Picture Stories: Martha Graham & Doris Humphrey, Bennington School of Dance, 1940s
  • Picture Stories: Dance Carnival at Madison Square Garden, 1941
  • Picture Stories: Stepping out in style
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    Auction Finds

    Picture Stories: Ruth St. Denis, Jacob’s Pillow, MA, 1968

    The wonderful photos kept coming. For several weeks, black and white photos with a mix of people, events and celebrations turned up on the auction table. An auction-house staffer told me that a dealer brought them in each week. Most were historical photos, a few were portraits, and all were embedded with stories that I couldn’t wait to release.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of those old photos and the stories behind them in a series called “Picture Stories.”

    Ruth St. Denis, Jacob’s Pillow, MA, 1968

    Up-close view of Ruth St. Denis at Jacob's Pillow, MA.

    Up-close view of Ruth St. Denis at Jacob’s Pillow, MA.

    Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn were both modern dance pioneers. She incorporated exoticism in her movements, taken from the cultures of Japan, China and India.

    The couple collaborated through their Denishaw school and company founded in Los Angeles in 1915. In 1931, they bought a farm in Massachusetts that had been given the name Jacob’s Pillow, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and made it a retreat for dance. Noted choreographers Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey attended the Denishawn school in Los Angeles.

    Around 1904, Ruth Dennis (she later changed her name) was a showgirl touring in Buffalo when she came across an ad for cigarettes that featured the Egyptian goddess Isis. That sparked the idea of forming a dance theater using civilization through movement as the catalyst. Her dances became spiritual, and she costumed herself in exotic garments – giving her an unforgettable stage presence.

    Full view of Ruth St. Denis at Jacob's Pillow, MA.

    Full view of Ruth St. Denis at Jacob’s Pillow, MA.

    “I knew that all the time I was dancing about God and Faith and the Spirit, most of the audience was only looking at my bare feet and my revealing costume,” she said later.

    She created her first work in 1906 and called it “Radha,” in which portrayed a goddess in a Hindu temple with male worshippers. “I have always tried to ‘dance’ . . . things that ordinarily are spoken or written, or preached or lived,” she said. “The eternal quest for truth, the ecstasy of an instant’s communication with a divine being, the harmony of rituals, beautifully performed, was the story of my art and my religious life.”

    St. Denis and Shawn separated – but never divorced – in the fall of 1931. Denishawn ended, and they went their separate ways. Shawn created an all-male company called “Shawn and his Men Dancers” that toured the world, but was based in Jacob’s Pillow. His aim was to make dancing a career as well-suited for men as women. St. Denis continued to teach and choreograph. She died in 1968.

    Unidentified tap dancer

    Unidentified female tap dancer performs.

    A female tap dancer performs in an undated photo.

    Unidentified male and female ballet dancers

    Male and female ballet dancers in an undated photo.

    Male and female ballet dancers in an undated photo.


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