Theater at St. Jeans Church
New York, New York
October 2, 2021
Program: Floor Plastique, Incense, Japanese Spear Dance, Choeur Danse, The Legend of the Peacock, Danse Americaine, A Javanese Court Dancer, The Cosmic Dance of Siva, Waltz/Liebestraum
As those of you who have read my reviews know, I’ve been attending dance performances, mostly ballet but also a variety of other dance forms, for a very long time. One of the earliest I remember was a program presented by the Joyce Trisler Danscompany in October, 1976 at the Theater of Riverside Church. It was titled “The Spirit of Denishawn.”
For someone then relatively clueless about the origins of American Modern Dance, aside from Martha Graham, that beautifully crafted and performed program was a revelation. It also proved to be a revelation to many more people. It was so well-received (it was described in newspapers as the surprise dance hit of the season) that it was presented again at the Roundabout Theater several months later – and I went a second time.
“The Spirit of Denishawn” didn’t just fill a void, and it wasn’t simply an homage: it was a living, breathing, joyful program, albeit a recreation of dances that were then roughly 50 or more years old. I recall that it consisted more of ensemble presentations than solos, and more of what I later learned were “musical visualizations” (updated more recently as “see the music”) than what, in hindsight, were the more exotic dances for which the Denishawn Company was famous, but the energy and appearance of the Danscompany dancers gave these dances renewed life. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who routinely view current presentations of ballets that are far older (e.g., Giselle, Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.), but it did. Modern dance, at least to those who are not dance scholars, carries the imprimatur of “contemporary” rather than something rooted in dance history, perhaps because modern dance (or contemporary dance) by definition is a moving target, and dividing it into convenient cubicles – Early Modern; Late Modern; Post-Modern – doesn’t always work neatly.
Now comes “Denishawn,” another program of dances created by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, known as the mother and father of modern dance. It’s another must-see – which is unfortunate because by the time of this publication its four-performance run at the Theater at St. Jeans Church will have ended. Perhaps it, too, will eventually be presented at another venue.
Unlike its spiritual predecessor, which was performed by a then contemporary company of young dancers, “Denishawn” is also memorable beyond being a living recreation of Denishawn dances. Many of the participating dancers are dance veterans with sterling reputations, and seeing their performances of the mini-masterpieces on this program gave it a measure of gravitas that the program nearly fifty years ago, as wonderful as it was, could not have provided.
The “Denishawn” program consisted of nine dances: seven solos and two ensemble. I’ll discuss them in the intelligent order in which they were presented.
Floor Plastique, an ensemble piece that Shawn choreographed for students at the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in Los Angeles in or about 1916, opened the program. Appropriately, here it was performed by seven young women from Limón2, which was established this year on the occasion of The Limón Company’s 75th Anniversary Season. Staged by choreographer, dance historian and writer Henning Rübsam, Floor Plastique was a perfect prefatory piece.
The word “Plastique” can have several different meanings beyond simply “plastic.” It can also mean artistic, or expressive, or malleable. All these terms apply to this piece, which introduces the viewer to Denishawn technique, the foundation from which many other modern dance techniques would subsequently flow, directly or indirectly, including the Limón technique (via Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, who had been Denishawn students and dancers).
The dance had all seven dancers perform various movements emanating from positions on the stage floor, in unison. As Rübsam later explained in a brief post-performance presentation and Q&A, these positions included forms recognizable in the technique of certain “second generation” dancers – “contraction and release” (Martha Graham), and “fall and recovery” (Humphrey / Weidman).
But the little dance stands on its own as more than a simple academic exercise. As presented here, Floor Plastique also was something of a greeting – to the sun at the beginning of a new day, to the dawn of a new dance vocabulary, or to the audience as an introduction to many of the subsequent dances on the program.
The young, engaging Limón2 dancers did a superb job flawlessly executing the movement without breaking form or unity, and deserve to be acknowledged. They were: Lihong Chan, Erin Hollamon, Madison Marshall, Tess McCharan, Nicole Miera, Sabrina Olivieri, and Ellie Swainhart.
From here, “Denishawn” segued into more stereotypical examples of Denishawn dances, performed, with one exception, by dancers either trained in technique derived from the original or familiar with it during their performing career. I’ll discuss the balance of the program in performance order.
