Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Without women to decorate it

Extracts from The Untold Story of Jacob’s Pillow By Norton Owen, an article in the Gay and Lesbian Review back in 2006:
"Ted Shawn was a fascinating and complex character whose driving ambition and tireless exploits laid much of the groundwork for American modern dance. [His] fame and fortune came in 1914 after he travelled to New York and formed a partnership with the legendary Ruth St. Denis. He had worshipped St. Denis since first seeing her perform several years earlier (she was thirteen years his senior) and, before the year was out, they became husband and wife.

"Their union was formalized in the name of their dance company - Denishawn - and the couple’s marital status was of considerable importance to the success of their enterprise. Dancing was not considered to be much of a profession in the early 20th century, with most Americans considering the words “dancer” and “prostitute” to be almost synonymous.

"In spite of the public respectability that Shawn and St. Denis cultivated, there were extra-marital affairs from the very beginning, most of these allegedly pursued by St. Denis. The marriage was irreparably harmed around 1928 when Shawn hired a business manager named Fred Beckman, who became romantically involved with both husband and wife. This three-way affair accelerated an end to the mighty Denishawn empire, which had exerted a considerable force in the performing arts world for fifteen years. The scandal could have also ended the career of Ted Shawn, as St. Denis threatened to divorce him and name their mutual lover as correspondent. This never came to pass, but St. Denis and Shawn did formally separate in 1930."
Left to his own devices, Ted Shawn decided to do something radical - in the midst of the Depression, with little money of his own, he bought a lowly abandoned Massachusetts farmstead called “Jacob’s Pillow” where he began to formulate his plans for a dance academy that would shake the artistic world.

"While the groups of dancers that Shawn gathered at the Pillow in the summers of 1931 and 1932 were little different from the Denishawn company that he’d been directing for the previous fifteen years, there were more dances in the repertory designed exclusively for men.

"Ted Shawn trained His Men Dancers and created dances that were concerned with themes considered suitable for men; for example, American folk material and dances about work, war, and sports. For the first time, American men danced on stage in a masculine, boldly muscular style. Looking at his work today makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Not only was he making the case for men dancers publicly, but privately he opened the way for you to be a gay man and not have that be an issue.

"Surprisingly and ironically, the very battle cry that Shawn shouted with His Men Dancers - that it was possible to be a male dancer without being a sissy - seemed to be contradicted by his relationship with the company’s lead dancer Barton Mumaw. Or was Shawn’s larger point an even farther-reaching one than audiences of his time could fathom? Even though it was not framed as such, perhaps Shawn’s real crusade was to prove that a performer’s own personal sexuality was not a public issue and therefore should not be inferred by his behaviour on stage. Audiences of the 1930’s would certainly have not been ready for such a message.

"Indeed, a Time magazine report in 1935 stated: 'Sophisticated observers regarded the venture as a freakish experiment, pooh-poohed the idea that a troupe could survive without women to decorate it'."

His Men seemed quite decorative enough, however, as the success of Ted's idea - helped in no small way by their almost perpetual nakedness - became a hit with the artistic viewing public.

Kinetic Molpai (1935) by Ted Shawn with His Men Dancers:

  • Jacob’s Pillow survives to this day as a centre for the creative arts in dance.
  • Martha Graham, considered the "Mother" of modern dance choreography, graduated from the Denishawn company.
  • Joseph Pilates (whose exercise regime is so popular today) was a prominent member of the Pillow faculty in the 1940s and 50s.

"Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made."

"I believe that dance communicates man's deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written."

"I wanted to see if the American man in plain brown pants and a bare torso could speak profound things."

Ted Shawn (Edwin Myers Shawn, 21st October 1891 — 9th January 1972)


  1. I once heard about a study that was carried out to determine what was the most demanding men's sport in all-round terms- it turned out to be BALLET. It demands both upper body strength to carry and lift the partner, and lower body strength to be able to leap 10 feet into the air! That's why male ballet dancers have such round, prominent rear ends; those gluteus muscles are what propel him into the air! Plus, they cannot use their arms to "boost" themselves; all such moves have to be carried out in a manner that is beautiful and graceful; no violent arm swings allowed!

    1. It's all about the buns in that game, sweetie. Jx

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks sweetie! I always assumed you were a Denishawn alumnus yourself... Jx


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