The New Yorker
Feb. 8, 2016, by Joan Acocella
“The Men Who Danced: The Story of Ted Shawn’s Men Dancers and the Birth of Jacob’s Pillow, 1933-1940,” a thirty-minute film that will be shown on Feb. 14 at the Dance on Camera Festival, at Lincoln Center (Feb. 12-16), is a modest business with sometimes fuzzy footage, but it is an excellent illustration of the typical circumstances of early modern dance in America: communal, idealistic, and penniless. Ted Shawn (1891-1972) was a divinity student at the University of Denver when he was forced to take ballet lessons, to strengthen his legs, after a bout of diphtheria. Around that time, he also went to a vaudeville show and saw Ruth St. Denis, a riveting free-style dancer, in her Pharaonic spectacle “Egypta.” He auditioned for St. Denis, hoping to join her troupe. She hired him as her partner and, a few months later, married him, though she was about twelve years older than he. Together they founded Denishawn, a company and school that became hugely influential. Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey studied there.
After the demise of Denishawn, Shawn decided to establish an all-male company, to prove to the world that not just women, but men, too, could inhabit the world of ideal beauty associated with dance, and do so without any compromise of their masculinity. To that end, he bought an abandoned farm, called Jacob’s Pillow, in Becket, Massachusetts, and collected a small group of young men, almost all of them innocent of any dance training. Like a lot of early modern dancers, he had firm beliefs about how dance, and beauty, emerged naturally from the human body. He also could not afford to pay trained dancers.
In 1982, eight of these men came together for a reunion at Jacob’s Pillow, which now houses what is probably America’s foremost summer dance festival. Interviews with them occupy a good part of “The Men Who Danced.” They talk about the spartan conditions in which the group lived, rehearsing in the morning and chopping wood in the afternoon. Their usual dinner, one man says, was what they called “carrot ring,” chopped boiled carrots, molded into a ring. (That was the whole dinner.) Barton Mumaw, the company’s lead dancer (after Shawn), says that the group was held together by a sort of “oversoul,” produced by the men’s constantly working together.
The film shows excerpts from dances Shawn made for the company, many of them stressing weight and strain, labor and combat, in keeping with the goal of persuading audiences that dance could be virile. They are a little camp, and also touching. Shawn didn’t always bring people over to his side. Mumaw says there were times when people would warn them, “There are fifty guys out there who are going to come and break up the show.” Such guys were not entirely mistaken in their suspicions. Shawn was homosexual. Mumaw was his lover during the lifetime of the troupe. This was never spoken of in the company, nor, indeed, is it mentioned in the film, which was released in 1985. ♦
This article appears in other versions of the February 8 & 15, 2016, issue, with the headline “Oversoul.”
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