Ted Shawn (1891 – 1972) was a key figure, and the only major male figure, in the founding period of modern dance. With his wife, Ruth St. Denis, he was half of the pioneer modern dance production company and school "Denishawn," whose notable pupils include Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and silent film star Louise Brooks.
Shawn had a successful film career for his day, appearing in the classic films Intolerance in 1916, Don't Change Your Husband in 1919, and the first-ever major dance film, Dances of the Ages in 1912, which he conceived and choreographed.
Shawn's dance retreat in Becket, Massachusetts, became the renowned Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. It was the home base for his all-male dance company which toured internationally, shattering the stereotype that male dancers had to be dainty and effeminate. Shawn's choreography was strongly masculine and exhibited the intense athletic quality of the art form.
Today, Jacob's Pillow is the longest-running dance festival in the U.S., drawing over 80,000 visitors a year. This ten-week-festival is a summer home for training and exhibiting dancers with an eclectic style and repertoire.
Shawn summed up his attitude toward his art in the following quote: "I believe that dance communicates man’s deepest, highest and most truly spiritual thoughts and emotions far better than words, spoken or written."
Ted Shawn was born as Edwin Myers Shawn on October 21, 1891, in Kansas City, Missouri, but grew up in Denver. While studying to become a minister, Shawn suffered a bout of diphtheria which left him paralyzed when he was 19. His physician advised him to take up dance as a form of physical therapy. Dancing cured Shawn's paralysis and spurred him on to leave divinity school and pursue the art of dance as a life-long profession.
While Shawn did not have the ideal body type of a male dancer—he was over six feet tall and weighed 175 lbs.—he achieved some success starting out. His first professional dance experience was with a Metropolitan Opera ballerina as his partner, and he garnered a few fans as part of an exhibition ballroom team. In 1912, he moved to Los Angeles and opened a dance studio. There, he would be instrumental in making one of the first dance motion pictures Dances of the Ages. Soon after, his dancing partner, Norma Gould, embarked with their company of interpretive dancers upon a cross-country tour and reached New York City after 19 performances.
In New York, he met Ruth St. Denis (1878-1968) and married her almost immediately, on August 13, 1914. Their union would set his artistic life in even greater motion as the pair formed the Denishawn studios and dancers. Shawn also served in a stint in the United States Army, first as an enlisted man, then as an officer during World War I, before devoting himself completely to dance.
During the next 15 years, the activities of the couple's Denishawn company and school changed the course of dance history. It was the first American institution to combine performance and touring with dance curriculum. It was also considered the only dance school to which parents could safely send daughters. Most of today's modern dancers trace their ancestry to Denishawn. It was Shawn who first recognized Martha Graham's potential. He was also instrumental in shaping the early careers of Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, and Jack Cole. While St. Denis provided most of the creative sparks, Shawn had the business sense to make Denishawn a coast-to-coast success.
Denishawn aimed to demonstrate that modern dance could be a serious art, while maintaining the interest of mass audiences through the use of costume, spectacle and entertainment. Its varied repertory incorporated spiritual exotica in solo, duet and group form, as well as large-scale presentations such as the Dance Pageant of India, Greece, and Egypt (1916). Premiering at this event was the couple’s signature duet, Tillers of the Soil, a stylized rendition of an ancient Egyptian couple harvesting the earth. Shawn contributed to these spectacles but also choreographed nearly 200 of his own works, ranging from the comedic Betty’s Music Box (1922) to the ethnic Japanese Spear Dance (1919). His infatuation with ancient Greek philosophy and physical ideals led him to create such dances as Death of Adonis (1924), in which Shawn, nude and painted white, embodied a moving classical sculpture.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression (1929-1939), Ted Shawn bought an abandoned farmhouse in western Massachusetts known as Jacob's Pillow (named after a large pillow-shaped rock behind the house). By the time Shawn acquired the Pillow in 1930, his stormy marriage to Ruth St. Denis had ended, which also brought on the dissolution of their financially successful company, Denishawn.
Jacob's Pillow became Shawn's summer dance retreat. He slowly began to lay the groundwork both for his revolutionary company of men dancers and America's oldest dance festival. The Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival began as a series of tea concerts given by Shawn's company for the local ladies of the community. The men, dressed in white bathrobes, served sandwiches to the patrons, then stripped to flesh-colored trunks and danced. The concerts were an unqualified hit.
In March 1933, "Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers" gave their first, historic, all-male performance in Boston. By May 1940 when Shawn disbanded the group, the company had danced for over a million people in all of the United States, in Canada, Cuba and England. Having challenged the dance world to accept male dancing as a legitimate addition to the art form, the troupe irrevocably changed the course of American dance.
For the final three decades of his life, Shawn became a major impresario, bringing dance to mainstream America through the theater and school at Jacob's Pillow. To promote his principle of the importance and universality of dance, Shawn introduced countless foreign companies to American audiences, provided opportunities for promising young artists, and trained a myriad of students in a full range of dance styles. Shawn orchestrated premieres by both the established and emerging talents of his day including Agnes de Mille, Anton Dolin, Pearl Lang, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Alvin Ailey and Robert Joffrey.
Today, Jacob’s Pillow is a National Historic Landmark located in the town of Becket, Massachusetts. It addition to the festival itself, it encompasses a professional dance school, rare and extensive archives, an intern program, and year-round community programs.
Shawn's greatest legacy was to show America that men could choose modern dance as a legitimate, masculine profession. Shawn purposely hired and trained virile-looking men, many of whom had been star college athletes, to dance with his company.
"[The] photographs work incredibly well as homoerotic images in the year 2002," wrote David Gere, a professor of dance history at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the foreword to the 2000 edition of the book by Barton Mumaw, who was both Shawn's leading dancer and clandestine lover for many years. Because it would have been impossible during the Depression to obtain professional credibility as gay men, Shawn and Mumaw kept their relationship closeted.
Shawn rejected any softness in his choreography. He was adamant about portraying a kind of hypermasculine image, rejecting the notion of effeminacy of the dancer characteristic in ballet. The company forged a new, boldly muscular style in dances celebrating Pawnee braves, toiling Black sharecroppers, and Union machinists.
The prejudice in America against men dancing professionally was a powerful roadblock in the evolution of the art, but Shawn, driven by necessity, challenged the status quo and became a closeted pioneer for the rights of men, both gay and straight. When his all-male company disbanded, Shawn claimed a major victory in the battle against prejudice. After the war, Jacob's Pillow became a welcoming retreat where dancers could go for the summer to study, work, and perform.
Shawn made some powerful enemies in his later years, including former pupils Agnes de Mille and Martha Graham. Both said and wrote a great deal to damage the pioneer's reputation. Still, he was a courageous and relentless advocate for dance.
Shawn was honored with the Capezio Award (1957), the Dance Magazine Award (1970), and he was knighted by the king of Denmark for his efforts on behalf of the Royal Danish Ballet. Posthumously, Shawn was named as one of America's "Irreplaceable Dance Treasures" by the Dance Heritage Coalition in 2000.
In spite of declining health, Shawn remained at the helm of Jacob's Pillow until his death in 1972 at the age of 81. For most of his career he encouraged his students to call him "Papa" and his legacy as the artistic father for generations of dancers and teachers suggests that "Papa" was a very apt name indeed.
There are a number of "firsts" achieved by Ted Shawn during his lifetime:
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