Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey
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Modern BodiesDance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey
By Julia L. Foulkes
University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2002 Julia L. Foulkes
All right reserved.
On 25 April 1922, the American dancer Ruth St. Denis presented a silver "loving cup" to the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova at a performance of Giselle at the Metropolitan Opera house in New York City. The painter Robert Henri, arts patron Otto Kahn, dance writer Troy Kinney, Russian emigre and ballet dancer Adolph Bolm, and St. Denis's dance partner and husband, Ted Shawn, joined St. Denis to pay tribute to Pavlova, whose solo The Dying Swan had spawned ballet devotees throughout the world. The passing of the cup to Anna Pavlova by Ruth St. Denis, though, signified a change in the American dance scene. St. Denis built on the movement innovations of Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller earlier in the century, dancing in bare feet, stylizing gestures, looking outside ballet for movement ideas, and insisting upon a spiritual reverence for the body and its movements. Creating a new theatrical event that mixed small, detailed motions with exotic costumes, sets, and dramatic lighting, mostly portraying Asian themes and subjects, St. Denis moved fluidly between vaudeville, the homes of wealthy patrons, and concert stages. In 1922 her successes, rather than Pavlova's, portended the things to come, because she inspired and trained many who would indelibly alter concert dance in the 1930s.
The nascent American dance scene owed much to the Russian ballet stars Anna Pavlova and Michel Fokine and to Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, whose tours in the 1910s inflamed audiences and provided a glimpse of the European balletic tradition that was being infused with new energy and talent corralled by Diaghilev. The shock of Vaslav Nijinsky's angular, emphatic movement and Igor Stravinsky's relentless, pounding score in Sacre du Printemps (1913), the hallmark of European modernism, still rippled. In the United States ballet had neither evoked such shock nor carried such import. Largely a vehicle for titillation or decoration, American ballet teetered between an act in vaudeville, such as a satiric scenario of Fokine's Cleopatre staged by Gertrude Hoffman at Brooklyn's Majestic Theater in 1912, and a backdrop in opera, such as Bolm's Le Coq d'Or (1918) for the Metropolitan Opera. Pavlova's performance with Mikhail Mordkin in 1910, followed by the 1916-17 tour of Ballets Russes, changed American perceptions of ballet, moving it more solidly into the realm of art and beauty in its own right. By the 1920s small ballet schools and performances sprouted in cities and towns around the nation, the most evident being those led by Catherine Littlefield in Philadelphia and Ruth Page in Chicago. Heavily influenced by European, and especially Russian, techniques and choreography, ballet began to attract a smattering of practitioners and followers in this country.
Other dance innovations blossomed from the United States at the turn of the century. Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller began dancing in ways distinct from ballet and the dance done in vaudeville shows, freeing movement from the constraining technique of ballet and the flashiness of vaudeville and using it to convey philosophical, religious, or artistic ideas and beliefs. Isadora Duncan drew on Hellenic ideals of government, art, architecture, and philosophy to liberate the body in reverence to the freedom of the individual spirit. Freeing her body from the corset, she reinvented walking, skipping, and leaping and elevated dance from a popular entertainment to the hallowed halls of art and nature, sometimes performing barefoot in flowing white tunics on forested lawns to classical music. Loie Fuller experimented with early motion picture techniques to explore the dimensions of light by creating shadows and refractions through a diaphanous, flowing costume, transforming scientific inventions into new theatrical visions.
Duncan and Fuller received their greatest fame in Europe, largely because of new approaches to movement spreading throughout Europe, but their innovations laid the foundation for the success of Ruth St. Denis in the United States. Born in 1879 in Somerville, New Jersey, Ruth Dennis grew up amid the turn-of-the-century attention to physical culture that was nurtured in her own home by her mother. Determined to raise a healthy girl, Dennis's mother took her to classes in the Delsarte system of movement. In this theory of the body and its meaning, developed by a nineteenth-century French philosopher, Francois Delsarte, certain zones of the body-head, heart, and lower limbs-corresponded to different philosophical states-mind, soul, and life, respectively. To this attention to physicality, Dennis's mother added a Christian devotion, a strong will, and attendance at the spectacles that came into town at the Palisades Amusement Park, including P. T. Barnum's circus and Egypt through the Centuries (1892). The combination inspired Dennis to put movement to theatrical use. Working in dime museums, vaudeville, and variety shows, Dennis navigated through the theatrical world of the turn of the century, picking up costume and stage tips, making distinctions in audiences and venues, and learning a variety of dance steps, from clog dances and Irish jigs and reels to skirt dancing and gymnastic trickeries. In 1900 she ended up in the company of David Belasco, a vaudeville impresario, and it was here that she began to develop a vision of herself as a solo dancer where she could combine her deep religiosity with theatrical flair. Seeing a poster advertising Egyptian Deity cigarettes, she began researching other cultures and in 1905 left Belasco for a new career in staging dancing pictures of foreign lands under a new name, Ruth St. Denis.
