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Much more than Nautch Dancing: the Birth of Modern Dance in America
"The fashionable Orientalism of Denishawn was never, for the most part, based on
much more than extant popular imagery (St. Denis's initial, revelatory source of
dance inspiration was the image of Isis on a poster advertising Egyptian Deities cigarettes . Even after Denishawn
toured the Orient and North Africa in 1925-1926— the first American company to do
so— its dances continued to rely more on conventions of costume and setting than on
faithfully adapted movement for their effectiveness."— Adrienne McLean
RAISON D'ÊTRE: What made Denishawn unique?
Denishawn dance company was the most famous collaboration between husband and wife team Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis, frequently referred to as the originators of modern dance. One could argue that some of Denishawn's most famous productions were orientalist pageants rather than modern dance, but Shawn and St. Denis's goal was a new system of dance with a solid baseline of technique. Their students and dancers included Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Jack Cole and Charles Weidman.
"As Mr. Shawn once recalled, 'The only ballet was at the Metropolitan Opera and it was so bad you wouldn't believe it. Dancers in musicals kicked 16 to the right, 16 to the left and kicked the backs of their heads. In vaudeville you had the soft shoe, and sand shuffle and the buck and wing.' And that was all. Except for Denishawn. The Denishawn Dancers were the only well-known modern serious performers at that time who were paid."— Jane Sherman in her autobiography, Soaring.
TOURING the ORIENT
Their famous 'Oriental ballets' were based on the information they had at hand: pictures, books, stories, mythology, philosophy. Ethnic dance teachers were a scarce resource. In the Western world, these ballets were often their bread and butter. But based on the lack of exposure to authentic ethnic dancers, one may wonder where Denishawn got the courage to include some of their 'Indian' dance numbers during their stint in India during their 1925 tour of the Orient. Jane Sherman, who was a member of this tour, writes in her autobiography: " Last night, for the first time in the Orient, we did our Indian numbers... We were scared, and so was Miss Ruth... I was especially scared because the three little East Indian sisters' Dance of the Asparases comes before Miss Ruth's Nautch -- Teenie, Edith and me. Well, for the first time since we have done that dance, we received applause that slowed Miss Ruth's entrance... And they yelled for Miss Ruth's Nautch Dance, and then made us repeat the whole big finale."
Musing on the incident in later years, Jane Sherman also writes: "And the enthusiasm of our Indian audiences may well indeed have been generated by Miss Ruth's success in creating credible East Indian dances for herself and her company without ever having seen real Indian dancing. It was only after we had performed the length and breadth of India to equally enthusiastic audiences that we learned of another possible reason for our ecstatic reception. Experts on the country told us that, in the India of the day, only male and female prostitutes still did Nautch dances. They hinted that the enthusiasm with which we were received might have been tinged by the nationalism that was burgeoning among the oppressed Indians. Perhaps the anti-British, pro-Independence natives were besides themselves with joy at the sight of white women so demeaning themselves? The truth probably lay somewhere between the peak of admiration and the pit of scorn...A typical published reaction to our Indian ballets is this excerpt from an editorial in the Lahore Sunday Times entitled The Musings of a Punjabi: 'In present society in India dancing is not looked upon with too favorable an eye. The Nautch has unfortunately fallen to the accomplishments of a particular class. But this is not to say that dancing in itself is an art to be condemned...In Bombay last week I saw a remarkable performance by two American dancers, Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn. Among the finest of their pieces were the dances of India which deservedly brought down the house...It is a pity that the soul of the East in its spiritual expression should be left for the artists of another land to reveal."
Jane Sherman wrote that the 1925 tour consisted of both performing and gathering the inspiration, music, props and costumes for a series of "Oriental ballets" that were to comprise the material for the projected 1926-27 tour of the United States. Individual dancers, as well as Ruth and Ted, sent back costumes, fabric, props and jewelry to the States to be used in later endeavors. When time and money permitted, Ted Shawn arranged for local dance masters to give lessons to the Denishawn performers and brought the Company to local dance concerts.
Maura Enright, Proprietor
Author: Maura Enright
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