Fini, principal dancer with the Michael Mao Dance Company, and guest with the Martha Graham Dance Company, will perform “The Cosmic Dance of Siva”  (1926, Ted Shawn)
  • Nina Jirka, member of the Vanaver Caravan, will perform “The Legend of the Peacock” staged for the Vanaver Caravan by Jane Sherman (1914, Ruth St. Denis) 
  • Valentina Kozlova, former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet, will perform “Incense” (1906, St. Denis)  
  • Bradley Shelver, Metropolitan Opera Ballet principal, will perform “Japanese Spear Dance” (1919, Shawn);  
  • Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble, principal custodian of the works of Anna Sokolow, will perform the trio “Choeur Dansé” (1926, Shawn), taught and coached by Francesca Todesco 
  • Limón2  will open the program with “Floor Plastique” (1916, Shawn), taught and coached by Henning Rübsam.  
  • Jonathan Howard Katz, pianist/composer, director of Periapsis Music and Dance.

Denishawn | Theatre at St. Jean’s 150 East 76th St, New York | Sept 30-Oct 3, four performances

Leave a Reply