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Ruth St. Denis

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Ruth St. Denis, Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow


Raised in a Bohemian environment, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) was encouraged to perform as a youngster. She studied ballroom and skirt dancing at the Maud Davenport school in Somerville, New Jersey, and was drilled in Delsarte poses by her mother. Her first professional job was as a variety act in 1894 at Worth's Family Theatre and Museum in New York. Important early influences were her work with the eminent director David Belasco, eastern spiritualism and imagery, along with European travel. By 1906 with Radha, St. Denis had the essence of her distinctive dance style, which combined spiral form with equal parts voluptuousness, mysticism, and erotica. She built a stunning career as a soloist and, in 1914, acquired a professional and personal partner in Ted Shawn. A year later the two opened Denishawn which, as a school and company, nurtured leaders of the next generation of modern dancers: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman. As a choreographer, St. Denis created some beautiful visualization group works, but her performance in such solos as The IncenseThe NautchThe CobrasThe YogiLiebestraum, and, with Shawn, in Tillers of the Soil are most memorable. Her autobiography, An Unfinished Life, was published in 1939.

Pictured left: Ruth St. Denis in Legend of the Peacock (1914). Lavish costumes were an important component of St. Denis's performances. (Photograph from the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival Archives, Becket, Massachusetts.)


Read an essay by Thom Hecht-- Selected resources


Ruth St. Denis in her solo Tagore Poem, 1929.  Photo by Soichi Sunami.

Pictured rightRuth St. Denis in her solo Tagore Poem (1929). Thom Hecht writes, "St. Denis's repertoire reflects her life-long interest in exoticism and spirituality." (Photo by Soichi Sunami. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dance Division.)





Ruth St. Denis in her solo Incense, 1953, one of the signature works in which she drew inspiration from Hindu rituals. Filmed by Philip Baribault.