Determined makers: Show 1930s in moving images


It is the summer of 1933 in the Berkshires. The New Deal makes headlines in The Eagle. The Berkshire Play house has opened a production of George Bernard Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," but beyond their stage the arts and entertainment scene largely encompasses a comedy show at the Mahaiwe, a South Mountain concert or a moonlight cruise on the Hudson River.

This is the Berkshires in the Depression, when shops are going out of business and a five-burner stove cost $35. But the scene is about to change. President Franklin D. Roose velt's new legislation, which the casual visitor reads about with caution over a fresh farm egg at a boardinghouse breakfast, will bring Works Progress Admin istration (WPA) artists and writers to the hills. And this afternoon, a company of men will perform a Hopi dance on a Becket mountain.


In the summer of 1933, Ted Shawn opened his studio at Jacob's Pillow for talks and informal performances.

He was 41. For 15 years, between 1914 and 1930, he and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, had run Denishawn dance company and school -- and had changed American dance. Shawn called Denishawn "the first American modern dance company," said Norton Owen, director of preservation at the Pillow.

In Becket, Shawn's new Men Dancers company would change dance again. And this summer, 80 years after he founded his school, contemporary men dancers will honor his influence in a performance from July 11 to 15.

In 1930, Shawn came to the Berkshires alone. He wanted a place to work, close to New York City but isolated: a summer retreat where he could teach. He brought together young dancers, many of them students at Springfield Col lege, where he had taught.

He wanted to make dance an honorable career for men and an artform anyone could see.

"The prevailing opinion was that dance was analagous to being a prostitute," Owen said.

Parents would not want their children involved with dance com panies, he said. Den ishawn and the Men Dancers helped to change that perspective, because a school had weight.

Shawn created movement, teaching tools and choreography from dance around the world, and his company performed dance in ways his audiences had never seen. In 1914, Denishawn had written into their company guidelines: "Every way that any human being of any race or nationality, at any period of human history, has moved rhythmically to express himself, belongs to dance."

At the Pillow, college athletes were building stone foundations, digging in the fields, and practicing Javanese arm movements to warm up. They could learn together and invent together, and talk to gether after class as they cooled down, in a place like nowhere else.

By the end of the summer in 1933, Shawn had sold-out crowds. The Men Dancers drew visitors from the city, but Shawn wanted a democratic audience, Owen said. He would invite his grocer, the people he met every day.

Later, the Men Dancers would perform for universities and popular theaters across the country. The company toured to perform, and also to eat, Owen said. Even in the depression, the Men Dancers could support themselves.


As the Depression deepened, other artists had help.

In 1936, the WPA sent Noel Vicentini, a Trinidadian-born photographer, to record Sha ker craft, arcitecture and culture at Hancock Shaker Vil lage, Mount Lebanon Sha ker village and the Shaker villege in Watervliet, N.Y.

Only 11 Shakers still lived at Hancock Shaker Village then: eight old women, one old man and two young girls. Hired men worked the fields, and Shaker women made chairs in the woodshop.

Vicentini was living in New York City when the WPA chose him to head the New York Project for the Index of American Design. He and his team of photographers produced more than 200 Shaker photographs, said collections manager Leslie Herz berg.

But the photographs were never published, and Vicentini faded from history.

This summer, Hancock Sha ker Village will introduce him again in "A Promising Venture," an exhibit opening on May 26. Herzberg has spent three years identifying the places and the crafts Vicentini saw.

He left the Shaker project abruptly, she said. She de scribed him as a hard-working man with a temper, who may have had a drink or a woman too many. In 1936, he was in Pittsfield, arguing with his boss and looking through his camera lens at a Shaker woman's work-worn hands on a carriage rail.

The photographers worked out of a house in Pittsfield and went to the villages. At Han cock, they set up a studio in the Sisters' Dairy. While the Men Dancers hauled rocks and learned yoga together, here were another group of young people working together on an ambitious project. But in Hancock, govenrment intersected with art -- and assigned rules.

Vicentini had a set list of photographs to take. He could not choose his own shots. And WPA artists did not own the work they made for their WPA projects. Photographs are in the public domain, Herzberg explained. A painter who worked briefly at the Shaker village had to create a painting each month for the WPA and hand over those paintings as she finished them.

Within these constraints, Vicentini captured stair rails, iron work, fields and objects. He cropped buildings strikingly against the light. And he added elements that caught his eye -- a squared wooden basket with handles fore and aft for carrying wet clothing; a line of pegs; a woman's hands working a lathe.

He made hard work beautiful. In the 1930s, the ability to work, and the ability to make, had a deep value. People determined to use their minds and hands would go a long way and fight uphill to do it.


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