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Ruth St DenisAmerican Modern Dance


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#1 Lady Kay

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Posted 17 August 2009 - 09:25 AM

Ruth St Dennis is considered to be one of the first three pioneers of American modern dance, alongside Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan. What exactly was her contribution to the development of American modern dance? Her style was very different to that of the other two afore mentioned pioneers. Upon researching this question all I could find was that she helped create an audience for American modern dance. Surely she did more than just this? Another thing that puzzles me is why her oriental style is not reflected in American modern dance?

#2 rg

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Posted 17 August 2009 - 11:09 AM

there is a good selection of writings about St. Denis in English, for starters, you might like to explore the ground covered in the following books:

Sherman, Jane.
Soaring; the diary and letters of a Denishawn Dancer in the Far East, 1925-1926.
Imprint : Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press [c1976]

Mazo, Joseph H.
Prime movers: the makers of modern dance in America.
Imprint : New York, Morrow [c1977]
322 p. illus. 24 cm.
Notes : Bibliography: p. [301]-311.
: Includes index.
CONTENTS. - Loie Fuller. - Isadora Duncan. - Ruth St. Denis. - Ted Shawn. - Doris Humphrey. - Martha Graham. - Merce Cunningham. - Nikolais, Ailey, Taylor. - Twyla Tharp

Kendall, Elizabeth, 1947-
Where she danced.
Imprint : New York, Knopf, 1979.
xiv, 238 p. illus. 25 cm.
Notes : Bibliography: p. [219]-221

Sherman, Jane.
The drama of Denishawn dance. [1st ed.]
Imprint : Middletown, Conn., Wesleyan University Press, c1979.
xi, 185 p. illus. 26 cm.
Notes : Includes first performance notes and descriptions of 56 dances in the repertoire of the Denishawn Dancers, 1914-1926.

Shelton, Suzanne.
Divine dancer: a biography of Ruth St. Denis. 1st ed.
Imprint : Garden City, N. Y., Doubleday, c1981.
xvi, 338 p. illus. 24 cm

#3 LiLing

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Posted 17 August 2009 - 08:29 PM

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn can be seen as the "parents" so to speak of a modern dance family tree. They actually established a school and Company with a method of training. Two of their "children" were Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey, who went on to develop what we today see as classic modern dance. Their grandchildren----- Merce Cunningham, (Graham) and Jose Limon, (Humphrey). Many contemporary dancers can trace their lineage directly back to Dennis Shawn.

While Graham and Humphrey moved on from the ethnic subject matter that Denishawn favored, I do think you can see some Asian influence in the technique that Graham developed, the use of the flexed foot for example.

Edited by Mel Johnson, 18 August 2009 - 04:10 AM.
corrected spelling of proper names


#4 Simon G

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 04:34 AM

aaahhhh,

I wasn't going to answer because I think Lady Kay is a little bit naughty not doing her own research, if she were my student, that is if I were a teacher, I'd definitely have her stay late after school for six of the best. But liling's answer was off on the wrong tangent and the OCD in me wouldn't let me lie. so...

Lady kay,

Fuller, Duncan and St Denis can't legitimately be called the parents of modern dance, that accolade goes to Graham, Humphrey and Holm, but they can certainly be called the forerunners.
To understand Fuller, Duncan and St Denis you have to recognise that in the early 20th century there was no dance tradition in the US, also the chief entertainment was Vaudeville Theatre, this was before the days of motion pictures. Vaudeville was a form of mixed review which included circus acts, dance acrobatic acts, novetly acts comedians and it was the arena where Fuller more or less started and ended - Fuller wasn't a dance innovater per se, but her act consisted of wafting/ moving around a stage dressed in voluminous silk, trailing large expanses of silk, which she had cleverly lit so that it seemed to have a life of its own. She was a curiosity, an oddity and probably very beautiful to watch - the "dance" itself was secondary, probably no more taxing than mild Dalcroze eurythmics - but she was a popular act and probably a lovely mover - but her influence, if any on further generations is negligible except as a remnant of a lost era and entertainment form.

