The crux of Lady Kay's question was whether St Denis had a legitimate technique based around ethnic dance forms which influenced the following generations of modern dance innovators.
However, this specifically could only be in relation to Graham & Humphrey/Weidman who were the only true dance innovators to have studied with Denishawn. Humphrey's aesthetic & body of work is so unrelated to ethnicity specifically eastern ethnicity that one could argue that if anything the only way St Denis influenced Humphrey was to run as far away as possible from St Denis and everything she stood for.
Graham however is a very different story, as a strong undercurrent of and influence of eastern philosophy and aesthetics does run throughout her work HOWEVER unlike St Denis Graham made a huge, personal and lifelong effort to not just study these religions, cultures and aesthetics as a surface glamour, but to to try and fully understand the genesis and meaning of these cultures to which she was drawn.
Graham's first solo concert was a series of studies in movement in 1926 which she freely admitted borrowed heavily from Denishawn and what she learnt there because she had no point of comparison to anything else. Indeed one piece entitled Study in Lacquer
had Graham enshrined in folds of silk kimonos, a full geisha wig on her head, immitating a porcelain Japanese figurine then came the final rift with Denishawn when she was forbidden to teach or perform in the style without paying rights she couldn't afford. It was at this point that you could say Martha Graham began as an artist.
Graham's breakthrough came three years later with the concert in which she performed the solo Dance
- in this concert their became apparent the contraction, the release, and the personal aesthetic which was to inform her art and technique.
Graham's interests in ethnic cultures were concentrated on Native American dances, for rain, fertility, war, but she wasn't copying, she studied the cultures attended ceremonies amongst tribes. The way the foot stamps the earth, flexes demanding favours of the gods - this was what Graham was about.
Her studies in the eastern philosphies especially Kundalini weren't about pretty concert pieces, she wasn't interested in these cultures because she could be pretty onstage - she was interested in the deep spiritual side of performance and dance as held by primitive cultures.
Because her first legitimate masterpiece Primative Mysteries
in 1931 whilst dealing in wholly Catholic material was the Virgin's grief as if reimagined by a Native American religious order. Graham's art and technique was brutal, visceral and wholly unconcerned with surface - the antithesis of Ruth St Denis for whom spirituality was synonymous with prettiness, beatitude and whimsy. Martha Graham famously said of her admiration of the Native American's brutality "they worship a God who died in torture" - for Graham worship, torture and veneration were the qualities which interested her within ethnic dance and philosophy.
Her solo of 1944 Herodiade
her dance at 50 as a farewell to youth, in which a woman confronts her mortality in a mirror was inspired intellectually by Burmese film footage of village priestesses' ritual of kissing the crown of a cobra's head in order to ensure the birth of male children to the village - and although the dance had no re-enaction of the ritual, the power of that primative culture underpinned Herodiade.
Amy, you may be interested in what Lincoln Kirstein said about Horst in eulogy "He believed in art without compromise... the real value of Louis Horst was that he gave a morality to choreography."
And martha Graham wrote in the New York Times " His sympathy and understanding but primarily his faith gave me a landscape to move in. Without it, I should certainly have been lost."
One can't underestimate Horst's influence in the creation of Martha Graham, but there's a flipside to Kirstein's evalutation, though Horst was without compromise, he rarely compromised on his own beliefs of what choreography and dance should be and morals are utterly personal to the individual. With Graham he had his life's work and that sadly obliterated his valuing a modern dance landscape which was ephemeral and shifting radically throughout his life. Cunningham, Taylor, Limon, all were second class artists, talents, God knows what he thought of the Judson Church Group, there's the famous story of his review of Paul Taylor's solo concert in which he stood still for ten minutes doing nothing, Horst responded with a blank 3 inches of column space with his name at the bottom. For Horst the beat and the movement were synonymous. But that was his morality and he stuck to it, passionately.
Horst also loathed Shawn, he revered St Denis as a great dancer, but not her dance as being great, and he found her Vaudevillian dances distasteful - he had no belief in Denishawn as a significant or enduring legacy of art.
This is quite an interesting quote by Agnes De Mille about St Denis's technique of dance and creating dances:
"Miss Ruth was an improviser. She disliked steps and would not fix or settle on any. Also, she found it difficult to remember them. On occasion she was extraordinarily communicative and moving, like any other votive priestess. As other times she was flat"
And there's another one in which she sums up St Denis's legacy which is harsh, but very tragic and moving and probably quite true:
She was like a body on a gallows, left hanging in the weather as a warning
Denishawn as a venture was overextended from the start, they couldn't afford the school, or the huge rounds of double tours one led by Shawn the other by St Denis. The whole enterprise was the hubris of Shawn and St Denis can hardly be blamed for succumbing to the attentions of a much younger man - this was a woman who had lived 20 or more years under the mantle of assumed Sainthood. Humphrey, Weidman, Graham all left her Horst only stuck around because he was having an affair with Graham and new she was the real deal, as soon as she left he did. And Shawn needed to live free of the middle aged woman he was married to, to pursue his life as a homosexual. Certainly his all male dance group was a short lived venture in the annals of modern dance history. Though he did continue to support her financially throughout her life.