On the Trail of Ruth St. Denis: India 1926
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Choreographer's Statement by Liz Lea

As a dancer and choreographer working with Bharata Natyam, Kalariapayattu and Chauu I have long been fascinated by the work of Ruth St. Denis. Like me, Ruth St. Denis was a non-Asian artist inspired by Indian culture and art. Unlike me, however, she created her works at the turn of the 20th Century when Orientalism was all the rage and most spectators would not have known whether or not the ‘Oriental’ or ‘Hindoo’ dances they were being presented with in a performance were authentic or something fabricated from the pure fantasy of the performer. But this was not the reason I initially took interest in
Ruth St. Denis or her work (i.e. to explore and uncover the Orientalist legacies surrounding her artistic oeuvre).

The main inspiration for my exploration of her work has been much more personal: for in studying Indian dance forms as a white western woman and confronting professional prejudices about my career choices as an artist, I sought solace in drawing myself and my work close to the spirit of another artiste in whom I found some parallels vis-a-vis my own cultural interests and creative desires. (That Miss Ruth had been a Vaudeville dancer and I started my own career as a showgirl only added to my sense of kinship with her!)

Cross-cultural dance is fraught with the need to be politically correct in terms of cultural and historical representation. And although Miss Ruth researched her works passionately she had no formal training in the traditional or ethnic dance forms which she appropriated and interpreted for the stage in her own way. In some ways, therefore, her work can be fairly criticized just as she said in her own words: “as a jumble of everything I was aware was Indian art” (An Unfinished Life, 1939). Nonetheless, at the time of its initial exposition, her work was hailed by critics and applauded by audiences far and wide...

Now that the stage lights have dimmed on the Denishawn days and the curtain has long come down for its dancers (the last of the original Denishawn dancers, Jane Sherman, passed away in 2010), it is a fitting time to remember what St. Denis’ innovation and artistry did for generations of dancers who followed in her footsteps…

Ruth St. Denis was integral to the development of early modern dance. She was a contemporary of Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova drew inspiration from her and Martha Graham began her training with Denishawn (St. Denis’ joint dance company and school which she founded with her husband and dancing partner Ted Shawn). As forerunners in the field of cross-cultural performance, St. Denis and Shawn can be credited with exposing audiences worldwide to
groundbreaking works influenced by a diverse range of cultures, including Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Native American. Their work was inspired and “globalised” and paid homage to the many cultures they studied and aimed to emulate – through dance - and to then share with others. Though their cultural inferences may not have always been correct, they were sincere in their efforts.

I first visited Jacobs Pillow Dance Festival in the USA in 2002. It was there that I began researching intensively the seminal dance solos Ruth St. Denis created in 1906, including “The Incense” and “Radha” - both of which I have since re-interpreted and excerpts of which I perform in the film.

As for the film itself, it is two things where my contribution to its creation is concerned: an adventurous and spirited quest to re-live lost moments in time - inferred on my part (along with that of the filmmaker) from a journey made to India by Ruth St. Denis almost 85 years ago and written about by her and others afterwards. And it is a chance to share the magic of her dances with others on a broader scale than I have been able to do in the past.

Inspired by her words in An Unfinished Life and the letters and diary notes of her protégée Jane Sherman (from Soaring) as well as through old Black & White films (from Jacobs Pillow) and photographs (Adelphi University and Scripps College), my journey in the film is a contemporary dancer’s attempt to share with armchair travelers what it must have been like to travel across India in the 1920s and to see and do the things which inspired Miss Ruth and the Denishawn dancers to carry on there for 5 long and tiresome months. The film is also a homage from me to Miss Ruth as a dancer first and foremost and a lucky chance to share with others a little bit about what has fascinated me for so long about her life and her dances.

Finally, it cannot be left by me unsaid that Ruth St. Denis was an experienced Vaudeville performer and in the true spirit of showmanship she knew how to grab - and keep - an audience’s attention. I can only hope to be able do the same in this film!

All aboard and Bon Voyage! (or better I should say “Namaste”!)

Texts @ 2011 Talal Al-Muhanna & Liz Lea