Duncan and St Denis is where it starts to get interesting. Duncan didn't see herself as a dancer, indeed she publically stated that she hated all forms of dance - if anything she probably saw herself as channelling a lost era of Sylvian Grecian harmony - it was romantic yet, naive however, by all accounts she was a phenomenal performer. Frederick Ashton cites her along with Pavlova as being his inspiration to become a dancer/choreographer and also one of the greatest performers he ever saw.
Again the technique was highly personal, if you can even call it technique - Duncan had acolytes, but because she resisted all efforts to codify or even record her dance it's been lost.
However, in 1975 Ashton created Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan for Lynn Seymour which Marie Rambert declared was exactly how she remembered Duncan to be:

This is pretty much all there is of Duncan dancing:



Tamara Rojo in Ashton's Five Brahams Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan

http://www.youtube.c...M...=PL&index=3

http://www.youtube.c...U...D71&index=4


There is an Isadora Dance Group how believe they carry on her "technique" and perform, yet this is just an echo of an echo, the art of Duncan was being lost even during her lifetime.



Ruth St Denis is perhaps the most intriguing and bizarre and indeed hard to get a grasp on of these three women.
St Denis was born ordinary Ruth Denis and like Fuller began her career within Vaudeville and popular concert dancing - what distinguished her was that she was a great dancer, however a great dancer without a technique or artistic ethos, though she yearned after real importance.

The change came when on tour with a play called Madame Dubarry in 1907, in which she provided some pretty dances or no great importance, merely embellishments, she saw an advertisement for a popular brand of cigarettes of the day called Egyptian Deities Cigarettes. The advert showed the goddess Isis seated in a pool surrounded by irises - and this inspired her belief that dance must be a sacred art form, that a dancer was a conduit for the "other" she then changed her name to St Denis and began her artistic/spiritual path.

And this is what's important to remember, St Denis was inspired by not merely Oriental, but Hindu, Egyptian, Japanese, Javanese dance and art and philosophy - but she never learned about any of these cultures in anything even approaching depth, it was a totally superficial reading. Her dances never attempted to study the original inspirations rather she would see pictures, images, snippets and imagine she understood the whole and create dances on these themes. Though she truly believed she was creating faithful, valid interpretations - it was a middle class woman, on a somewhat skewed mystical spiritual path.

25 seconds of an elderly St Denis dancing:



What saved her from banality and derision was that she was a great great artist. It wasn't merely Oriental dance she "appropriated" - one solo called Incense was a Sari clad hindu temple dancer, lighting incense in a great ornamental holder and then being moved by the "sacred spirit" to dance. Another solo called Spirit of the Sea had St Denis's head poking out of a great expanse of silk, held taught by her dancers at the corners of the stage (hidden) and St Denis rising and falling with the silk, dancing a sea nymph. And then of course there were her forayes into Orientalism, where she's get kitted out in Kimonos, Hopis etc and I daresay believe she was faithfully creating Japanese dances. There were Egyptian Goddess dances - Martha Graham's first role with Denis Shawn was that of a Priestess of Isis.
Later with Ted Shawn there were Spanish dances, Senata Morisca and full length works such as Xochitl, which told the story of an Aztec Princess.

And this is the important thing to remember is that this was dance theatre, dance pantomime saved from ridicule by the very real artisty of St Denis who viewed herself as a sacred creature and indeed until she met Shawn was a virgin. She was hugely respected as a dance artist at that time and was seen as real art, not mere Vaudeville. BUT the Denis Shawn Technique what there was of it, was not a technique as we now view Graham or Cunningham.

As Carolyn Brown, Cunningham's greatest female dancer, whose first dance classes were in the DenisShawn style said: "denis shawn could produce a dancer, but not a modern or ballet dancer".

St Denis's downfall began when she met Ted Shawn, her fame was such that people came to study with her, women & men, and Ted Shawn was a man hankering after stardom, he was also 15 years younger than St Denis and saw in the frustrated spinster a real hankering for sex and love. So he wooed her and married her and inveigled his way into equal billing and importance in the company structure and in 1916 DenisShawn was born with it's school and increased company commitments.

Shawn was also a total homosexual and used his position as Dance Pater Familias of Denis Shawn to basically use the school and company as his own personal gay knocking shop. He was also an exhibitionist, liking to go naked or near as damn on stage and unlike St Denis he was not an artist of any note. St Denis was the calling card and meat of Denis Shawn, a fact Shawn recognised and hated absolutely.

