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The Dance Insider Interview, 4-21:
Jane Sherman Recalls Miss Ruth

By Catey Ott
Copyright 2006 Catey Ott

MILWAUKEE -- In the summer of 2004 I began a wonderful educational and exploratory dance journey in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Sprinkled among the dance technique and composition courses required for the program were several academic courses, including dance history. The semester closed with the completion of a major term paper for which I chose to research Miss Ruth St. Denis. I had become enraptured with the charismatic St. Denis while reading about her in the early modern dance segment of the course. The spiritual nature, imaginative characterization, sensuality of movement, ornate costuming, and zesty personality of this modern dance pioneer filled me with desire to experience St. Denis through books, video-taped recreations of her dances, and interviews.

A bit of history: Miss Ruth St. Denis became popular in the early 1900s. Her unique solo performing career was based on dances with spiritual and ethnic themes which deviated from the ballet-based dance scene. Known for her amazing transformative performance quality, she developed rather simple choreography filled with mystical personality and a sense of great importance. She married dance partner Ted Shawn and together they started a professional dance company, Denishawn Dancers, and founded a modern dance school. Along with Isadora Duncan, the mother of the form, they placed modern dance on the map of the United States. Eventually, the company closed and the two separated, yet each continued to make marks on the dance world, Shawn by founding Jacob's Pillow and St. Denis in returning to her solo career creating spiritual dances.

While doing my research, I came across several videos on the history of Denishawn which included recreations of the Denishawn dances. While watching the videos, I recognized Robin Becker, a member of Denishawn Repertory Dancers with whom I was familiar from the current modern dance scene from my nine years dancing professionally in New York City. I contacted Becker and she then connected me with Jane Sherman, the only remaining original Denishawn Dancer, now 98 and living in a nursing home in Englewood, New Jersey. Sherman, who was the youngest member of Denishawn Dancers from 1925 to 1928, has written four books and numerous articles on the dramas of Denishawn, and has revived its dances on various companies. Together with Michelle Mathesius, she founded Denishawn Repertory Dancers for the 1991 recreation of many of the Denishawn works for concerts and video archiving. Sherman generously made herself available for a written interview for my dance history project. Thanks to her, I am able to share her stories with Dance Insider readers.


CATEY OTT: Jane, when did you start dancing?

JANE SHERMAN: Born in Beloit (Wisconsin) (where my grandfather and Doris Humphrey's father were such close friends that my dad was named Horace Humphrey Sherman), I started dancing as a little naked six-year-old on the summer shores of Lake Beulah, where my fiercely feminist mother operated the portable hand-winded phonograph. Very improv! As I grew up and we moved ever eastward, I tried every kind of dancing school there was in those years and was unhappy with all. Then in 1923 Mother took me to NYC Town Hall for a St. Denishawn concert (Martha Graham and Louise Brooks among the Denis-Shawn Dancers). That was it! And I at once went to the Denishawn School on West 27th St., while still in high school. (And after graduation, off in July, 1925, as the youngest Denishawn Dancer on the famed 15-month tour of the Far East).

CO: Describe your relationship with Ruth.

JS: Miss Ruth was a distant goddess. But in 1925 summer class at Carnegie Hall's Studio 61 (formerly Isadora's), my teacher, Doris Humphrey, arranged for me to be among the pupils presented to Ruth St. Denis on one of her rare visits to a class. I did a grotesque class dance to "Greg's Hall of the Mountain King," where I was the most gnomish I could be -- and when I collapsed in the staged heap at the end, I heard Miss Ruth exclaim to Doris, "Who is that child?!" Wow!

CO: Describe Ruth's personality with the students at Denishawn.

JS: As you see from above, Ruth St. Denis was beautiful and aloof, preferring to leave the dirty work of teaching to Ted Shawn. She once claimed, "I am not a good teacher but I can inspire like hell!" And so she could and did, in her make-up and white hair and chiffons, when she lectured us (in our scratchy black wool one-piece bathing suits) as we sat on the studio floor at her feet.

CO: To what extent did Ruth interact with the dancers/company members at Denishawn?

JS: So far as I know, Miss Ruth had no contacts with pupils outside the studio, and little even with company members except, in my day, with Doris as they co-choreographed a new dance; Pauline Lawrence if she were playing piano for new work or rehearsing old work; Charles Weidman, whose wit she enjoyed as much as his dancing; maybe Geordie Graham; and of course her devoted friend, confidant, dresser and costume designer, Pearl Wheeler.

CO: Could you describe Ruth's stage persona?

JS: By the time I was in a position to know anything about her stage persona (1925), Ruth St. Denis was a middle-aged, world-famous pioneer of modern dance -- weary and exasperated by many a long tour of one-night stands. The boredom of repetition was stifling. (Shawn was to say that they had danced the Egyptian Dance of Rebirth 2,500 times.) She would forget steps in old solos and have to make them up. Papa (Shawn) would have to talk her through an ancient routine duo, and -- amusing to everyone -- she often gave lighting instructions: "Pink on me!" Or corrected make-up on a rookie dancer while she was whirling with us in a dramatic finale: "Too much rouge, Jane!" But be it noted: In sickness or health, in misery or joy, in ecstasy or despair, to a full and glamorous house or a half-empty vaudeville theatre, I never saw her let down. This may well have been owing to a deep professional pride. (Her devoted stage-manager brother Buzz once said, "Sis may or may not have liked to dance, but she sure always loved the theatre.") More persona-on-stage detail in my books "Soaring" and "Drama" if you need them.

CO: And finally, did you have any contact with Ruth after the split of Denishawn in 1928?

JS: This is a sad answer: No contact at all. Nor with Shawn. The split was deep and intense not only between Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, but between them and their former Denishawn Dancers, and they -- you may recall -- split between Doris-Charles enthusiasts and Martha devotees. (But all still against ballet!!) It was a bitter but vital period in American dance, with the audiences, too, participating (I think). I went with Doris for as long as I could afford to, and knew nothing of Ted Shawn or Ruth St. Denis, Men Dancers, Jacob's Pillow, etcetera -- until 1987, when I met Barton Mumaw and we began collaborating on his autobiography. (Mumaw was a soloist in Ted Shawn's company Men Dancers.)


I included Sherman's hand-written interview responses right along with my final paper, to the delight of my professor. Even after the completion of my research, I was still attracted to St. Denis and the impact she had on the modern dance world. Filled with desire to recreate one of her solos for my Master's thesis concert this July, I contacted Mathesius with my idea. She encouraged me to select a piece from the videos and learn the solo from this documentation, along with rehearsal notes from Sherman. (13 of St. Denis's notated choreographies can be found in the Dance Notation Bureau Library. For more information, please click here.) After following through with this process, I traveled to New York to rehearse the solo under the direction of the Denishawn Repertory Dancers. Now, with my staging of "Bakawli Nautch," a St. Denis dance of an Indian gypsy, ready for performance, I will go to Englewood to meet Jane Sherman and perform the piece for her. I look forward to putting on the large green skirt with golden trim, the shoes made out of bells, and the beaded shawl to transform into the gypsy character dance, like Miss Ruth would have, for Sherman and for the audience of my thesis concert in Milwaukee this July.


Catey Ott is the artistic director of the Milwaukee-based modern dance company, the Catey Ott Dance Collective. Ott returned to her hometown for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after nine years of dancing professionally in New York. Highlights of her career there were rehearsal directing and dancing for Heidi Latsky Dance, and performing with Allyson Green, Soundance Repertory Company, Sean Curran Company, and Bill Young and Dancers. The Catey Ott Dance Collective will be presented at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church in New York in February 2007.

 

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