A cigarette poster changed Ruth St. Denis’ (1879-1968) life in 1906, an unlikely event which eventually altered the course of modern dance in America.
She was then an eccentric showgirl named Ruth Dennis, touring through Buffalo in David Belasco’s theater company. When she spotted an advertisement for Egyptian Deities in a Buffalo drugstore, the image of the goddess Iris conjured up the idea of a new kind of dance-theater which might tell the entire story of a civilization through movement.
Within a few months, she had emerged as Ruth St. Denis in a solo concert on Broadway, inaugurating a decade of triumphs in various exotic dances fashioned from the folklore of Japan, China, and India. Although these dances sprang from a deep spirituality, St. Denis later confessed, “I knew that all the time I was dancing about God and Faith and the Spirit, most of the audience was only looking at my bare feet and my revealing costume.” She was sketched by Rodin, courted by Stanford White, admired by Martha Graham (who would become her student) and pursued by Ted Shawn (who became both her partner and her husband).
Any performance by “Miss Ruth” was distinguished by her remarkable stage presence. Her solos are difficult to reproduce, as they demand charisma, deft manipulation of costumes and props, and a profound belief in the mystical power of the dances. Through Denishawn (1914-1929), the company and school she founded with Ted Shawn, St. Denis made her greatest impact on audiences and on a generation of disciples including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. The visions stimulated by that cigarette poster were allowed to take shape in the elaborate spectacles staged by Denishawn.
“Ruth St. Denis achieved immortality many years ago, and the real Ruth St. Denis is now living and always will be – a valiant crusader for truth, a constructive force battling for beauty, and a healing power for the betterment of all mankind.”
– Ted Shawn, 1968
The dissolution of Denishawn led St. Denis deeper into her spiritual nature and into long periods of artistic oblivion, resulting in such desperate measures as working the graveyard shift in an aircraft factory. Her long life accommodated a number of declines and resurgences, with most of the latter supplied by Shawn through regular stints at Jacob’s Pillow , beginning with a revival of Radha in 1941. She continued to dance well into her eighties, characterizing her later performances with an unusually modest self-assessment: “I move with remembered beauty.”
St. Denis died in 1968, and her portrait still hangs beside the proscenium in the Ted Shawn Theatre. Her works are occasionally revived at the Pillow, including a memorable 1982 performance by Cynthia Gregory.