Because there was no dance training serious dance, in the US Denis Shawn in LA became a mecca for serious dance acolytes who were instructed in the curious take St Denis had on world dance, her own rather wafting and insipid techiques and in eastern philosophy and art as filtered through the naive world view of St Denis.

It was to Denis Shawn that Doris Humphrey, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman came and also aspiring movie starlets, the most famous being Louise Brookes - Denis Shawn was something like a finishing school/dance school/ cult. St Denis initially wrote Graham off completely and gave her to Shawn to train, she preferred Doris Humphrey. Though Shawn to his credit did recognise Graham as a serious artist.

St Denis' school and company collapsed for many reasons, St Denis was a poor businesswoman and her view of art was becoming increasingly anachronistic, the motion picture industry began to really take hold and the sham marriage with Shawn couldn't be sustained. With the collapse of the Denis Shawn school and organisation in 1927 Humphrey and Graham went to New York to carve out their own niches.

Graham went back to Vaudeville dancing little ethnic numbers with the Greenwich Villiage Follies but she saw the futility of this course and hankered after her own place in the world.

At first she decided to dance and teach in the DenisShawn style, and wrote to Shawn asking his permission to do so. Shawn wrote back demanding $500 for the rights which there was no way Graham could pay. So she refused and began to carve out her own technique - aided and abetted by Louis Horst, Denis Shawn's one-time music director.

This is important and vital to remember, had Shawn been more generous the whole course of world art would have been radically different. She created her own style and technique because she had to.

The flexed foot of Graham has nothing to do with dainty Oriental adorment - if anything it owes more the the Native American dances were the foot is used to strike and beat the earth, a culture Graham was fascinated by and which she studied in depth.

Graham technique is the antithesis of the Denis Shawn artistic philosophy were everything was surface and superficial approximation. Graham was about wrenching meaning and movement and validity from every moment and body part. The flexed foot of Graham is a dramatic and deadly device, it owes nothing to her training with Denis who if she ever did flex did it for mere adornment.

St Denis was lost because there was nothing there to keep. No technique to train a dancer properly, her dances were superficial oddities and curiosities and the intellectual ethos that underpinned it a lie or rather total misapprehension on St Denis's part. What does save it for the ages is the place of what was a veyr great dancer in dance history.

But her most famous proteges went on to succeed in a longterm way she never did precisely because they reacted against her to create the polar opposite and not because they took her ideas forward.

#5 leonid17

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 07:10 AM



Simon I enjoyed reading the historical content of your post but was apalled at your reference to Mr. Shawn in a manner that I find had a touch of the gutter and was an unnecessary element in your telling of the story.

It is not okay in my view to cast aspersions publicly on anyones private life on what is after all a website where serious discussions take place about ballet and dance.

It personally has put me off visiting balletalert as I always thought the standards of this site were extremely high.



Amended

#6 Simon G

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 07:57 AM

Simon I enjoyed reading the historical content of your post but was apalled at your reference to Mr. Shawn in a manner that I find had a touch of the gutter and was an unnecessary element in your telling of the story.

It is not okay in my view to cast aspersions publicly on anyones private life on what is after all a website where serious discussions take place about ballet and dance.

It personally has put me off visiting balletalert as I always thought the standards of this site were extremely high.



Amended



Any biography of DennisShawn, any serious one will say the same - perhaps not so bluntly, but what's wrong with bluntness?. Shawn used St Denis and her fame for his own ends, to push his dance, which was roundly criticised as being greatly inferior to his "wife's", his sexuality and the way he used Denis Shawn as a magnet for young men, carrying on affairs literally under St Denis's nose in the marital house. Also he was a rabid exhibitionist, any of the photographs taken of him in poses plastiques bear testament to this, he loved to dress up in scanty g-strings etc and pose on stage or in photos imagining himself to be eros, Osiris, a little woodland nymph etc , and given his soft musculature and rather rubenesque lower half that probably wasn't the best idea.

Graham was often used as a go between ST Denis and Shawn, his lovers and his tantrums, her auto biography and many other accounts including Doris Humphrey's and Agnes De Mille's all bear testatment to this, Shawn's peccadillos and his inferior status as an artist. These aren't aspersions, they're truths.

