Monday, March 2, 2009
Ruth St. Denis
Ruth St. Denis in Legend of the Peacock (1914). (Photograph from the archives of Jacob's Pillow, Becket, Massachusetts.)
Ruth St. Denis
St. Denis was born Ruth Dennis on a New Jersey farm in the late 1870s. Her mother was an intellectually restless woman with a strong mystical bent. Young Ruth was a natural dancer
who taught herself splits and cartwheels in imitation of circus sideshows she had seen; she also took some lessons in ballet and ballroom dancing, and her mother instructed her in the rudiments of Delsarte's "expression." One of the happiest memories of her childhood was going with her mother to a lecture¬-demonstration by Genevieve Stebbins, the American popularizer of Delsartism. Before she was out of her teens, she was working as a show girl in vaudeville, doing what were known as "skirt dances," a free-form mix of clog danc¬ing, ballet steps, and acrobatic kicks performed in a flouncy skirt with just enough leg showing to keep the interest of male spectators. She attracted the eye of Stanford White, the New York architect who fancied himself a patron of the arts, and of David Belasco, the Broadway impresario, who saw in her a potential musical-comedy star.
In 1900, while touring Europe with a Belasco production, she visited the Paris Exposition and saw Lore Fuller dance; she also saw a theater troupe from Japan that Fuller was sponsoring. The star of this troupe, Sada Yacco, made a great impression on Western audiences in her role as the homicidal dancing girl in an adaptation of the kabuki classic The Dancing Maiden at Dojo Temple. Ruth Dennis stayed with Belasco for four more years, metamorphosing into Ruth St. Denis, a name which both her moth¬er and her producer thought more suited to her rather refined stage presence. Then one spring afternoon in Buffalo, New York, she experienced a spiritual awakening while sipping an ice-cream soda with a friend in a drugstore. Opposite her on the wall was an eye- catching poster advertising Egyptian Deities, a popular brand of cigarettes; the poster showed a bare-breasted woman, who was supposed to be the goddess Isis, seated in state amid pillars and lotus blossoms. Years later Ruth St. Denis described her reaction to the poster in terms appropriate to a religious conversion:
"Here was an external image which stirred into instant consciousness all that latent capacity for wonder, that still and meditative love of beauty which lay at the deepest center of my spirit.... I identified in a flash with the figure of Isis. She became the expression of all the somber mystery and beauty of Egypt, and I knew that my destiny as a dancer had sprung alive in that moment. I would become a rhythmic and imper¬sonal instrument of spiritual revelation rather than a personal actress of comedy or tragedy. I had never before known such an inward shock of rapture."
Trying to shape her vision into a dance suitable for the stage, she recast the Egyptian goddess as Radha, Indian milkmaid and consort of the Hindu deity Krishna. A loosely defined Orientalism was in fashion during the early years of the century, and St. Denis's creation had just the right blend of sensuality and spirituality to appeal to a broad audience. In 1906 she danced as Radha in a New York variety theater and in the same society salons that had welcomed Isadora Duncan six years earlier.
A beautiful, big-framed woman with an unusually supple upper torso, St. Denis appeared as Radha wearing a gauze skirt, a bejeweled jacket that exposed more flesh than it concealed, and some bracelets and anklets; her feet were bare. Her music was from Leo Delibes's opera Lakme. According to the program notes that St. Denis wrote to explain the symbolism of her dance, Radha manipulates a series of props¬ - ropes of flowers, a string of pearls, tinkling bells, a cup of wine-to demon¬strate to the temple priests the danger¬ous lure of the senses. After succumbing to a transport of sinuous body move¬ments, high kicks, and acrobatic back bends, she swoons, renounces the life of the senses, and returns to the meditative lotus position with which the dance began. Like Duncan, St. Denis had found a model for her personal approach to the dancing body in the tradition of a culture far removed from her own experience. "As I see it," she wrote later, "the deepest lack of Western cultures is any true workable system for teaching a process of integration between soul and body."
Americans had inherited from Western Europe a set of attitudes toward dance that distinguished between ballet as a serious art and other kinds of dance as popular art. This distinction was embedded in a two-tiered institutional structure: Ballet was appreciated by a relatively small group of connoisseurs and supported by a wealthy social elite, while popular dance lived or died at the box office. Convinced that what they were doing was serious art but unwilling to accept the package of cultural and aesthetic assumptions that came with ballet, modern dancers looked beyond Europe for justification and inspiration. They were hardly alone. The interna¬tional expositions and world's fairs that were so popular from the latter decades of the nineteenth through the early decades of the twentieth century fed a widespread curiosity about the cultures of non-European societies. Encounters with the art of Africa and the music of Southeast Asia helped painters like Picasso and composers like Debussy break free from the conventions of their own history. Encounters with Greece and India did the same for Duncan and St. Denis.
The fact that renunciation plays no part in the Hindu texts about the union of Radha and Krishna did not trouble St. Denis; she was not after ethnologi¬cal authenticity but a way of bringing together onstage the two sides of her own personality-the spiritual and the sensual. Whether such selective cultural borrowing is legitimate and to what extent artists should acknowledge the cross-cultural roots of their work are questions that did not arise until much later in this century. The reverence that St. Denis showed for her Indian sources was certainly genuine.
With the money she earned dancing Radha in New York, St. Denis followed in Duncan's footsteps and embarked on a three-year tour of Europe. She was well received in France and Germany, but unlike Duncan, she became home¬sick for the United States. She returned to great acclaim, touring the country in a grand spectacle called Egypta, and per¬forming "Radha" and other Oriental¬-flavored solos for smaller audiences. Her imagination was essentially pictorial. Among her earliest dances was one called "The Incense," in which she mimed the rippling rise of smoke with a graceful spiraling motion of one arm; in "The Cobras," her arms coiled around her neck and body like charmed serpents.
To expand her repertoire she decided in 1914 to join forces with a male part¬ner and form a small dance company. The partner was Ted Shawn, a former divinity student from Kansas City whom she married in 1915; the com¬pany grew into the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles (with branches around the country), which became the center of the modern dance world for the next ten years.
Shawn, twelve years younger than St. Denis, had even more eclectic tastes and a keener commercial sense. The Denishawn School offered a uniquely varied curriculum; among the types of dance taught were ballet, Spanish, Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, American Indian, geisha, creative, Delsarte, primi¬tive, and folk. During the school's hey¬day Denishawn graduates danced to music by composers ranging from Bach and Brahms to Erik Satie and Vaughan Williams; toured the country perform¬ing everything from danced "myths" to the latest ballroom steps; and appeared in early silent movies and in the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. It was through its more commercial activities that Deni¬shawn supported the serious artistic endeavors of the founders and their students. The school also trained silent ¬movie actors to move expressively for directors like D.W Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, and staged colossal costume spectacles, like the 1916 Life and After¬life in Egypt, Greece, and India, which succeeded in looking exotic and whole¬some at the same time.
After fifteen years of a tempestuous, on-again-off-again relationship, Shawn and St. Denis went their separate ways in 1931. He put together an all-male dance company to embody his lifelong conviction that "dancing is a manly sport, more strenuous than golf or tennis, more exciting than boxing or wrestling and more beneficent than gymnastics"; later he founded the Jacob's Pillow dance festival in Massa¬chusetts. She was drawn more and more to the idea of dance as devotion, as liturgy, as "a living mantra"; she began performing in churches and founded the School of Spiritual Arts. Looking back on her career, she wrote: "I had to be an Indian-a Japanese-a statue-a some¬thing or somebody else-before the public would give me what I craved." Yet she never renounced the solos that had made her famous, continuing to dance a "Radha" well into her eighties.