When I first saw a black and white photograph of Ruth St. Denis, I was instantly seduced by her, just as many audiences of the early 20th century were too. Who was this female chameleon from another era dressed as an Egyptian Goddess, a Hindu deity, a gypsy princess, a geisha or even as an Indian peacock?
Ruth St. Denis in the Peacock Costume (1915)
Little Ruthie Denis grew up on a farm in New Jersey. Surrounded by nature, she developed an interest in spiritualism from a young age. She described how whenever the sun went down, “I made a funny little bow, almost dropping to my knees”.
When she moved into Brooklyn at 16, Ruth was working in vaudeville houses for $20 a week giving 11 dance performances a day, but she was also exposed to new literature and culture available to her in the city. She began reading up on the philosophy and spiritual rituals of ancient cultures and experimented with translating these themes into dance and choreography. In 1904 while on tour with a dance company, she spotted a poster advertising Egyptian Deities cigarettes and was instantly captivated.
Ruth St. Denis and Denishawn Dancers in “Ishtar of the Seven”
The chance encounter with an image of Isis, the ancient patroness of mother nature and magic, would seal the young dancer’s fate, setting her on a path to recreate the mysticism conveyed by the Egyptian goddess and bring it to a world stage.
With a fancy new name, Ruth “St.” Denis left her dance company to become a solo artist and immersed herself in “oriental” philosophies. Radha, her first production, drew from Hindu mythology and was performed to music borrowed from a French opera set in British India, appealing to the turn of the century craze for far east exotica. It was an instant hit.
Ruth St. Denis in Radha, the story of Krishna and his love for a mortal maid.
St. Denis would perform it over fifteen hundred times and dance for royal audiences in Europe, establishing her as a solo star and modern dance pioneer, the first to introduce eastern ideas to ballet. Unfortunately, what Ruth was also introducing to the art (albeit unintentionally) was ethnic stereotyping and fetishism, encouraging audiences to regard unfamiliar cultures as a form of entertainment.
While she moved beautifully, expressing freedom and spirituality, St. Denis’ choreography and translation of Indian culture for a Western audience was not culturally accurate.
Ruth St. Denis and her husband Ted Shawn in Xochitl.
Western dance had generally been cut off from its religious and spiritual origins, and more than anything, Ruth wanted to revive this by drawing from the aesthetics of far Eastern mysticism. Ethnic authenticity however, was not exactly a priority.
She had elaborate costumes made, blackened her skin with make-up, used Indian brassware as stage props and even recruited Indian immigrants living on Coney Island to surround her as she performed.
Ruth had found her male extras while searching for inspiration at Coney Island’s star attraction. Billed the “Streets of Delhi”, it was a replica city that offered a grand spectacle of trained elephants, dancing girls and an astonishing number of people from a real Hindi community shipped over to America for the big show.
There’s no denying Ruth’s success coincided with the high noon of Imperialist Europe, but are we even free of such influences today? The connection might seem odd, but as I was researching her introduction of the ‘exotic spectacle’ to ballet, it brought to mind a recent speech given by Jesse Williams, one of the emerging pioneers of the present day Black Lives Matter movement.
To quote Jesse Williams from his 2016 BET Awards speech:
“…Extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil … ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them. Gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though, the thing is, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
It’s frequently argued that the roots of European racism lie in colonialism, which painted non-Western civilization as inferior, backward and even animalistic.
While Ruth’s relative open-mindedness placed important and even profound facets of Indian and Middle Eastern culture before Western audiences, I couldn’t ignore the darker undertones of colonialism that influenced her and those she influenced in turn.
The Denishawn School of Dancing, founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, California, the first dance academy in the United States to produce a professional dance company.
(c) Herman Mishkin
If I’m honest, I was superficially drawn to Ruth St. Denis because of her beautiful photographs and costumes, which seemed daring for a woman of her era. I could have made a very light and airy post, commenting on how she exposed her navel and how she fell in love with one of her male students, and trust me, it would have been easier (but there’s her Wikipedia page for that).
Over the years, readers have reminded me of my responsibility on this platform and right now, we’re probably living through a very pivotal moment in time where it’s more important than ever to start asking ourselves the questions we wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable asking.
While I certainly can’t provide solutions to the troubles society is currently facing, I do hope that if anything, my little corner of the internet serves as a simple reminder of the importance of discovery and travel, encouraging first-hand experiences which can provide the opportunity to learn about cultures different from our own.
St. Denis was a woman confined and trapped by her times, but let us not be trapped by ours. I’ll leave you with this:
“A talented girl is the result of a mother who has been repressed and into whom goes all that mother’s ambition and culture.”
– Ruth St. Denis