The only reason why Graham came under his "tutelage" was because St Denis considered her completely untalented and pawned her off on her husband, while she kept Doris Humphrey for herself. And I did say to Shawn's credit he recognised her burgeoning talent.

If anything Shawn's greatest contribution to dance in the longterm was the founding of Jacob's Pillow, BUT while he was alive his vehement criticism and attack of anything he considered NOT dance led him to publically denounce and undermine Graham, Cunningham, Limon and Humphrey.

Because first and foremost Shawn was a second class act and a bit of a Charlatan and it's wrong to paint him as a visionary. There's a story that once when on tour Martha Graham wanted to insert her "Moorish Spanish dance" as imagined by Shawn into a dance extravaganza based around the Mayans or some other ancient civilisation, Shawn forbade her saying it was totally inappropriate and Graham responded "who'll ever know?"

#7 rg

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:15 AM

small points and i suppose off-topic, but BalletAlert closed awhile back; the site in question here is Ballettalk.
the combined efforts of St. Denis and Ted Shawn are known in current dance-historical parlance by a one-word term: Denishawn.
St. Denis was born in New Jersey as Ruthie Dennis; David Belasco changed her name to St. Denis because, it is said, she displayed a certain primness that was unusual from what Belasco knew of chorus and/or 'ballet' 'girls.

#8 Simon G

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:25 AM

St. Denis was born in New Jersey as Ruthie Dennis; David Belasco changed her name to St. Denis because, it is said, she displayed a certain primness that was unusual from what Belasco knew of chorus and/or 'ballet' 'girls.



rg

This is where historical accounts do vary. It was the David Belasco tour of Madame DuBarry where Dennis became St Dennis, some say it was Belasco who changed it, not just because she was saintly but there's another story that he renamed her because she refused his frequent sexual advances. In several other accounts it was after seeing the Isis poster for Egpytian Deities that she took it upon herself to rechristen St Dennis.

I prefer the self naming following the cigarette poster epiphany - it's kind of sad, tawdry and banal and sums up for me what her art was really all about, surface glamour appropriated to pretty up a superficial approach.

#9 leonid17

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:29 AM

Any biography of DennisShawn, any serious one will say the same - perhaps not so bluntly, but what's wrong with bluntness?. Shawn used St Denis and her fame for his own ends, to push his dance, which was roundly criticised as being greatly inferior to his "wife's", his sexuality and the way he used Denis Shawn as a magnet for young men, carrying on affairs literally under St Denis's nose in the marital house. Also he was a rabid exhibitionist, any of the photographs taken of him in poses plastiques bear testament to this, he loved to dress up in scanty g-strings etc and pose on stage or in photos imagining himself to be eros, Osiris, a little woodland nymph etc , and given his soft musculature and rather rubenesque lower half that probably wasn't the best idea.

Graham was often used as a go between ST Denis and Shawn, his lovers and his tantrums, her auto biography and many other accounts including Doris Humphrey's and Agnes De Mille's all bear testatment to this, Shawn's peccadillos and his inferior status as an artist. These aren't aspersions, they're truths.


What has any of the above got to do with Lady Kay's original question and more to the point what has it got to do with dance. The simple answer is nothing.

I find your posts extremely odd, as they read as if you want to punish this man who has never done anything to you personally.

I think his status will survive your comments.

#10 rg

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:34 AM

i don't pretend to be all that well-read on St. Denis, and should have said that the Belasco version of the name-change i indicated above comes from passing, not thorough, knowledge of the subject.
i do thinnk, however, with more accuracy, that once Ruthie Dennis changed her name she was St. Denis (one 'n' - not two, in order to make herself seem more 'exotic').

#11 Simon G

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:41 AM

Leonid and rg,

My sincere apologies for my misleading and prurient posts. I shall in future try to temper my oddities and gutter mentality.

Simon

#12 leonid17

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:53 AM

i don't pretend to be all that well-read on St. Denis, and should have said that the Belasco version of the name-change i indicated above comes from passing, not thorough, knowledge of the subject.
i do thinnk, however, with more accuracy, that once Ruthie Dennis changed her name she was St. Denis (one 'n' - not two, in order to make herself seem more 'exotic').



