Arts Review

Curating Their Lives

Dancers become legends when they die, if not before. Even the biggest stars have relied on friendly journalists, photographers, and publicists to give substance to what’s no longer there—the magnetic effect of their performances. Ted Shawn (1891–1972) understood how important words and pictures are to a performer’s reputation. He published nine books and countless articles in his lifetime, and he realized the importance of film as early as 1912. The world of theatrical dance in America was emerging from a mix of postwar influences: physical culture, jazz, movies, dress reform, imported ballets and their imitators. Few people knew about it; fewer cared about it. Shawn entered this world in the path of Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, who took the initial steps to distinguish American dance from its European counterpart. Dancer, choreographer, organizer, teacher, Shawn was a mover of ideas, a model of masculinity on a stage domi­nated by women, a master at self-invention and self-curating.

A substantial literature has grown around Shawn and his partner, Ruth St. Denis, casting them as the tireless founders of an anti-ballet dance culture in America. The companies they started, Denishawn (1915–1930) and Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers (1933–1940), were eclipsed by the next generation of innovators, many of whom they trained, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.

The charismatic Shawn and St. Denis toured widely in the States and abroad. Both were controversial, and latter-day accounts regard them with varying shades of admiration. St. Denis wrote her autobiography (An Unfinished Life, 1939, with unattributed collaborator Henrietta Buckmaster). Shawn’s many books include a memoir about their touring experiences when the country was more or less ignorant of concert dancing (One Thousand and One Night Stands, 1960, with co-author Gray Poole). Former Denishawn dancer Jane Sherman produced several books about the work and collaborated with dancer Barton Mumaw, reflecting on his years with Shawn and after. Christena Schlundt documented 34 years of touring by both companies (1962 and 1967). Historian Suzanne Shelton produced a comprehensive study of St. Denis (Divine Dancer, 1981), the first of several serious considerations.

Paul Scolieri’s biography, Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings and Dances,[1] surveys the modern dance pioneer and patriarch in a way the official dance record has glossed over for a century. He states that his major objective is “to elucidate a hitherto untold story about the ways Shawn’s ideas about homosexuality informed his principles and practices of dance.” Scolieri isn’t the first to out Shawn’s ideas about homosexuality, but he’s the first to consider the self-styled father of modern dance within a culture of performing and social change.

Shawn must have been a juicy subject, and Scolieri undertook the job with scholarly rigor and a minimum of scholarly spin. He can write. I was fascinated with the way he wove together a lifetime of amorous relationships, rivalries and alliances, professional successes and financial perils. He manages a neutral tone, except for an occasional wry observation. Scolieri portrays Shawn as a careerist seeking out international figures who could legitimate a divergent but not deviant sexuality. From Bliss Carman and Katherine Dreier to Asian dance masters and St. Denis herself, he learned from them and often retained them as lifelong accomplices. But Scolieri fills in little detail about the way Shawn danced or choreographed.

Shawn’s dancing roles, with Denishawn and later with his Men Dancers company, were modeled on historical figures and stories. When the dances didn’t have realistic texts, he accessed the expressive theories of François Delsarte, who connected gestures and parts of the body with specific emotions and meanings. Delsarte practice was taught all over America and Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As an adjunct to physical culture training, it gave an elevated tone to public speaking, supported the civic themes of pageantry, and made it possible for laypersons, especially women, to use their bodies in a public but socially acceptable way. Shawn wrote a whole book about Delsarte as taught in the U.S. by Genevieve Stebbins and Shawn’s own teachers, Henrietta Hovey and Mary Perry King (Every Little Movement, 1954).

Ruth St. Denis (1879–1968) received her first Delsarte lessons from her mother, and she remained a devotee of the system that linked movement with spirituality. From her first choreography, St. Denis adopted the widespread practice of “statue posing,” in which the performer imitated paintings and sculptures of noble or heroic characters, trying to embody their spirits by moving in their footsteps. She also subscribed to Stebbins exercises that were meant to propel the body into motion. With Shawn, whom she met in 1914 and immediately enlisted as a touring partner, she found a workable meeting of minds that could generate choreography to fill a repertory. They married in 1914 and founded the Denishawn organization the next year.

Shawn had given up studying for the ministry to pursue a dancing career—first as a performing ballroom dancer—and, like St. Denis, he’d embraced the teachings of Christian Science. Both of them were interested in Eastern religions and cultures. St. Denis had already made her first Orientalist pieces, touring Europe as a soloist with Nautch, Yogi, Cobras, and Radha. Shawn and his ballroom partner Norma Gould were making up dances for their tours in many exotic styles when they did the film Dances of the Ages in 1912 for the Edison Company. In the film, they interpreted dances from Egypt, Greece, and China, commedia dell’arte and ragtime. Shawn and St. Denis later recycled and reworked these items for Denishawn.