St. Denis's Hindu-inspired Radha (1906) served as her entree into a solo career in theaters and private performances in the homes of society women. In the early twentieth century the arts were a respected avocation for white middle- and upper-class girls and women, but a rare vocation. Training in the arts was to produce cultured girls and women as another sign of education and manners, not professional artists. Wealthy white women began to host dance soloists in their homes as a way in which to display their cultured worldview; in so doing, they also supported those women who were struggling to form careers as artists and loosen dance from its vaudeville and burlesque ties. In 1898, for example, Isadora Duncan danced at the Newport, Rhode Island, summer residence of Ellen Mason, a Bostonian. The patrons of the dance concert were all women and included Mrs. William Astor of New York City. Ruth St. Denis also performed in homes, often as a part of a benefit or charitable cause, including a 1914 birthday party for Anna Howard Shaw, one of the leaders of the women's suffrage movement. This patronage by elite members of society gave dance a new cultural legitimacy.
The patronage of women also solidified the association of dance as an artistic medium for women. Ruth St. Denis, Loie Fuller, and Isadora Duncan all embodied the much talked about New Woman emerging at the turn of the century. Throwing off layers of petticoats, emboldened women fought for more public roles and the right to vote. These new ideas included an embrace of "free love," looser sexual mores, and unfettered movement in dance halls and on stage that reflected a less restrained attitude toward bodies. Dancers such as Duncan and St. Denis disrobed: they took off corsets and put on bloomers, allowing more freedom of the legs and torso. The birth of more expressive dance on the West Coast aided this liberation from binding clothes. Duncan grew up in San Francisco, and the New Jersey-born St. Denis ended up founding a school, Denishawn, with her husband and partner, Ted Shawn, in Los Angeles in 1915. The school's explorations in movement suited the southern Californian scene with its new, quickly dominant movie industry. Denishawn students appeared in films, filling out dramatic scenes such as the Babylonian episode in D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, and actresses, such as Lillian and Dorothy Gish, came to Denishawn for dance lessons. The sun and warmth of the climate mixed with the more sexually open attitude of Hollywood to create a welcome dance beginning for young women. Doris Humphrey's mother recognized the sexual implications of this liberation when she wrote Humphrey soon after she went to Denishawn in 1917. Reacting to comments from others, she asked Doris if licentiousness permeated the choreography or school. Humphrey did not respond directly to this query, but it seems likely that modern dance freed young women psychically from the remnants of their strict upbringing as well as physically from the residue of Victorian notions of women's bodily weaknesses.
This liberation extended beyond concert stages and movies to a less flagrant but more pervasive growth in dance that was occurring in the dance halls, settlement homes, and public parks of major cities in United States, especially New York, in the first decades of the twentieth century. "Dance madness" consumed working- and middle-class men and women in the 1910s and 1920s, and dance halls became a public arena in which men and women mingled and bartered for sexual favors. Dance halls and cabarets allowed for exploration of body movement, from the stylized one-step of Vernon and Irene Castle to the turkey trot, with its flapping arms and legs that resembled those of its namesake. The avid interest in dance and experimentation by young men and women sparked the concern of Progressive Era reformers, who denounced this kind of dancing as sexually promiscuous. Indeed, dancing of all kinds exposed how relationships between men and women, and the prescribed gender roles for men and women, were embroiled in other issues of the era, with its increasing immigration, particularly from southern and eastern Europe, rapid industrialization, overflowing cities, and political battles over women's suffrage, labor relations, and the role of the United States in world affairs.
