A closer look at the life, legacy of Ted Shawn

Author Paul Scolieri discusses his new book, research into Shawn's life


Like many people from many walks of life, dancers are often fascinated by their field's family tree. Modern dancers and aficionados may have an easier time in the tracing-back game: the genre is relatively young, with its first pioneers hitting the scene at the very end of the 19th century.

So who begat who? Depends on who you ask: both Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham are known as "the mother of modern dance." Whereas that (unofficial) title was bestowed upon those giants, dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn took the matter into his own hands and dubbed himself "the Father of American Dance." As it happens, Graham, who ultimately became one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, began her dance studies and performances in the "Denishawn" school and company created by Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis. Though the groundbreaking Denishawn enterprise spawned Graham and other important dancemakers, such as Charles Weidman and Doris Humphrey, it — like Shawn and St. Denis' marriage — fluctuated dramatically between successful halcyon days and demoralizing periods of struggle. While Denishawn was indeed a major contributor to the birth of modern dance in the U.S., it ultimately folded and to a degree it faded, eclipsed by the brightness of some of its descendants.

Shawn, however, is the star in author Paul A. Scolieri's new book "Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances." While St. Denis and Denishawn are crucial topics, Scolieri honors Shawn with deep research and thoughtful presentation of many other aspects of the subject's life and art, from his sexuality to his religious beliefs to his championship of the male dancer. A responsible biographer, Scolieri is clear-eyed about the problematic areas, including Shawn's (and St. Denis') interest in eugenics and the ways in which some of their dances crossed the line from homage to cultural appropriation.

Local readers will appreciate the lengthy sections dedicated to Jacob's Pillow, the Becket farm Shawn bought in 1931, which ultimately became the home of the first U.S. theater built specifically for dance. Today, its annual 10-week summer Festival is a mecca for dance lovers and nationally and internationally renowned dancers and companies of various genres. The Pillow's extensive archives, long cared for and curated by Director of Preservation Norton Owen, are a treasure trove of dance history.

Scolieri with The Eagle by phone recently; below are edited and condensed excerpts:

Q. What led you to Shawn?

A.  I had danced for Pearl Lang, who was a choreographer who danced with Graham, and was someone that Shawn supported. During my first visit to Jacob's PiIlow's archives, I began to be overwhelmed by thinking about how essential Shawn was, and with the amazing opportunity there was to retell this fascinating story, one that was not only important to history but also connected to my own past as a male dancer growing up in this sort of lineage, this world that [Shawn] brought into being.

Q. At times Shawn was put off by the attention and praise some of his former pupils/colleagues received, while his own work was often ignored and his influence/early mentorship of the others often went unnoticed.

A.  Major figures like Graham, for better or worse, mediate our relationship to Shawn. Because Graham was such an important artist, a lot of her own attitudes and feelings toward Shawn, and Denishawn, really helped orient our relationship to that earlier work. She and Shawn had a very contentious relationship particularly right before she left him and the Denishawn enterprise, so I think it was something profoundly personal, but also superficially professional at the same time. I don't believe it was entirely about his artistry, I think it was about him as a person.

Q. I wonder if Shawn's dances would have been more widely recognized as part of the modern dance canon, had they remained in repertory in various companies?

A.  I think that Shawn's feelings of being estranged from the heart of modernism, his largest complaints, were against John Martin [one of the first major dance critics in this country, Martin wrote for The New York Times], who had a very heavy hand and a very powerful platform for supporting artists like Humphrey and Graham. I suspect that John Martin's own homophobia kept him from ever favorably writing about Shawn. I think that Shawn would be seen as a paranoid artist if he made this complaint all the time, but the truth is, you can't help but look at the evidence and see that Martin did everything he could to diminish the importance of his work.

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But while we can look back at Shawn's choreography and see there was tremendous innovation, great artistry; that he was dealing with some of the very same questions that other moderns were. I think the strength of Shawn's Men Dancers [the company Shawn created in the early Pillow years] was the vision of the project itself. It was about the whole effect of the program, it was about the power, the chemistry of the group more than it was any individual dance.