Jane Sherman didn’t join the company until 1925, but she was able to report on dances made before that because of the circulating repertory demanded by intensive traveling and performing. Denishawn was astute about the theatrical uses of mime and local color. From Sherman’s descriptions in The Drama of Denishawn Dance (1979), you get an idea how reliant these performances were on costumes, sets, lighting, and makeup. The dancers were called on to project characters in a range of situations and interactions, as well as to adopt innumerable foreign identities.

Sherman’s account of Shawn’s Cuadro Flamenco (1923) reads like a European production, a Spanish Coppélia or a danced Carmen. The audience was supplied with a summary of the plot in the program. Shawn had studied with dancing masters in Barcelona and Seville, and he postured with the right arrogance. He mimed an imaginary bullfight, then courted one of the female dancers with gifts of beautiful shawls. Despite Sherman’s admission that the dancers didn’t have the temperament to match real flamenco, they got the idea across, and the dance was a big hit. It’s not surprising that these dances fulfilled a desire for exotic world travel.

By the time Denishawn went on its extensive Asian tour in 1925–26, they had created their own dances from Bali, Japan, Burma, China, Java, Siam, and Ceylon. In some cases they made versions of traditional dances they’d seen in situ, and some portraits were imaginary riffs on works they’d never seen. Curious for information, they made time on tour to study with local dance masters. On tour Shawn ventured on his own side trips to find authentic dances. He later published Gods Who Dance (1929), with a chapter devoted to each of several countries that he had studied “ethnographically.”

That book originated in 16 articles Shawn had been assigned to write for The Dance Magazine based on the Asian tour. He collected them for the book, along with adaptations from his letters to St. Denis from an earlier trip (1923) to North Africa and Spain. Scolieri points out that Shawn’s view of the exotic was heavily influenced by the spate of “desert” movies, in the mode of Rudolph Valentino’s 1921 The Sheik. The dancing that Shawn was led to by guides in Algiers struck him as either commercialized or so informal as to be “not art.” The scruffiest dancers he encountered were luring their male admirers for sex, but Shawn prudishly omitted the brothel aspects from his narrative. When he did find a “real” Ouled Naïl dancer, he thought her dancing wasn’t up to Denishawn standards and offered to purchase her jewelry.

On tour in exotic places, Shawn and St. Denis avidly bought fabrics, rugs, pottery, ornaments and sent them home for future use in their own dances. Shawn writes about the local performances he saw as if viewing the dances for similar collection. Influenced by Havelock Ellis’ eugenic ideas about the inherent spirituality and perfectibility of the “savage” temperament, Shawn found the Malay dances he saw in Singapore to be “primitive and uninspiring” but perhaps worthy of improvement into “real” dancing, provided “the theme was not too heavy and the intent not more than decoration.” He assumed that the great success of St. Denis’ “Indian” dances in several Indian cities was due to the fact that the “native” portions of the audience comprised lower-class Indians. The women in these audiences especially, he thought, were thrilled to have RSD’s “cultured and educated mentality” applied to their familiar dance material.

After recounting Shawn’s adventures on these trips—his enlisting tourist guides, his ignoring or repelling sexual come-ons in the dancing, the advantages he enjoyed in the care of colonial officials—Scolieri remarks on Shawn’s “inability to recognize the relatively high levels of privilege, access, and power” he relied on for this research. He concludes his section about the 1923 North African trip with Shawn returning to New York in time to “translate his experiences” into new dances for Denishawn’s next vaudeville tour. Two years later, Shawn would react to the dances of Asia with similar confused assessments. Shawn’s touristic naïveté would have been standard at the time, as would his sexual camouflage. Unmasking these poses would have harmed the refined images Shawn and his associates were trying to build around themselves. In a 2019 talk at Jacob’s Pillow, Scolieri noted that Shawn’s “ethno-realistic dances” also gave him a chance to be on stage without having to act out scenarios of male-female courtship.

One thing Scolieri doesn’t stress is the breakup of Denishawn. It happened over a long period of creative decline, shifting personal relations, overwhelming financial burdens, and the ongoing life of dance culture itself, both internationally and within the company itself. To some viewers the company’s exotic pageantry and impersonations began to seem dated. In Germany at the end of the 1920s, a vibrant modern dance culture was developing out of the widespread proto-Nazi physical culture and youth movements, and dance reform was being energetically propelled by Rudolf von Laban and others. Dancers were splitting off from the American companies of Duncan and Denishawn to develop their own ideas or extend the ideas of their mentors. Shawn himself recognized the star quality of Martha Graham, so it wasn’t a big surprise when she left in 1923 to appear in the Greenwich Village Follies and embark on a remarkable career as an independent. Musician Louis Horst departed two years later. Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, and Pauline Lawrence left in 1928.