Ruth Dennis under her own name appeared in three plays on Broadway produced by Belasco in 1901, 1902, 1903. In the "Dubarry" play Miss St. Dennis appeared at the Criterion Theatre Broadway from December 1901 to May 1902 when she was cast as Mlle. Le Grand a dancer from the Grand Opera

#13 leonid17

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 08:56 AM

Leonid and rg,

My sincere apologies for my misleading and prurient posts. I shall in future try to temper my oddities and gutter mentality.

Simon


You often write very well and I note that you are not lacking in humour.

I think Miss St.Dennis has a place in history and although neither alone as a solo performer or an orientalist dancer, she has made a mark on American dance history and is known of in England.

#14 Simon G

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 09:28 AM

I think Miss St.Dennis has a place in history and although neither alone as a solo performer or an orientalist dancer, she has made a mark on American dance history and is known of in England.



Leonid,

I never said she didn't have a place in history and I'm in England. She was a curiosity though, a moment in history and had she not had famous students who actually did go on to change the world in terms of dance and dance theatre one does wonder how enduring that legend would have been.

It's wrong however to call her an architect of modern dance, she wasn't. Nor to put forward a theory that hers was a technique which had any kind of lasting impact on the shape of dance, and one defintely cannot say that her dance was that of a dance historian or reconstructionist - it was a hugely personal take on eastern religions and philosophy.

At the DenisShawn school she would try and tutor the pupils in Indian philosophy albeit highly badly as she couldn't read or understand hindi, urdu or sanskrit so what she was giving her students was a bowlderised version of her beliefs with an "eastern" flavour. Moreover when new dancers came to her she catagorised them according to ethnic type she thought they best fitted. The 22-year-old, tiny, dark Martha Graham was written off by St Denis as a total loss, but perhaps she could be fitted into something "Japanese".

St Denis endured and succeeded precisely because she was a legitimate artist and by all accounts very great dancer, despite her rather scatterbrained and hokey spirituality (and let's not forget this Eastern-influenced, quasi mysticism was exceedingly popular amongst many in the upper middle classes in the early 20th century).

But it's also true that Shawn was the love of her life, which is sad as he most certainly could never love her sexually or romantically, and ultimately her downfall. Shawn isn't remembered with anything like the reverance or importance or St Denis.

Moreover, he wasn't the only one who made a legitimate career out of homosexual desire within the dance world. Dance, with its perceived looser morals has always been a magnet for sexual opportunists; but really what's so wrong with that? George Platt Lynes, probably one of the greatest dance photographers of all time was drawn to dance because he was gay, liked photographing naked men and dancers were more sexually liberated than laymen and more willing to get their kit off in the name of art. Ditto Lincoln Kirstein the greatest impresario since Diaghilev, sure he was educated, intellecutal and had an undoubted, profound love of ballet, but he also like sex and the dance and art worlds were a surefire way of having access to gay or sexually ambivalent young men.

I don't see why you're so tetchy about discussing the seedier side of people's motivations especially when like in the case of Ted Shawn, those sexual desires were indeed instrumental for the path their careers took. The DenisShawn school was a magnet for gay men, and Shawn famously took advantage of that, it makes his achievements or life no less than they were, but to suggest otherwise or that he was morally pure and devoted to St Denis is as false as Ruth's notion of spirtual enlightenment and the prefix of St before her surname.

#15 dirac

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Posted 18 August 2009 - 10:14 AM

I understand that when Martha Graham took up with Erick Hawkins, Louis Horst moaned, "It's Ruth and Ted all over again, and she swore to me it would never happen in her life." Quote from memory and could be inaccurate in the wording, but that was the gist.

The only reason why Graham came under his "tutelage" was because St Denis considered her completely untalented and pawned her off on her husband, while she kept Doris Humphrey for herself. And I did say to Shawn's credit he recognised her burgeoning talent.


The actress Louise Brooks danced with Denishawn when she was a teenager. I read a biography where the writer said that Brooks must have been a very talented dancer because Ted Shawn, no less, had singled her out - unfamiliar with the internal dynamics of the troupe, he didn't realize that being handed off to Teddy was no great compliment. (I'm sure Brooks was perfectly lovely, though. She danced with Shawn in Xochitl.)


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