Paul Scolieri’s new book, Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances (Oxford University Press), tells the story of how Jacob’s Pillow was a place where modern dance was tested on small, local audiences. It not only recasts the history of dance, the biography sheds light on queer culture’s emergence. In the Pillow’s library, the chair of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University, talks about this man he knows so well.
Is Ted Shawn really what he claimed to be, the father of American dance?
While I want to recognize his place in the field, there’s no denying that modern dance was a dance born for women by women largely. To actually claim him as a father of modern dance in a way is to dismiss its strong matriarchy. Modern dance didn’t necessarily need a father because it had several mothers. But there are many other reasons why Jacob’s Pillow is so important.
What’s a brief history of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival? Throughout the ’30s, it functioned for Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, the first-ever all-male dance company of its kind. In the ’40s, during the war, it was one of the only cultural institutions still thriving, even surviving. Shawn did everything in his power to keep this running. Almost all of his male dancers were in the war, drafted, so he made a promise to them that this place would be here for them when they returned home.
Then what happened? His mode of performing dances based on ethnic and racial stereotypes were not only outdated, but racist. He was worried about his legacy and wanted to improve upon it. So he always included what he called “ethnic dancers,” international artists and African-American and African, Caribbean dancers on the Pillow stage, supporting a real global vision of dance.
Why was he driven to have his own company of male dancers?
He didn’t want to be the odd man out.
Why has it taken so long for someone to write this?
People look at the images and the story of Shawn and think that his internalized homophobia drove him to create these dances. What I’ve learned was that he had the idea that these dances might actually open up a space for gay representation. He was learning from Edward Carpenter and Walt Whitman and trying to think through how dance could be a way to create and convince audiences, shift perceptions that homosexuality might actually be a creative and civilizing force.
Was sex ever depicted on stage?
There are no romantic narratives in his dances. He wanted his dancers to have possession of beauty and order, harmony and fraternity, that we could look at men’s bodies and see, socially, relationships between men as something other than immoral. With his traveling around the world, he was living in a closet, but out loud.
Did he encounter prejudice?
There was this perception that he was living up at the farm, with images of these gorgeous young men naked. I think people thought that it was orgiastic here. I’m sure there were moments, but largely he was very careful to protect himself. He knew his whole livelihood depended on his ability to safeguard that secret. He was afraid of New York City. He was very curious about gay culture there, but he ceded himself from it because he didn’t want to be seduced by that. The turning point for Shawn and accepting his sexuality was his relationship with Alfred Kinsey. He participated in the sexual studies that led to the Kinsey Reports that transformed American ideas about sexuality and homosexuality.
Who was his biggest love?
Ruth St. Denis [his wife, dance partner, and co-founder of Denishawn School of Dance]. There was such physical chemistry between them. They both were uniquely tied together with the belief in dance and the divine.
How important was Jacob’s Pillow to him?
What moved him was the biblical story that this was a sacred place. Since sometime before the Revolution, locals had referred to the main road east of the property as Jacob’s Ladder, a reference to the Old Testament vision that Jacob had of a ladder that connected the earth to heaven. Jacob’s Pillow was a reference to the massive boulder outside the farmhouse. Devout Christians in the area imagined that as the spot where Jacob rested his head and experienced his divine vision. This farm that stood on holy ground with a rock-solid foundation and a Revolutionary history—it was a former site of the Underground Railroad. He placed a $500 down payment. The first dance he created here was his solo based on St. Francis.
How was he connected to locals?
Berkshire people have as much to do with the story of American modern dance as Ted does. It was actually when he started creating dances here in the ’30s, that first summer with the men’s company before they even went on tour. Local audiences found out that they were dancing in a barn and they came. The men dancers would come out in white robes and serve finger sandwiches and tea, take off their robes and they’d be nearly naked underneath and perform the dances they were to taking on the road. It was local folk who became board members.
What was most surprising to uncover?
Shawn was so connected to the leading thinkers and writers working against the pathologization of gay men. He was talking to them and exerting an influence about bringing forth the kind of new concepts and awareness of sexuality. That wasn’t a part of the story we knew until now.