Denishawn Dances On
TO A rare experience in American Dance History - the new video, Denishawn
Dances On! is the largest, visually preserved Ruth St.Denis and
Ted Shawn repertoire in existence.*
What makes it rare? These pioneers of Modern Dance achieved fame from 1914 through 1928 when the only technical means of capturing their dances in motion was a handheld silent 8mm. camera with black-and-white film and a focus field the size of a postage stamp. Therefore their archives contained only scraps of film to record a fragment of the more than three hundred Denishawn works, until now.
Three generations later, you may ask "Why was Denishawn significant?" With their vision sustained by good sense, St. Denis and Shawn first started a school to teach the technique that could express their radical ideas, then founded their professional company to present their creations to new dance audiences.
During the fourteen glory years Miss Ruth and Papa and the Denishsawn Dancers toured every corner of the US with their theatrically brilliant ethnic creations, Americana, and Isadora-inspired musical visualizations. (One tour culminated in April 1927, with Carnegie Hall's first four consecutive sold-out performances).
They took four different concerts on the first tour by an American dance company of major Far Eastern countries, covering thousands of miles within fifteen months at a time when there were no commercial air or bus lines, no antibiotics, and no air conditioning. (As I, a member of that company, remember vividly).**
Their schools thrived from Boston to New York to Dallas to Los Angeles, and so pervasive was their influence that Agnes de Mille once remarked, "Scratch a dancer and you find Denishawn!" Yet this institution died forty years before Ruth St. Denis, in 1968, or Ted Shawn, in 1972. It died because - as salmon expire after their procreative swim upstream - it had served its purpose. It had spawned the originators of American Modern Dance - Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Pauline Lawrence, Jack Cole, and Louis Horst. Drowning in the very dance turbulence it had created, Denishawn was not resuscitated until the '70s, by a few old loyalists and some curious young researchers. I had by then published two books of Denishawn lore and repertoire, and was tempted by purest serendipity to enter the arena of visual preservation: in 1979 I saw a Vanaver Caravan ensemble that propelled me impulsively to ask Livia and Bill if they would join me in reviving Shawn's 1924 Boston Fancy. Then, in 1980, through a brief paragraph in Dance Magazine announcing the celebration of Ruth St. Denis's birthday in her hometown of Somerville, NJ, I met Michelle Mathesius, who had organized the group that was later to be the Denishawn Repertory Dancers, when she became head of the Dance Dept. at NYC's LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. Working with tremendous enthusiasm and little pay, these two disparate, devoted companies, augmented by LaGuardia's dance seniors, learned with me how to re-create enough long-forgotten Danishawn dances to fill a program. To reach that goal, this last survivor of the true Denishawn Dancers, relied on choreographic notes, photographs, music and my kinesthetic recall of dances that I had either performed or seen performed hundreds of times.
Grants from the Geraldine Dodge and the Harkness Foundations, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the NY and NJ State Arts Councils enabled the Vanaver Caravan and/or the Denishawn Repertory Dancers to appear throughout NYC, at universities, at Jacob's Pillow, and, when chosen to represent St. Denis and Shawn at the Lyon Biennale de La Danse Americaine, the combined groups proudly presented our Denishawn program to unanimous critical acclaim.
Ted Shawn once wrote, "With the death of the one who remembers, all is gone." It is my conviction, however, that through this video-documentary and the continuing dedication of my dancing daughters, Livia and Michelle - with the death of this one who remembers, all will not be gone as Denishawn Dances On!
*Full-color video; 100 minutes; Production by Ron Honsa/Moving Pictures; Program by Five Corners Publications, Ltd.; Distribution by Kultur, West Longbranch, NJ 07764, (732) 229-2343, www.kultur.com. $19.95.
**Jane Sherman's account of that trip appeared in ART TIMES, March 2001.
(Jane Sherman, former dance correspondent for ART TIMES, is now actively retired and living in Englewood, NJ).