Thursday, December 23, 2004

Divine Dancer


Finished reading Divine Dancer: A Biography of Ruth St. Denis by Suzanne Shelton. I really liked this book, and would recommend it to anyone interested in Denishawn or early 20th century cultural history. Shelton's book is certainly is one of the most enjoyable biographies I have read in some time. It is well written, well researched, and full of interesting information.
St. Denis had an incredible life, and was acquianted with, or knew, many of the leading personalities of her day. St. Denis once performed on the same bill as W.C. Fields, danced for the painter John Singer Sargeant, and was friendly with the Nobel Prize winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. Rodin once sketched her, and she danced for King Edward VII. St. Denis had "special relationships" with the architect Stanford White (famous for his own special relationship with Evelyn Nesbit), the showman David Belasco, and the German writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was also rumored she had an affair with the painter Egon Schiele. In 1906 (the year Louise Brooks was born), St. Denis toured Germany, where she met the dramatist Frank Wedekind, author of the Lulu plays!
All of that is background to her incredible achievements as a dancer. She was a contemporary of (and personally knew) Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavolva, Maud Allan, and Loie Fuller. Both as a solo artist and as a founding member of the Denishawn dance company, St. Denis - perhaps more than anyone else - helped introduce modern dance to America. Hers was a truly singular life.
A footnote: my copy of Divine Dancer once belonged to the composer Lou Harrison. Like St. Denis, Harrison had a great interest in Asian culture. Whereas St. Denis was drawn to Indian dance (her nautch dance was well known), Harrison was drawn to the music of the Indonesian gamelan. I do not know that St. Denis and Harrison ever met, but I would not be surprised if they had, as their circles of friends may well have overlapped. Besides his considerable accomplishments as a composer, Harrison was also a music critic and calligrapher. My copy ofDivine Dancer bears Harrison's calligraphic ownership signature.

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