Diary of Dance
From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow, inspiration comes from abroad
Photos by Jacob’s Pillow
On a warm summer night, a company of dancers comes to a park in Tokyo to see Matsumoto Koshiro VII, the foremost male dancer of Japan, performing kabuki. He moves to the music of stringed samisens and flute, drums and singers, transforming from one role to another—a maiden, a lion with a floor-length mane.
The woman watching him in awe will study with him, and her company will bring his dance and music to the United States. It is 1925, she is 17 and newly chosen to join one of the first modern dance companies in America in a tour across Japan, Singapore, India, and Sri Lanka.
This summer, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival and Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) are revealing the contents of the trunks the modern-dance company took with them, showing art and artifacts that have never before left the archives, in “Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906-1940,” which opens June 29. The show is co-curated by Kevin Murphy, Eugénie Prendergast senior curator of American Art at WCMA, and Caroline Hamilton, costumes specialist, and archives and preservation fellow at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
In 1914, long before he came to the Berkshires, Ted Shawn founded Denishawn as a school of dance with and his (then) wife and artistic partner, Ruth St. Denis. The couple became known as international artists more than 16 years before Shawn came to Becket to found the dance studio that would become Jacob’s Pillow.
Shawn and St. Denis looked beyond the formal rigor of classical ballet to define what dance meant as an artform and spiritual expression.
With Denishawn, they set out to create an American form of dance. And they found influences around the world.
In 1925, they took their company through Asia, performing as they went. They met dancers and choreographers, learned their movements and music and shared their own. Jane Sherman, the youngest member of their company, captured her experiences of that journey in a diary and letters (Soaring, Wesleyan, 1976). This summer, visitors to WCMA can see the kind of costumes she wore.
Hamilton and Murphy have produced an exhibition curated from more than 1,300 objects. Costumes show the marks of body paint and wear. They were working clothes, Hamilton says. They were hauled across an ocean and a continent, cared for, sweated in, and adapted. She has traced their use and re-use by layers of fabric and sequins. (Photo: Kevin Murphy and Caroline Hamilton examine pieces that will be exhibited in “Dance We Must.”)
As a costume specialist in the UK and an intern at the Pillow last summer, Hamilton held her breath as she lifted a lid to find a head-dress or a jacket she had seen in black and white, in film and photographs, revealed in full color—the emerald-green costume Shawn bought from a bull fighter in Spain for a flamenco. The jewelry St. Denis wore to perform as the Chinese goddess of mercy, Quan Yin, glows like rubies in a portrait, but close up it looks like a button box.
In costumes, portraits, film and photographs, and live performances, WCMA and the Pillow will explore Shawn and St. Denis’s daily lives, their creative work, and their many influences, from historical and spiritual movements and aspects of rituals to some troubling questions this kind of exploration can raise.
Murphy makes a careful distinction between cultural exchange, when two people from different countries work together on equal terms, and cultural appropriation, when one culture takes elements from another and uses them without permission and without acknowledging the artists who created them. He feels the distinction deeply important today, pointing to “Feather of the Dawn,” a dance Shawn choreographed, inspired by the Hopi after a trip to Santa Fe. Shawn wrote about the experience of watching and listening to the Hopi dance on a clear day in the high country.
“He was entranced,” Murphy says. “He had never seen anything like it, and he wanted to elevate the dance and share it at the same level as ballet. Would people dance in these now? Absolutely not.”
Shawn made his own masks, sketching Kachinas in a museum collection. But for the Hopi, the Kachinas are sacred elements of faith that belong to them. Sherman touched on this tension in the diary she wrote as a young woman. She recorded the beauty of the night in Tokyo and the sounds of the streets. Years later, she recalls the men who powered the rickshaw: “I apologize for not having been conscious of the humiliation of being pulled in a carriage by another human being.”
Yet, as a young woman on that tour, she opened up to the people and languages, music and movement around her.