The one exception was Valentina Kozlova, who performed Incense, a piece choreographed and first performed by St. Denis in 1906. Kozlova is a graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet School, who joined the Bolshoi in 1973 and was promoted to Principal in 1975. While on tour with the Bolshoi in Los Angeles in 1979, she and her then husband defected to the U.S. After several years of touring, she was invited by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet in 1983 as a Principal, where she remained until 1995. Her exposure to American Modern Dance technique may have originated by exposure at that time to the New York dance stew, or perhaps after leaving NYCB and starting her own company together with Margo Sappington, a choreographer and former member of the Joffrey Ballet.
Incense, is based on a Hindu ritual in which one worships the deities with a variety of offerings, including incense. The piece reportedly was inspired by seeing a poster advertising “Egyptian Deities Cigarettes” (according to a footnoted reference in Wikipedia) in a Buffalo, NY drugstore in 1904, and being captivated by the mysticism and spirituality she saw in the poster – much like Balanchine was reportedly inspired by what he saw in the window of luxury jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels to create his ballet Jewels.
I have no independent basis for determining the authenticity of this or the other Denishawn dances on the program, but I have no doubt (based on that same post-performance discussion) that authenticity was the program’s intent. And regardless of how she came to be exposed to it, Kozlova’s delivery of St. Denis’s choreography looked authentic. What was particularly fascinating to me was, as executed, the dance’s connection to ballet, which was one of the foundations of the Denishawn technique. In particular, Incense brought to mind Petipa’s La Bayadere, which also reflected (and pandered to) contemporary fascination with things Oriental. As Kozlova danced the role, she was a “bayadere”, a temple dancer, holding a vessel of incense rather than one filled with (or to be filled with) holy water – and as she moved her arms, one could see images of a Petipa Swan. Her port de bras was amazing.
Japanese Spear Dance, which Shawn choreographed in 1919, is very different. Reflecting Shawn’s studies of Japanese dance tradition and technique, as well as, according to the evening’s program, “the fact that most Japanese dancing is dramatic,” it is a dramatic dance that demonstrates a more masculine style of dance, one that Shawn was later to explore more fully after he founded his own company, Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, which had its first performance in 1933.
To music composed by Louis Horst (musical director and composer for Denishawn, and later for the Martha Graham Dance Company), Japanese Spear Dance looks exactly as one might expect a solo dance with that title to look. Masterfully performed by Bradley Shelver, whose Denishawn credentials arise from, among other sources, having danced with Ailey 2 and The Limón Company, the dance is filled with thrusts mimicking attacks on an enemy (or spearing dinner), but also contains a sense of ritual – as many of these Denishawn dances do – that elevated the dramatic movement into something ceremonial.
Japanese Spear Dance was no museum piece. On the contrary, it looked as if it had been lifted from Japanese Kabuki Theater (without that art form’s elaborate masks or makeup) supplemented by a Native American ambiance, and Shelver, who wrote a book on the dance technique of Lester Horton, delivered a performance that drew the audience in like a magnet. The performance was enhanced by pianist Melody Fader, whom I remember as resident pianist for New Chamber Ballet.
Choeur Danse didn’t appear to fit in with other Denishawn dances on the program, although by definition it did. By that I mean that although it looks more lyrical and free-flowing than other dances on the program, it was choreographed by Shawn in 1926 (in Singapore) during his Denishawn years, and Denishawn technique included, in part, the fluidity and musical visualization of their contemporary, Isadora Duncan, as well as that ballet foundation mentioned above.
The word “choeur” has many meanings, but the one that seems to apply most to this dance is “choir.” The dance features a group of three young women (Rosy Gentle, Erika Langmeyer, and Kathleen Caragine, each of whom has experience in contemporary dance) costumed in Grecian-looking loose-fitting white tunics, frolicking as if having been released from a Greek vase or a Greco-Roman frieze and allowed to move freely through space to the accompanying music, with no discernable emotion beyond the palpable joy of the lyrical movement. The piece was staged and coached by Francesca Todesco, whose repertory includes dances by Duncan.
The Legend of the Peacock, originally choreographed in 1914, was recreated by Jane Sherman, who saw it performed by St. Denis while a dancer with Denishawn, and by Livia Drapkin Vanaver, who was coached by Sherman for the dance’s presentation by The Vanaver Caravan in 2006. Vanaver and Amber Wirthman Mann, also taught by Sherman, in turn coached Vanaver Caravan dancer Nina Jirka. The dance tells the story of a beautiful woman whose vanity caused her to be transformed into a peacock in punishment (presumably by the gods).
