“Scratch any dancer and you will find Denishawn”—a phrase common among post-World War II critics—sums up the monumental impact of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Through their tenacity and conviction, their eccentricities and vision, they laid the foundation for what was to become modern dance.
Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1874, Ruth St. Denis was a poor farmgirl with a flair for the dramatic. In 1904 when she passed by an advertisement in a drugstore window in Buffalo, her “destiny as a dancer… sprung alive”: the goddess Isis, bare-breasted and brooding, filled a large poster for Egyptian Deities Cigarettes. One year later, St. Denis performed Radha: The Mystic Dance of the Five Senses, a work about sensuality and renunciation modeled on a character from Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. The final tableau featured St. Denis seated in lotus position and lost in samadhi.
Denis’ interest in things Eastern led to The Yogi (based on the Bhagavad-Gita), Incense, and A Shiraboyoshi (from a story by Lafcadio Hearn). In 1914, Miss Ruth, as she was called, performed O Mika, a dance about Kuan-yin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. That same year she met Ted Shawn who, at age twenty-three, was twelve years her junior. He joined her on tour and they married a year later.
Their approaches to choreography differed. St. Denis drew on both traditional aesthetics and religion, embracing art as a mode of transcendence. Shawn immersed himself in the technical aspects of ethnic dance, learning the precise movements from various traditions.
Shortly after they were married, they opened Denishawn, the dance school in Los Angeles where they taught showgirls, including Lillian Gish and Louise Brooks. It was there that St. Denis performed a dance about the life of the historical Buddha.
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