Jacob's Pillow history comes alive in new exhibit at Williams College Museum of Art

Jacob's Pillow founder Ted Shawn with his wife and partner Ruth St. Denis in 1916. This photo by Franklin Price Knott was one of the first color photographs to appear in National Geographic. A new exhibit at Williams College Museum of Art features more than 30 costumes (370 items in total) examining Shawn's and St. Denis' contributions to U.S. modern dance.

WILLIAMSTOWN — In 1923, Jacob's Pillow founder Ted Shawn visited Seville, Spain, where he purchased a bullfighter's suit of lights to wear in a future performance with Ruth St. Denis called "Cuadro Flamenco." He got a good deal on the green number; the bullfighter had been gored while sporting the garb, ripping one of the legs.

Gallerygoers can search for the patch covering this tear at "Dance We Must: Treasures From Jacob's Pillow, 1906-1940," a new exhibit beginning Friday at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) displayed in conjunction with Jacob's Pillow Dance.

The show, on view through Nov. 11, features more than 30 costumes (370 items in total) examining Shawn's and St. Denis' contributions to U.S. modern dance. Though more than 200 photographs offer visual representations of the dancers' outfits, the black-and-white pictures can't compare to the colorful costumes adorning stage-like spaces throughout the exhibit's two rooms. Jacob's Pillow Archives and Preservation Fellow Caroline Hamilton, a co-curator of the exhibit and costume specialist, was struck by Shawn's bright green attire after seeing it only in black-and-white, two-dimensional form.

"It was really quite amazing," said Hamilton, who was in the throes of preparing the exhibit on Tuesday with her fellow curator, WCMA Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of American Art Kevin Murphy.

Like all of the costumes in the show, the "Cuadro Flamenco" outfit had been stuffed in an original traveling trunk found in the Jacob's Pillow archives' basement. Hamilton discovered about 30 trunks there; five of them are on display at WCMA.

"Some definitely smelled better than others," Hamilton recalled.

The exhibit will include a film loop of the "Cuadro Flamenco" performance. Murphy noted that Shawn moves fluidly despite donning the heavy outfit. The Kansas City, Mo., native had taken up dance as a form of physical therapy after a case of diphtheria temporarily paralyzed him when he was 19. But it wasn't until he met and married St. Denis, by then an accomplished soloist pioneering forms of theatrical dance, in 1914 that Shawn's artistic career truly blossomed. The next year, the two formed Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, a company and school based in Los Angeles. Denishawn toured the country and internationally. Its founders' impact transcended their artistic pursuits.

"It seemed like these were two figures who were really important not just in the dance world but also to American culture and American modernism in the teens, '20s and '30s," Murphy said.

Denishawn dissolved after the couple separated in 1930. Shawn subsequently bought the Becket property that became Jacob's Pillow and formed a company of male dancers that also toured relentlessly. The exhibition is organized around this chronology: One room focuses on the male dancers' outfits that eventually began incorporating stretch fabric and a "less is more" approach, while the other captures the more elaborate items during the years of St. Denis' solo work and Denishawn.

St. Denis' headdresses will certainly draw attention. One in "Kuan Yin," a 1919 St. Denis outfit inspired by a Chinese goddess, would appear to be made of precious jewels, but that's not the case.

"It's actually little green buttons [and] fake jewels and pearls and all kinds of crazy things," Hamilton said. "The body jewelry she's wearing underneath is made of belt buckles and old necklaces and just anything. She was a real magpie, so anything she thought would look great onstage [she would use], but it worked."

"You get a sense of how smart Ruth was about how things were going to look onstage versus how she could actually fabricate them," Murphy said.

Yet, while some visitors may revel in the beauty of "Kuan Yin" and other pieces in the show, others will not be so enamored. The Denishawn founders drew heavily from Native American and Eastern cultures for their performances and attire. These portrayals evoke cultural appropriation — "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture," according to the Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary & Thesaurus.

A press release for the exhibition cautions that "[i]mages, dances, and costumes of Shawn and St. Denis intended to celebrate other cultures may be deeply offensive to contemporary audiences, and the historical context within which they lived and worked will be interrogated in the exhibition narrative and programming."

Murphy said that the exhibit's organizers didn't hesitate to present the material despite its potentially offensive nature.

"Instead of shying away from it, we wanted to really step into it," Murphy said. " ... For us, we know that students are really concerned about cultural appropriation. It's a big topic on campus, and it's a big topic on college campuses kind of in general. It's a big topic in academia."

Murphy was standing next to costumes from "The Feather of the Dawn," a Hopi-inspired 1923 performance. Shawn had traveled throughout the Southwest, absorbing Native American life.

"This is a moment where people are starting to look at the imagery, particularly of the Hopi, and seeing the color and the abstractness of it and thinking about it in terms of an American style of modernism," Murphy said.

While the outfits aimed to mimic Hopi clothing, Shawn's dances did not.

"He didn't try to imitate the dances specifically. He took the idea of them. He wasn't a historian just recreating these dances for a white audience or a European audience or an Asian audience," Murphy said.

Shawn was in search of an American idiom of dance, according to Murphy.

"For him, Native American culture, movement, dancing was a kernel that he thought would be something that he could think about and build off of. He was very stridently opposed to the United States government crackdown on Native American dance and ritual, which is happening at this very moment, and [he] in fact wrote essays in defense of their practice," Murphy said. "But at the same time, the Hopi were trying to prevent people from filming and photographing them because they, at that point, understood that people were just coming to sort of gawk at them. Shawn wasn't."

Since WCMA is part of an academic institution, Murphy felt that the exhibit's organizers could take a cultural studies approach, not only presenting the material but providing ample information about the time in which it was produced.

"I felt like we could be responsible with the material," Murphy said. "Without that, you might present this material just as beautiful material, but for us, we wanted to explore the complexities."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.