The bulk of the dance shows the woman’s vanity (mirror mirror on the wall, without the mirror) as she proclaims her beauty to herself and anyone who happens by, and then suddenly realizes she’s been turned into the preening peacock she’d metaphorically become, with claws instead of fingers. Jirka, who has a ballet background via the Kirov (Mariinsky) and Perm Dance Academies, delivered a delicious portrayal of a woman in love with herself, augmented by her glorious peacock-ish costume that was recreated by Aletta Vett.
The program next presented a somewhat controversial piece, Danse Americaine, choreographed by Shawn in 1923 and performed by Arthur Avilés, a Bessie award-winning dancer while with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Co. from 1987-95 and co-founder of the Bronx Academy of Art and Dance.
Avilés’s performance was alive with color and nuance, even beyond the colors of his costume. Outfitted in a lime-green suit with contrasting shirt and tie and a light brown fedora (costumes by Avilés and Liz Prince), his character is brash, ultra-confident, and almost as full of himself as the Peacock lady, but in a somewhat lovable way. In the post-performance discussion, Avilés stated his belief that the dance, which he said was developed while Shawn was in France, was a thinly-veiled insult directed toward American immigrants. I’m sure Avilés knows more about the piece’s genesis than I do, but to me, and given its French title, it seemed intended as something of an insult, but one by refined Europeans (or specifically Parisians) directed toward upstart and uncultured Americans in general. Regardless, it’s an intricately detailed piece, which Avilés performed magnificently.
Created by St. Denis in 1926 while in Singapore (following a tour to Java), and premiering in Manilla, A Javanese Court Dancer, like Incense, reflects St. Denis’s fascination with, and application of, what she observed while in Java.
I don’t remember details of the dance because my eyes were focused on the face of the dancer, PeiJu Chien-Pott. Moving slowly and deliberately, with ramrod posture and covered in an elegant Javanese-style costume (by Mondo Morales, the Wardrobe Coordinator for the Ailey School), Chien-Pott conveyed a sense of regality from head to toe. A former Principal dancer with The Martha Graham Company, Chien-Pott wasn’t just any court dancer; she was the essence of serene nobility with every step she took. Without any overt pyrotechnics, her face, eyes, and hands provided all the drama and ceremony that the dance required.
In a different league entirely, The Cosmic Dance of Siva, choreographed by Shawn in 1926, is described as an “ecstatic Hindu dance in honor of Siva.” [As discussed post-performance, the Hindu god is more commonly known as Shiva, but the dance’s original title is “Siva”.] Antonio Fini, Artistic Director of Fini Dance New York and special guest with the Martha Graham Dance Company, fully captured the sense of spirituality imbued in the dance. His performance was astonishing.
The dance requires, among other talents, perfect balance as the god changes position, most of the time framed by what might be seen as the entrance to a temple. Although the movement quality is far more deliberate and refined, Fini’s performance attitude, as well as the moving sequence of his semi-fixed poses, brought to mind the Bronze Idol in Natalia Makarova’s production of La Bayadere.
The program closed with Waltz/Liebestraum, created by St. Denis in 1922. The dance originated, according to the program, when St. Denis spontaneously began dancing at a party to the Brahms waltz that was being played. Reportedly the pianist segued without pause to play the Liszt piece, which allowed St. Denis to continue dancing without pause. Even though it was memorialized as a concert dance when it premiered, it retained its essence as an intimate and spontaneous display of dynamic and exquisite motion to music.
Christine Dakin, who I remember seeing while a Principal Dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, delivered the crisp but smooth as silk execution that the piece required.
Waltz/Liebestraum is another dance that captured St. Denis’s lyricism, but the Liszt component allowed her to inject a measure of perfectly shaded drama into her portrayal. Still lithe and youthful in her execution, Dakin’s performance reflected both qualities and, while perfectly controlled, added the sense of spontaneity that must have been what had captivated the original pianist. Jonathan Howard Katz, co-founder of Periapsis Music and Dance, provided the piano accompaniment here.
The dances presented in “Denishawn” may not provide a complete picture of Denishawn style. No one program could. But, like “The Spirit of Denshawn,” it opens the door to further exploration. And hopefully it won’t be another 50 or so years before Denishawn dances are performed again – although, given the current contentious atmosphere in the arts as well as elsewhere, it might take that long before someone mines these and other such treasures again.
One final comment. The program was conceived and produced by publicist Audrey Ross, who loved the Denishawn pieces and didn’t want them to die. Through her many connections in dance the program gradually evolved, one of her connections leading to another, until she finally assembled the stellar dancers, musicians, staging choreographers, and designers whose efforts produced these results. She deserves the dance community’s thanks.