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Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn

The choreography of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn presented with respect and dedication.

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Nina Jirka in “The Legend of the Peacock,” part of Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, performed at The Theatre at St. Jeans (Photo credit: Costas)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

To the uninitiated it might be hard to connect the nine dances that make up Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn with the astounding abundance and sophistication of modern dance troupes, all descendants of these two pioneers.

The dances on this program are perfect examples of the Denishawn aesthetic which combined what was then exoticism with impeccable theatricality.  The Denishawn troupe was very much of its time, the early twentieth century.

The modern dance giants that came out of this artistic sensibility—Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in particular—revolted against the exoticism to find a modern way of expressing themselves through movement, the way that artists who were their contemporaries put distance between them and the Impressionists.  These modern dance pioneers learned the ins and outs of dramatic presentation as they forged new dance forms.

Sokolow Trio in “Choeur Dansé,” part of Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, performed at The Theatre at St. Jeans (Photo credit: Costas)

“Floor Plastique,” by Ted Shawn (1916) to music by Edward MacDowell, was a prettified warm-up here performed by members of Limón2 dressed in simple white leotards.  The seven lithe women performed stretches emanating from a tight position: leg extensions, deep backbends, soft twists of the torso and deep lunges.  As staged by Henning Rűbsam, these exercises came alive.

“Incense,” by Ruth St. Denis (1906), was a prime example of the pseudo-exotica that made up the bulk of the Denishawn repertoire.  Based on an actual Indian ritual, “Incense” was a calm vision of a lady enveloped in yards of translucent material floating about the stage lighting trays of incense.  The exquisite ballerina Valentina Kozlova made the most of simple choreography performed to Asian-influenced music by Harvey Loomis.  Her undulating arms were especially impressive.

Bradley Shelver personified the powerful character of the “Japanese Spear Dance” by Ted Shawn (1919), music by modern dance giant Louis Horst.  Bare-chested, but otherwise adorned in strikingly colorful Japanese regalia (costume by Mondo Morales), holding a spear, Shelver stalked the stage, stomping and posing and otherwise striking vivid poses.

Christine Dakin in “Waltz/Liebestraum,” part of Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, performed at The Theatre at St. Jeans (Photo credit: Costas)

Ted Shawn’s “Choeur Dansé” (1926) to sweetly lyrical music by Vladimir Stcherbatcheff was the first of two Isadora-Duncan-esque dances on the program.  Rosy Gentle, Erika Langmeyer and Kathleen Caragine, attired in Mondo Morales’ flowing Greek tunics, skipped about, skimming the stage as they formed sculptural groupings inspired by figures on Greek urns.

“Waltz/Liebestraum” (1922) was Ruth St. Denis’ Duncan moment, the final dance on the program.  Performed by modern dance veteran Christine Dakin, dressed in flowing robes (designed by Dakin in tribute to St. Denis), the choreography hinted at sadness and tragedy.  Dakin’s gravitas, the product of years of experience, vivified the simple steps and brought the colorful program to a dramatic finish.

Nina Jirka, dressed in Aletta Vett’s beautiful re-creation of the original costume, made a stunning vision in “The Legend of the Peacock” (1914), choreographed by Denishawn acolytes Jane Sherman and Livia Vanaver to music by Edmund Roth.  Jirka slithered beautifully about the stage dragging a long colorful train behind her.  The train became the peacock tail as the damsel was transformed by a spell.  This was exotica at its finest.

Arthur Avilés in “Danse Américaine,” part of Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, performed at The Theatre at St. Jeans (Photo credit: Costas)

A jaunty Arthur Avilés took Ted Shawn’s very dated “Danse Américaine” (1923) and nearly stole the show, certainly helped by his colorful period suit, tie, hat and shoes (designed by Liz Prince and Avilés).  He strutted about, very proud of his apparel, threw some dice and batted a few balls, all the while totally involved in his looks and machismo.  Dent Mowry’s jaunty score provided whimsical support.  This type of choreography became the bulwark of Charles Weidman’s work featuring character-based movement studies like “Flickers,” his tribute to silent movies.

Two more character dances filled out the program.  St. Denis’ “A Javanese Court Dancer” (1926), to appropriately faux Javanese music by Clifford Vaughan, was danced by the lovely Peiju Chien-Pott, dressed in Mondo Morales’ fine Javanese re-creation that turned her into a living goddess.  She performed St. Denis’ tribute to this exquisite art form, including the super flexible wrists and sloping body lines with style and beauty.

Ted Shawn’s “The Cosmic Dance of Siva” (1926) was performed by the hunky Antonio Fini dressed in next to nothing (golden briefs and crown by Stacy Yoshioka).  Fini hit all the poses depicted in ancient Indian reliefs, carried by Lily Strickland Anderson’s score, making a fine impression as a Hindu god.

Antonio Fini in “The Cosmic Dance of Siva,” part of Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn, performed at The Theatre at St. Jeans (Photo credit: Costas)

Accompaniment was provided by expert pianists Jonathan Howard Katz and Melody Fader, both sensitive to the needs of the dancers.

All the works were performed with utter dedication with absolutely no hint of campy attitude, presenting the clearly dated works as viable art, which indeed they were.

Denishawn: Dances by Ruth St. Denis & Ted Shawn (September 30 – October 3, 2021)

The Theatre at St. Jeans, 150 East 76th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com

Running time: 55 minutes without an intermission

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (407 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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