Returning from the long Asian trip, Denishawn set off immediately on a four-month national tour. Then, after a summer layoff, the company was committed to an extensive tour as an attraction in the Ziegfeld Follies. The company needed this work to underwrite Shawn’s ambitious plans for a Greater Denishawn, to be based in a building under construction on property he’d purchased in Van Cortlandt Park. Humphrey and Weidman refused yet another long touring commitment. While the company was out on the Follies tour, they taught classes at Denishawn’s Manhattan studio above Carnegie Hall. Left alone, they started developing their own choreography and gathering students thirsty for their new ideas. When the company returned from the tour, Humphrey, Weidman, and Lawrence, objecting to the subordinate role they were to play under the Greater Denishawn, went off to start their own history.

The company ground on without them. Shawn and St. Denis toured separately with small groups and as soloists. Shawn spent some time in Germany, where the modern dance (Ausdruckstanz) was at a peak. Shawn studied, then performed, with former Mary Wigman dancer Margarete Wallmann, and later brought Wallmann to teach at Denishawn. The Denishawn company, filled out with student recruits, did three summer concerts (1929, 1930, and 1931) at the huge outdoor Lewisohn Stadium in New York. Meanwhile, the nominal marriage between St. Denis and Shawn was falling apart. The partners split definitively over the adventurer Fred Beckman, who became for a brief time lover and assistant to both of them. They formally dissolved the company in 1931, but they never divorced. Shawn withdrew to the suburbs. St. Denis carried on classes at Denishawn House, but finally neither partner could keep up the mortgage payments, and the building was sold the next year. St. Denis went her own way, touring as a solo artist till nearly the end of her life. Shawn bought a derelict farm in the Berkshire hills of Massachusetts, later named Jacob’s Pillow after a boulder on the premises. It was to become the home of the Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers ensemble, a vehicle for the rehabilitation of all-male dancing.

After the last of the Lewisohn Stadium concerts, Shawn drove up to the farm with Barton Mumaw, three other dancers, and two women, musician Mary Campbell and overall factotum Margerie Lyon. They began the heavy work of making the place habitable. For a while, it was a workmen’s encampment, with all the residents doing the construction work, painting, plumbing, gardening, and cooking. When the barn was made ready as a studio, they began rehearsing. New members arrived, and a touring dance company evolved. In between performing jobs, a family grew at the Pillow: evenings around the fireplace, swims in a local lake, listening to Shawn reading Whitman, sunbathing in the nude. The life in the Berkshires sounds idyllic. Like the utopia pictured in a 1916 film at the Denishawn villa in Los Angeles, where the young women of the company wear saris and practice pantomime in the sun, and the leaders are served tea on the veranda by modest black attendants. When still in its infancy, the Men Dancers began to acquire a local audience at Jacob’s Pillow by holding regular afternoon teas in the barn with refreshments and lecture-demonstrations by Shawn and the dancers.

This family life, taking place alongside the growth of a professional cohort, was lovingly described by Barton Mumaw in the memoir of his years as Shawn’s lover and right-hand man (Barton Mumaw, Dancer, with Jane Sherman, 1986). Mumaw reveals the domestic details of their relationship during the development of the Men Dancers company, and his struggles for independence after the company disbanded in 1940. Mumaw became a featured dancer in musical shows, much to Shawn’s disapproval, but he remained loyal to his former mentor during the later phases of Shawn’s career.

By 1933 Shawn had portrayed heroic and mythic characters during the Denishawn days: Siva, Adonis, Prometheus, Orpheus. Besides all the muscular heroes from myth and history that he’d already enacted and those to come, Shawn wanted to project himself as a true-blue citizen, a red-blooded American male. He began making dances on Native American themes, work dances, interpretations of Negro spirituals. When he’d added enough for a whole program, he was able to present Ted Shawn and His Ensemble of Men Dancers. To supplement his original four men, he recruited others from his classes at Springfield College, a training institution for physical education instructors where he and Mumaw held a teaching residency in the winter of 1933. They commuted from there to Boston once a week to teach at the studio of Miriam Winslow. Shawn’s men, with women from the Boston classes, constituted an ad hoc co-educational troupe, dubbed Ted Shawn and His Dancers, that gave three different programs during a week’s engagement at Boston’s Repertory Theater. The Men Dancers effectively made their debut on one of these programs (21 March 1933).

