Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn transformed dance in America. Borrowing from a variety of influences percolating through elite culture including Theosophy, the Occult, and Orientalism with specific interests in Buddhism and Hinduism, the two forged new territory in international dance after founding Denishawn, a dance school and performing company in 1915. Denishawn made contributions to what would become a recognizably modern and American style of movement by discarding traditions of European ballet.
St. Denis’s and Shawn’s appropriation of non-Western and indigenous forms of movement was a search, in their eyes, for more “authentic” modes of self-expression than what many of their peers in their predominantly white and upper class circles believed existed in the industrialized West. However, it is not possible to separate Shawn’s Native American works from the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples in the United States and globally. Similarly, St. Denis darkening her skin with makeup to appear Southeast Asian can be interpreted as cultural imperialism that brings to the fore white performers’ privilege–then and now–to adopt at will the identities of people of color.
After separating from St. Denis in 1930, Ted Shawn purchased a rundown farm in the Berkshires known as Jacob’s Pillow. There he laid the groundwork for his revolutionary company of Men Dancers and the now internationally-renowned dance festival. Shawn’s choreography placed men, rather than women, as the dominant bodies in dance, and provided insights into discourses of masculinity and queerness in early twentieth century America.
WCMA and Jacob’s Pillow are jointly undertaking a project to conserve, research, and fully catalogue these archival materials. The elaborate costumes of St. Denis, Denishawn, and the Men Dancers, some of which date to the early 1900s, are emerging from the original company touring trunks for the first time in decades.