Q. Let's dive into the really thorny stuff: his and St. Denis' interest in eugenics, as well as Shawn's and St. Denis' interest in global/cultural/ethnic dance genres. Today, it's difficult to avoid seeing many of their dances and written statements without also seeing the stains of xenophobia, or racism, or appropriation.

A.  Approaching this question I wanted to figure out what options Shawn had, and what decisions did he make as a result? It was a process that was constantly evolving and one that at some times he would own full out, claiming to audiences, as a marketing perspective, that these were absolutely the most original dances that he learned from "the Native Americans themselves," and then he would also distance himself from it very much, by saying, "I'm just an interpreter, I'm a dancer, do not hold me to the standards of a scientist or a scholar," so he had his own shifting and evolving ideas about that use of material. So for me, what became important was to figure out what were those conditions by which he did make those decisions. I think we're already aware about the troubling consequences of that practice at the macro scale; I really wanted to look at what was actually going on at the time with the specific dance, with the specific experience, to understand the sort of more personal decisions that led him to that. I believe Jacob's Pillow is in part his form of restitution, [his recognition of] the negative impact of some of the Denishawn dances. One of his major commitments was to make sure that international artists, artists of color, African-American dancers, were on every program that he produced at Jacob's Pillow. I think Shawn was big enough to look critically at what he had done and so I had no problem taking his cue to explore the matter deeper and to go beyond just judging him for it and to try and understand it.

Q. Another dichotomy in Shawn's life and work was sex, both in terms of sexual orientation and the hyper-masculinity that he felt he needed to project in his work in order to make male dancing widely acceptable. He was comfortable with near-nudity in public, yet publicly closeted about his homosexuality.

A.  For Shawn, nudity was not about sexuality. He loved nudity, and the beauty of the male form, but for him a lot of the nudity on stage was informed by the "physical culture" movement and the Muscular Christianity movement, which brought muscularity and the male physique in line and harmony with Christian ideals. I don't think he or his audiences saw the nudity necessarily as something sexual, although they were beautiful, right? But that was part of the Muscular Christianity movement, that that physical beauty equaled moral purity and greatness, so it wasn't something that would have coded him as homosexual, it was actually something that coded him as more masculine. In a way, his nudity was actually a way of more concealing his homosexuality than revealing it.

One of the big takeaways of this project for me is the degree to which Shawn was influenced by major thinkers like Lucien Price, Havelock Ellis, Alfred Kinsey; to know that his relationships with these key thinkers and writers transformed what he came to understand about the possibilities for dance, to see how closely tied his work was to some of the most progressive ideas around sexuality.

Q. And on to Jacob's Pillow, a place in which Shawn seemed to really settle and blossom into his personal and artistic life, and a place which is now a beloved institution. Talk about this temple that Shawn built.

A.  I think it's a beautiful irony that, in a way, Shawn sought the Pillow as a retreat and it actually became the place that became one of the most highly visible spaces for dance. He was exposed to a whole range of different artistic communes and groups, arts colonies that formed during the early years of the 20th century and he always had it in his mind that he would have one of his own. Shawn learned — from The Berkshire Eagle! — that the Pillow was a station on the Underground Railroad. He had the suspicion that this land was great, for sacred and social reasons, and it just resonated with everything that he felt was important to him.

Q. How do you think Shawn's legacy will be viewed to future dancers, dancemakers and scholars?

A. I've been in touch with so many artists and scholars who are going back to Shawn's and Denishawn's legacies with questions that are important to us today, going even deeper into the questions around appropriation, race, and also questions that look more closely and critically at the relationship between religion and dance in the early 20th century. I don't know if this work is going to lead to a resurgence of his dances, but I hope that this book will allow us have a very different conversation about Shawn. I also hope that we begin to question some of the received narratives we have about American modern dance, and to really begin to see how essential questions of labor, and economics, and the power of the press were at play. I think the story of American modern dance gets told about artistic genius, but there are many other factors at play, and Shawn's life is a clear example of how those forces work ... how the formation of dance as an art form was really heralded by people who were just tenaciously, passionately invested to the point of tremendous sacrifice.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@gmail.com


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