After eight decades, to understand these dances, and the repertory of men’s pieces that followed, is almost impossible. Many photographs show the shapes of the movements and sometimes the group designs. Mumaw and Sherman append detailed verbal descriptions of all Mumaw’s dances to his memoir. Shawn had the dances documented on silent films, some of which had their original scores added years later. According to Mumaw, the Denishawn technique he learned at the end of the ’20s was “a combination of ballet, Delsarte, Dalcroze, and ethnic movements Shawn had devised.” From the Men’s Dancers films and contemporary reconstructions that can be seen publicly now, I note how much they depended on balletic steps. Mumaw himself names many ballet steps as part of the exercises he learned in Denishawn classes. When today’s lithe and light dancers revive the Men’s works, you can see they’ve been ballet trained. Shawn himself partook of the physical advantages ballet technique provided, but his body was sturdy, grounded, and tight. Ballet gave him a lexicon of movements to draw on, as did the various Asian dance forms he sampled. It wasn’t until the post-Denishawn generation that choreographers rejected prefabricated movements and invented their own—Humphrey’s fall and recovery of body weight as a generator of movement, Graham’s propulsion from the pelvis.

You can also tell from some Men Dancer films to which sound was added that Shawn had an ear for music; he called some of his non-character dances “music visualizations” after the practice St. Denis and Humphrey worked on together for years. For Shawn, music, combined with a pointed use of amplified gestures, created an emphatic and recognizable scenario to which the audience could relate. Sometimes the results were pantomimic, like the ghostly basketball game or the duel with invisible fencing foils in the sports dance Olympiad (1936). Sometimes the effect was more “abstract,” as in the fervent leader who unites his divisive followers with dramatic arm flourishes and punchy fists in Kinetic Molpai (1935). In his massed group designs, Shawn evidenced some influence from Ausdruckstanz, which was already being downplayed in response to pre-War German politics.

With war approaching and the dancers anticipating military service, Shawn proposed closing the company. The dancers agreed, and they gave their last performance in Boston in May 1940. After two transitional summers, Shawn started the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1942, assuming management of the Pillow under a new legal arrangement. In the interim, classes and performances had continued under other auspices, and Shawn gave solo performances himself in order to retain the audience his men had developed with their afternoon teas. The barn studio was replaced as a performance venue by a theater in time for the festival’s opening performance (9 July 1942). A bronze weathervane in the shape of Barton Mumaw dances on the roof.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, with its accompanying school, persisted through the War. The modern dance was reaching maturity, its forces converging on the Bennington School of Dance (1934–42) in nearby Vermont. The rival summer school and festival attracted all the major modern choreographers and their dancers, with musicians, critics, and designers, and a strong new following among college and university dance instructors. After the War, the Bennington nexus of teaching, creating, and performance moved to New London’s Connecticut College, where the American Dance Festival remained for another 20 years until it migrated south to Duke University.

Modern dance ruled the American Dance Festival until the mid-1960s, but from its inception a diverse range of dance styles was represented at Jacob’s Pillow. Shawn invited modern dance and ballet companies, soloists and duos, echoing the eclectic leanings of Denishawn but avoiding any vaudevillian stigma. Ethnic and ethnic-American groups performed and taught at the Pillow regularly. Tap dancers appeared. So did the mime Lotte Goslar. Eventually the Pillow even hosted the legacies of Martha Graham and Humphrey-Weidman heir José Limón.

Paul Scolieri recounts Shawn’s efforts in the last 30 years of his life to maintain and enrich the Pillow while keeping his own identity as a force in the dance world with his books, his regular newsletters to Pillow subscribers, his lectures and teaching. There were special occasions to be celebrated and awards conferred. He contributed to the influential Kinsey Report on sexual behavior. He spent the harsh New England winters in Eustis, Florida, in a house he built near Barton Mumaw’s parents. He died in 1972 after what he refused to call his retirement.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival continued with a wide range of summer programs, having expanded its audience so that every night performances could be seen in the Ted Shawn Theatre, the black-box Doris Duke Theatre (built in 1990), and an outdoor stage. Jacob’s Pillow was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003 and received the National Medal of Arts in 2010. Along with other theaters, the Pillow cancelled its 2020 season in response to the virus pandemic, but it maintains a strong presence online. Director of Preservation Norton Owen heads the Pillow Archive, where Shawn donated his films and papers. Owen’s Dance Interactive posts film clips of past performances, including excerpts of the Men Dancers films.

Ruth St. Denis visited and performed at the Pillow nearly every year. Larger than lifesize paintings of her and Shawn flank the theater’s proscenium. In 1964 she and Shawn danced a duet in a private celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. She was 85; he was 73. She would always be “Miss Ruth.” He called himself “Papa Shawn.” This euphemistic construction of their reality has yet to be universally debunked. Shawn never talked openly about his homosexuality. According to Scolieri, “Unwilling to disturb the meticulously narrated account of his ‘paternal’ exceptionalism, he remained closeted . . .” With this exceptional book, Paul Scolieri unmasks the principals and provides insights into a life that’s still under a few veils.

[1] TED SHAWN: His Life, Writings and Dances, by Paul A. Scolieri. Oxford University Press. $39.95.