6/29/18 - 11/11/18

Kevin Murphy, Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator of American Art

Caroline Hamilton, Archives and Preservation Fellow, Jacob's Pillow.

Enter the world of Jacob’s Pillow founder Ted Shawn and visionary modern dancer Ruth St. Denis. Over 350 objects from the Jacob’s Pillow Archives, including bejeweled and embroidered costumes pulled from the antique touring trunks, photographs, props, backdrops, and original artworks offer a glimpse into the early careers of this pioneering couple. The Denishawn Company, founded by Shawn and St. Denis in 1914, ushered in a new era of modern American dance. Breaking with European traditions, their choreography connected the physical and spiritual, often drawing from ancient, indigenous, and international sources. St. Denis’s and Shawn’s Orientalism and cultural appropriation raise questions of imperialism, colonization, and racism. The exhibition covers the first three decades of the twentieth century charting the movements of St. Denis and Shawn from Los Angeles to Asia to Becket, Massachusetts.

Exhibition support in honor of Norton Owen, Director of Preservation, Jacob’s Pillow Archives, generously provided by Joan and Jim Hunter. Research assistance by Eve Rosekind MA ’18, Will Hernandez, MA ’19, and Jesse Sentivan. Exhibition design by David Gürçay-Morris, Associate Professor of Theatre. A special thank you to Pam Tatge, Director, Patsy Gay, Associate Archivist, and Norton Owen of Jacob’s Pillow. Thank you to Williams faculty, and WCMA staff, Sandra Burton, Lipp Family Director of Dance and Senior Lecturer in Dance, Erica Dankmeyer and Janine Parker, Artists-in-Residence in Dance, for their expertise and advice; Adi Nachman, Exhibitions and Programs Manager for initiating contact between the two institutions and producing the opening events; Nathan Ahern, Chief Preparator, for original display furniture fabrication, and Cara Borelli for graphic design.

The exhibition also includes generous loans from the Hon. Stephen P. Driscoll; Patsy Gay; National Museum of Dance, Saratoga Springs, New York; Norton Owen; and Chapin Library and Special Collections, Williams College.

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn transformed dance in America. Borrowing from a variety of influences percolating through elite culture including Theosophy, the Occult, and Orientalism with specific interests in Buddhism and Hinduism, the two forged new territory in international dance after founding Denishawn, a dance school and performing company in 1915. Denishawn made contributions to what would become a recognizably modern and American style of movement by discarding traditions of European ballet.

St. Denis’s and Shawn’s appropriation of non-Western and indigenous forms of movement was a search, in their eyes, for more “authentic” modes of self-expression than what many of their peers in their predominantly white and upper class circles believed existed in the industrialized West. However, it is not possible to separate Shawn’s Native American works from the continued marginalization of indigenous peoples in the United States and globally. Similarly, St. Denis darkening her skin with makeup to appear South/Southeast Asian can be interpreted as cultural imperialism that brings to the fore white performers’ privilege–then and now–to adopt at will the identities of people of color. 

After separating from St. Denis in 1930, Ted Shawn purchased a rundown farm in the Berkshires known as Jacob’s Pillow. There he laid the groundwork for his revolutionary company of Men Dancers and the now internationally-renowned dance festival. Shawn’s choreography placed men, rather than women, as the dominant bodies in dance, and provided insights into discourses of masculinity and queerness in early twentieth century America.

WCMA and Jacob’s Pillow are jointly undertaking a project to conserve, research, and fully catalogue these archival materials. The elaborate costumes of St. Denis, Denishawn, and the Men Dancers, some of which date to the early 1900s, are emerging from the original company touring trunks for the first time in decades. 

Selected works