In 1893 a loosely contrived child in a cheesecloth dress made her stage debut in a production of The Old Homestead at Somerset Hall in Somerville, N. J. The child was Ruthie Dennis. She had recently dismissed herself from Dwight L. Moody’s Seminary after calling that reverend gentleman a narrow-minded old bigot.
This same young woman, at 16, was engaged by Worth’s Museum on 13th Street, New York, to give 11 dance performances a day at $20 a week. At 18 she won sixth prize in a six-day-bicycle race at Madison Square Garden. Her engagement by David Belasco for a dancing part in Zaza with Mrs. Leslie Carter (because she was “so sassy”) started her well on the theatrical highroad. It was in Buffalo, N. Y., while on tour with the Dubarry company, that she saw a poster of Egyptian Deities cigarettes in a drugstore. Her destiny as a dancer sprang alive in that moment.
Radha, an Oriental dance, was her first creative triumph. It brought her fame in England, France, Germany, and sent her back to America an artist of established reputation. In America there were further triumphs— and gruelling months on tour in vaudeville to pay the bills. Then came Ted Shawn, a strange marriage, and the Denishawn School of the Dance in Los Angeles. After a long tour of the Orient, Denishawn House was built in New York City to realize a dream, and dissolved under the impact of personal tragedy. A new life was begun.
Between 1919 and 1931, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and their dance company toured the entire United States, England, Cuba and the Far East. Within that period, they created some 300 pieces, using their original technique based on classic ballet discipline molded to pliant bodies and bare feet, with emphasis on various ethnic cultures.
Ruth St. Denis embodied the sensuous spirit and unbound serpentine movements of dancers from the Orient and Egypt as well as myriad indigenous movement forms from global cultures. The exotic was fashionable, transformative and spiritually enlightening. St. Denis provided the audience consciousness with a staging and costuming cornucopia through her music visualizations, a style that called for movement equivalent in timbre, dynamics, rhythm and structured shapes in music. Dance for St. Denis was a spiritual practice. Her dancing arose during a time of complex cultural and social transformation.
Excerpted in part from Ruth St. Denis, An Unfinished Life
All Ruth St. Denis dances were recreated by Jane Sherman with generous funding from the NYSCA Dance Program. Jane Sherman, (1908 – 2010): born in Beloit, Wisconsin. She was the youngest member of the Denishawn Dancers on their tours of the Orient and the United States from 1925 to 1928, when she joined the first Humphrey-Weidman company. She is the author of Soaring; The Drama of Denishawn Dance; Denishawn: The Enduring Influence; and coauthor of Barton Mumaw, Dancer. On videotape, she preserved for posterity the largest St. Denis-Denishawn repertoire in exisitence. She re-created programs for Denishawn Repertory Dancers’ concerts in France and the U.S., and revived Denishawn works for The Martha Graham Company, The Philadelphia Dance Theatre, The Vanaver Caravan, and others.