The attempt to shape and control this new interest in physical expression was perhaps most obvious in settlement homes, where middle-class white women used dance to instruct young working-class girls in acceptable ways to move, act, and be proper Americans. Dance historian Linda Tomko has uncovered these activities, primarily centered in New York but also present in Chicago and Boston, which fostered a wave of physical expression among girls and women and placed dance in a realm dominated by middle-class white women. Led by Jane Addams, the founder of Hull-House in Chicago, these women had carved out roles for themselves in the creation of settlement houses that provided needed services in immigrant neighborhoods. Believing that the environment in which people live shapes their actions, settlement house workers lived in poor neighborhoods, offering a model of domestication and behavior based on white middle-class ideals such as restraint, cleanliness, and well-defined roles for girls and boys. Despite these restrictive models aimed at molding the vast variety of immigrants into acceptable citizens, the mostly female settlement house workers also put forth an active, involved, communal role for women.
Dance existed within this setting as an expressive outlet for young immigrant girls. Influenced by the ideas of British artists and thinkers John Ruskin and William Morris, settlement house workers used art to serve a social end by grouping people together in friendly ways, providing activity to enrich minds, and restoring the creativity and beauty that was thought to be siphoned off in industrial society. Sisters Alice and Irene Lewisohn ran the artistic activities at the Henry Street Settlement House, founded by Lillian Wald in 1893 on the Lower East Side of New York City, and Irene took particular interest in dance. American-born daughters of a German Jewish immigrant father, they directed their attention to the new influx of eastern European Jews. Eastern Europeans quickly dominated the Jewish population in New York City, and German Jews who had long resided in America hoped to instruct the new arrivals on how to fit into society. German Jews worried about certain traits that eastern European Jews brought with them-particularly Orthodox religious beliefs and political activism-and wanted to quell any anti-Semitism that the eastern European Jews might provoke and by which German Jews might be harmed. To that end, the Lewisohn sisters promoted cultural rather than political activities, hoping to bridge the different cultures by putting on street pageants, beginning in 1906, resplendent with the stories and costumes of homelands. They soon became more ambitious and in 1915 built a theater called the Neighborhood Playhouse located just a few blocks from the Henry Street Settlement House. Their first production, Jephthah's Daughter, based on the story in the Book of Judges, drew mixed responses. "The radically inclined were disappointed that the Old Testament was used as a source, rather than Andreyev or Gorky, and the conventionally minded were shocked at the bare feet of the dancers," Alice Lewisohn Crowley remembered. In this maelstrom of varying values and beliefs, dance had a place as a form of expression and communication that did not require spoken language.
Helen Tamiris, the organizer of the Dance Repertory Theatre, was born into this environment in 1902. The only daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Helen Becker grew up amidst poverty, squalid living conditions, and the endless work of garment sweatshops on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The early death of her mother, when Helen was three, added to the family's difficulties. Along with two of her four brothers, Becker found solace in creativity. One brother was an artist, another a sculptor, while Helen began her dance career with classes at the Henry Street Settlement House. Taking classes from Irene Lewisohn and Blanche Talmud, Becker picked up a variety of movements, from pantomimic gestures to folk dances. She went from her dance classes at Henry Street to a job at the Metropolitan Opera, first utilizing her folk dance lessons, then turning to ballet. She was inspired by Pavlova and began to re-train her body, forgetting what she had learned at the settlement house about "allowing the movement to flow out from the chest through the arms and legs ... to start each movement from the center-the seat of the heart and lungs-and soul." Instead, ballet required concentrating on legs and feet, stiffly holding her neck, and keeping the spine immovable, "as though a rod had been tied to the vertebrae." She conquered ballet well enough to continue at the Metropolitan for a couple of years and then, in the early 1920s, went on tour to South America with the Bracale Opera Company.
Excerpted from Modern Bodies by Julia L. Foulkes Copyright © 2002 by Julia L. Foulkes. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this
A fascinating bookconcise, provocative, informative, lively.Choice
[Foulkes] places into the social and political context of the 1930s and 1940s the work of . . . choreographers [who] both shocked and titillated audiences with their perspectives on sexuality, gender, race, and class. . . . There are some wonderful black-and-white performance shots plus a few informal scenes.Dance Magazine
[A] thoughtful exploration of American modern dance.Journal of American History
This book is a compelling and significant contribution to the study of radical politics and modern American dance.American Historical Review
[Foulkes] does a marvelous job of illuminating the way changes in society have affected modern dance. . . . Fluid, elegant writing. . . . Modern Bodies serves to contextualize dance's place in society. It's required readingand not simply for dance fans.Time Out New York
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