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Denishawn Dream Program Deferred but Hopefully, Not Deterred

by Bonnie Rosenstock
June 1, 2020
New York, NY
“Modern Dance 101,” an evening of works by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, the husband and wife team known as Denishawn, and the acknowledged architects of American Modern Dance, was scheduled for May 2 to 5 on Manhattan’s Upper East Side when the show was cancelled due to the COVID-19 Global Pandemic. Audrey Ross, noted dance and music event publicist, who conceived and produced the program, had assembled a distinguished group of dancemakers to perform: Solos by PeiJu Chien-Potts, former principal and current guest artist with the Martha Graham Dance Company; Christine Dakin, MGDC principal; David Glista, Limón Dance Company; Valentina Kozlova, former principal with the Bolshoi Ballet and NYC Ballet; Bradley Shelver, Metropolitan Opera Ballet principal; Adam Weinert, specialist in dances by Ted Shawn for his Men Dancers; as well as a trio from Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble and a sextet of students from the Limón Institute, taught and coached by Henning Rübsam, artistic director, Sensedance. They were to be accompanied by renowned pianist Nathaniel LaNasa.

St. Denis (1879-1968) and Shawn (1891-1972) established the influential Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in 1915 in many locations, including New York. Their technique encouraged students to discover movement within their own bodies. They also offered classes in various ethnic dance genres, but also insisted on ballet fundamentals. Theirs was the first dance school in the U.S. to produce a professional dance company, which toured the U.S. and abroad. At one time, members of Denishawn included Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey and Jane Sherman.

Ross, herself a former dancer with the legendary Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet and Radio City Music Hall’s Corps de Ballet, among others, had handled publicity for Denishawn Repertory Dancers for several years in the 1980s and 1990s. In an email she explained that since its artistic director Jane Sherman, the last living member of the original Denishawn Company died in 2010, it had been her desire to present the Denishawn dances from time to time, “to enjoy their beauty and theatricality and to make sure they are not forgotten.”

Ross credits Kozlova, one of her clients, with the impetus to pursue her vision. “I told her that I was thinking of producing a Denishawn evening and that she would be perfect performing St. Denis’ solo Incense [1906],” said Ross. “Valentina immediately responded that she would love to do that!!! Her agreement to participate, and her enthusiasm for the project, was just the push I needed to start making plans. I'm thrilled with the cast that I assembled.”

Several of the participants responded enthusiastically regarding their involvement via email. Kozlova said that although in the Soviet Union they only concentrated on the classics, “it is about artistry, feeling and gives you a certain freedom to express yourself.”

Weinert, who specializes in recreating dances by Ted Shawn for his Men Dancers, already knew his Four Solos Based on American Folk Music (Shawn, 1930). He explained that he had been chasing Shawn’s ghost since 2013 when he was asked by MoMA to reconstruct some of his early solos.

In July 1933, Shawn and His Men Dancers performed in what was to evolve into the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival on land that he bought in Western Massachusetts in the town of Beckett two years earlier. “Up until that time, dancing was a profession that only women did,” Weinert said. “He and His Men pushed back against significant resistance to make space for men on stage and advocate for what I like to think of as the homotopia he’d built in the woods.”

Weinert spent a summer research fellowship at Jacob’s Pillow and danced in the studios his company built, “reconstructing their movement from books, photographs, video and rumor. It felt as much like a seance as a reconstruction,” he said.

Eerily relevant to current events, Weinert pointed out that Shawn and His Men saw a lot of apocalyptic events. “He survived both World Wars and the Spanish Flu pandemic. He even gave a socially distanced performance in 1918 with his dance partner Ruth St. Denis, where they performed the same duet, on the same stage, but 8 feet apart.”

Shelver had already started working on Japanese Spear Dance (Shawn, 1919). He said he found the work to be thrilling in its investigation of the masculine and the fluid. “The sense of musicality and dynamics is a masterclass of Ted Shawn’s choreography. I am excited to be a part of the project because of my connection to, and time with, the Limón Dance Company. The legacy of American Modern Dance is pivotal to understanding modern contemporary aesthetic.”

The German-born Rübsam learned Floor Plastique (Shawn, 1916) from video, but was unable to begin teaching it to the six young dancers from the Limón Institute because of the pandemic. “There is an essence that feels familiar and true, yet I also see the limitation of these early works and understand that I would not be happy staying only within this framework,” he said. “But It feels nurturing to visit. Introducing a new generation of dancers to their great-grandparents makes our dance family tree grow and blossom because we get to water our roots.”

He added, “Even as a young student at Juilliard, I was interested in exploring the ‘family tree’ of modern dance. Performing early modern dance works made me understand the importance of being committed to the movement vocabulary beyond technical capability. For a dancer today it is easy to hide behind technique and not grasp the ‘whole soul’ approach of the early pioneers. Even though early Denishawn is not yet a codified technique, each movement and moment is to be experienced and is therefore authentic, which I am striving for in my own work.”

Dakin said she loved working on St. Denis’ solo Waltz/Liebestraum (1922) because it connected her to Graham’s earliest years at Denishawn. “It hints at how Martha began to dance, what she might have taken with her to develop her own technique and choreography. As an artist and teacher, it is a privilege to embody the line from Denishawn roots through Martha, to the present. I like to think that the connection flows the other way, too, that my years with Martha and performing her repertory gives me some insights, a certain sensitivity to how Miss Ruth might have made and performed the work.”

She said it was “a blessing” to have Sherman’s book, The Drama of Denishawn Dance (Wesleyan University Press, 1979) and the video performances of her Denishawn Repertory Dancers to learn from. “June Balish’s performance of Miss Ruth’s Brahms Waltz/ Liebestraum is beautiful. Combined with Sherman’s extensive observations about the dance, it is possible to get close to what the work should be.”

Dakin praised Ross’s “invaluable” project. “Live performance of the Denishawn works is the most powerful way to keep the work vital and available for current audiences and students of Modern Dance,” she said. “Each of the dancers on the program will bring a unique interpretation to the work which will reveal the riches of Denishawn repertory in new and surprising ways.”

At this time, however, Ross doesn’t know when her dream production with her dream cast will go forward. “Right now, all we can do is try to stay safe and look forward to the time when we are back dancing, publicizing, producing and reviewing.”
Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Ruth St. Denis in 'Incense'

Ruth St. Denis in "Incense"

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown


Ted Shawn

Ted Shawn

Photo © & courtesy of Photographer Unknown

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