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Ruth St. Denis was born in 1879 in New Jersey to Ruth Emma Denis who was a physician by training. Saint Denis was very strong willed and highly educated. She died in 1968.
St. Denis was encouraged to study dancing at the formative stages of her life. She learnt Delsarte technique in the early stages of her life. Her bullet lessons were conducted by an Italian ballerina Maria Bonfante. She also received training in social dance forms and skirt dancing. Her professional career began in New York in 1892. She worked as a skirt dancer in New York where she performed in dime museums and vaudeville houses.
Dime museums traditionally hosted leg dancers who did brief dancing routines. In a day, Ruth did more than eleven brief dance routines. David Belasco spotted Ruth in 1898. By then David was a Broadway producer and a director of repute. David then hired Ruth to perform as a featured dancer in his large company. In fact while working with David, Ruth earned her stage name St. Denis which stark with her forever.
She was later to be known as Ruth St. Denis. After the tour where ‘Zaza’ was being produced Ruth got to know many important European artists like Sado Tacco and Sarah Benhardt an English actress great of her time. These people positively impacted her life as evidenced by her desire for dance and drama of Eastern cultures. Her interaction with Bernhardt made her like her melodramatic acting style. This later influenced her acting career especially the tragic fate of her character (Sherman, 1983).
The technique Ruth St. Denis brought to the fore
At the onset of the 20th Century St. Denis began formulating her own theory of dance and drama. These were greatly influenced by the drama techniques she had a brush with early in her dancing training. The theory of dancing was also influenced with her readings on scientology, philosophy , and the history of ancient cultures.
The works of Benhardt and Yacco also played a role in defining her theories. In 1904 when she was touring with David Belasco, she came a cross a poster of the goddess of Issis that advertised a cigarette for the Egyptian Deities. This poster overwhelmed her imagination and she later resorted to reading a lot about Egypt and India. St. Denis later quit David Belasco’s company to start her path to the career of a solo artist.
It is during this time that she designed her exotic costume and created a story of a “mortal maid who was loved by the god of Krishna, Radha”. This dance style was premiered in New York’s Vaudeville House. She intended to translate her understanding of the “Indian culture and mythology to the American dance stage through Radha”.
When plying her trade a solo artist Mrs. Orlando Rouland quickly discovered Ruth St. Denis. Ruth St. Denis began performing Radha in Broadway theatres when her wealthy patron started sponsoring her. Ruth had a conviction that Europe had more to offer than any other place would do.
That is why in 1906, together with her mother she went to London. She managed to travel in many European cities where she performed a series of translations until 1909. She later returned to New York to give a series of well received concerts in New City when she was touring United States.
Up to 1914 she still toured United States dong exotic dance. She was labeled as a classic dancer in the same category with Isadora Duncan despite the fact that they were two different dancers in the perspective of their approach to solo dance. In fact St. Denis sought the universe in the self whereas Isadora Duncan sought the self in the Universe. St. Denis interpreted exotic world through “the vantage point of her body” (Shelton, 1981).
After 1911, solo dance on the professional stage faced a eventual death. St. Denis therefore gave lessons to such women like Gertrude Whitney. Her problems were later compounded by the death of her major patron Henry Harris who died on the titanic. Her financial woes forced her back to the studios where she initiated new exotic dance. The difference however was that the new exotic dance had Japanese theme.
One of these exotic dance was O-MIKA which “was more culturally authentic than her other translations”. It was not successful though. This prompted St. Denis to include some other performers in her productions. Ted Shawn came on board in 1914. Ted was a stage dancer who had strong Dalsartean leanings. Hilda Beyer had ballroom preferences.
St. Denis continued with her solo translations where as Shawn brought popular dance forms like ragtime and tango. Shawn and Denis later became lovers and dance partners. This partnership marked the end of her career as a career solo artist (Shelton, 1981).
Are they first or second generation pioneers?
Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, and Loie Fuller are considered some of the pioneers of the modern dance. They were against formalism and “superficiality of classical academic bullet”. These dancers wanted to introduce their audiences to both inner and outer realities.
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Ruth in particular employed pictorial effects that featured in her ritualistic dance of Asian religion. She specifically used elaborate costumes and improvised movements that characterized Egyptian and Indian descent. In fact because of her versatility, she integrated Native American dances and dances from other ethnic groups (Shelton, 1981).
Background on their company
After her marriage to Shawn in 1914, they together formed Denishawn Company. The company was started in 1915 Los Angelus California. Through this company they managed to popularize modern dance throughout the United States and abroad. Through this company talents were nurtured and a second generation of modern dancers was conceived. The second generation dancers that passed through this company were Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman.
The Denishawn School of dancing prioritized bullet and experimental bullet dance. The school was first housed in a Spanish style mansion in Los Angelus with spaces for technique classes and Denishawn technique. Technique classes were taken in bare feet and students had to put on one piece black wool bathing piece. The classes ran for three hours each morning. Shawn took the students “through stretches, limbering and ballet barre”.
Floor progressions and free form center combinations were also done by Shawn. St. Denis was in-charge of “oriental and yoga techniques”. Shawn’s classes were in fact laden with ballet terminology. The classes finally closed with the learning of another part of dance. Denishawn trainings were characterized by a theory that one learns to perform by performing and this made a part of concert repertory (Shelton, 1981).
Shelton, S. (1981). Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis. New York: Doubleday.
Sherman, J. (1983). Denishawn: The Enduring Influence. 1. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers.