Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis transformed American dance with teachers around the world

On a warm summer night, a company of dancers comes to a park in Tokyo to see Koshiro Matsumoto, the foremost man dancer of Japan, performing kabuki. He performs to the music of stringed samisens and flute, drums and singers, transforming from one role to another — a young woman, a lion with a floor-length mane.

The young woman watching him in awe will study with him, and her company will bring his dance and music to the United States. She is 17 and newly chosen to join one of the first Modern dance companies in America in a tour across Japan, Singapore, India and Sri Lanka.

(In summer 2018) Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and Williams College Museum of Art are opening the trunks they took with them.

WCMA will show art and artifacts that have never before left the archives, in Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906-1940.

Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis founded Denishawn as a school of dance in 1914 and became known as international artists more than 16 years before Shawn came to the Berkshires.

In 1931 he bought an old farm to found another revolution — the Men Dancers — and an international dance festival on a mountaintop in Becket. His company’s performances have grown into today’s summer festival and year-round residencies, and Jacob’s Pillow has welcomed international dancers and dance companies since its first year.

That emphasis and passion begins early. In 1925, Shawn and St. Denis were married, and they were shaking the American dance and the arts at their roots. They thought of dance as an art and a spiritual expression. They were breaking with the formal, classical rigor of classical ballet, say Kevin Murphy, senior Curator of American Art at WCMA, and Caroline Hamilton, archives and preservation fellow at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

Shawn and St. Denis looked beyond ballet to define what dance meant. They formed a professional company and taught dance. They set out to create an American form of dance. And they found influences around the world.

In 1925, they took their company through Asia, performing as they went. They met dancers and choreographers, learned their movements and music and shared their own. Jane Sherman, the youngest member of their company, has published her diary and letters from that journey.

This summer, visitors to WCMA can see the kind of costumes she wore.

Hamilton and Murphy are co-curating an exhibition from more than 1300 objects. Costumes show the marks of body paint and wear. They were working clothes, Hamilton says. They were hauled across an ocean and a continent, cared for, sweated in and adapted. She has traced their use and re-use in layers of fabric and sequins.

As a costume specialist in the UK and an intern at the Pillow last summer, she has immersed in the chance to catalog the contents of these long-closed boxes. She has held her breath as she lifted a lid to find a head-dress or a jacket she had seen in black and white, in film and photographs, revealed in full color — the emerald green costume Shawn bought from a bull fighter in Spain for a flamenco.

The jewelry St. Denis wore to perform as the Chinese goddess of mercy, Quan Yin

glows like rubies in a portrait. Up close, Hamilton says, it looks like a button box — it is a stage prop made of beads and buckles.

In costumes, portraits, film and photographs, and live performances, WCMA and the Pillow will explore Shawn and St. Denis’ daily lives, their creative work and their many influences, from historical and spiritual movements and aspects of rituals.

The museums will engage honestly with the relationships Shawn and St. Denis developed across the world, Murphy said, both their passion for learning and understanding dance in many countries, and some more troubling questions this kind of work can raise.

Murphy makes a careful distinction between cultural exchange, when two people from different countries work together on equal terms, and cultural appropriation, when one culture takes elements from another — visual art, music, costumes, movement — and uses them without permission and without acknowledging the artists who created them.

WCMA and the Pillow want to open a conversation with visitors, he says, one WCMA has been exploring with Williams students and the Williams College Department of Dance.

Shawn and St. Denis travelled at a time when many artists in the West were feeling the effects of Modernism and industrialism and an increasing pace of life, he says, and looking for a sense of depth and spiritual connection.

Shawn and St. Denis found beauty in movement and music in many parts of the world and wanted to share them and to offer them to Western audiences as serious artforms.

But feeling awe is not the same as talking with the artists.

Murphy feels the distinction is deeply important today. He considers Feather of the Dawn, a dance Shawn choreographed inspired by the Hopi after a trip to Santa Fe. Shawn wrote about the experience of watching and listening to the Hopi dance on a clear day in the high country.

“He was entranced,” Murphy said. “He had never seen anything like it, and he wanted to elevate the dance and share it at the same level as ballet. Would people dance in these now? Absolutely not.”

Shawn made his own masks, sketching Kachinas in a museum collection. And for the Hopi the Kachinas are invocations, elements of faith that belong to them.

Sherman has touched on this tension as she edits the diary she wrote as a young woman. At 17 she recorded the beauty of the night in Tokyo and the sounds of the streets. Looking back years later, she sees the men who powered the rickshaw and carried her to her lodgings: “I apologize,” she writes, “for not having been conscious of the humiliation of being pulled in a carriage by another human being.”

Yet as a young woman on that tour she opens to the people and languages, music and movement around her.

In India, she is looking for Indian poetry and wanting to know more of the faiths and beautiful places around her — Jumma Majid in Delhi, where thousands of Muslims kneel in the courtyard of the largest mosque in the world, and the Jain temples, Parsi towers of silence, the Taj Mahal and the Golden Temple of Benares.

“I think I have captured enough of their rhythm, color, song, and suggestiveness to do a Nautch,” she writes, as women perform in vast swathes of skirts. “But in order to do a dance of more meaning, more depth, more truly Indian, I shall have to study more Indian myths and philosophy and try to create a dance from them.”

In Japan she is taking classes with Koshiro Matsumoto, “this great dancer-actor-teacher and his wife. … Through an interpreter, they explained the steps and gestures, demonstrating them with utmost grace.”

And she takes off her shoes and walks across soft straw mats, into a room with a wooden table and cushions, a long scroll called a takimono and a yellow flowering shrub, to have dinner at a family home and sit with her hosts on the verandah in the moonlight, looking down at the lights of Tokyo.

This story first ran in the June 2018 issue of Berkshire Magazine. My thanks to editor Anastasia Stanmeyer.

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