Ruth St. Denis, the “New Jersey hindu”
Ruth St. Denis is considered one of the pioneers of modern American dance.
She was born on January 27, 1879 in New Jersey, to rather extravagant parents: his father is an unsuccessful inventor and alcoholic, while his mother is one of the first graduates in medicine, as well as a feminist of the first hour. They open their farm to theosophists, artists and followers of Christian Science, a religious movement founded in 1875 by Mary Baker Eddy. Here, the young Ruthie immediately learns that art and spirituality run parallel. Her mother started her at the first movement lessons inspired by François Delsarte’s theories, which she then put into practice in some performances for the guests of the farm.
Ruth St. Denis as Kuan Yin by Nickolas-Muray
Ruth with her students
In 1893, at the age of fourteen, she moved to New York, with the approval of her mother, and the following year she made her debut at the Worth’s Family Theater and Museum as an acrobatic dancer. Study Spanish dance and classical ballet with the Italian Ernestina Bossi and Maria Bonfanti.
In 1900 he joined the company of Broadway producer David Belasco and went on tour in Europe; from this experience was born in her, like a real cultural electrocution, the attraction for exoticism and for an excessive spectacularity, with a strong emotional imprint.
In Paris, at the Colonial Exposition, he attends the modernist dances of Loie Fuller and the orientalist dances of Sada Yacco. In 1905 he left the Belasco company and began to study the great traditions of Asia in order to plan a dance show that is both artistic and spiritual. The mythography, often reiterated, tells of his electrocution on the way of the Egyptian East in front of the advertisement of a well-known brand of cigarettes that depicted the goddess Isis.
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THE NEW JERSEY HINDU
In “The Cobras, Incense and Radha” movie’s (1906), Ruth dances barefoot, adorned with copper jewels, moving among the incense, thus interpreting the Indian mythological figure: it is and right after this ballet that the stunned New York print coins the nickname “new jersey hindu“.
Back in the United States, Ruth toured other short oriental-inspired dance dramas. In 1914 he married the dancer Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, with whom in 1915 he founded the Ruth St. Denis School of Dancing and Its Related Arts, then Denishawn School.
From 1919 to 1922 he created a series of works based on music visualization, a compositional method that provides that every single moment of the musical text corresponds to a single gestural and visual moment.
In 1925 it was the turn of Asia, then Japan, China, Burma, India, Ceylon, Singapore, Java, Indochina and the Philippines: everywhere he took local dance lessons and met the protagonists.
In 1928 the new New York office of Denishawn was inaugurated, but some important defections in the company, which ill bear the authoritarian moralism and racial and cultural prejudices of the couple, undermine its survival.
In 1932 he published a collection of poems, Lotus Light and, in 1939, his autobiography, An Unfinished Life, whose success led to a rediscovery of his work. In 1940 he founded, with La Meri, the School of Natya, a dance school entirely dedicated to Asian choreutic techniques.
In 1966, at the age of eighty-seven, he danced for the last time one of his most representative and most illustrative solos of his artistic creed: Incense.
THE CHARACTER DANCE
Ruth’s research is characterized by an interpretation of non-European dance traditions, with a mystical and spiritual approach to dance not in a Christian-Catholic sense: she is in fact fascinated by Eastern religions, in particular by the Indian yogic tradition, which she studies in depth. Her work focuses on the correspondence between spirit and body, where the body becomes a vehicle for the expression of the soul: for this reason she is also defined as a “character dancer”, precisely for her ability to interpret the dances of the oriental tradition in a theatrical way .
In “The Cobras, Incense and Radha” movie’s, the ballet opens with an imperceptible but very strong eye movement; then slowly move to the chest and limbs: only then does the dancer start moving in the stage space. It is interesting to observe how her dance is concentrated in the upper body, with interrupted movements and sudden leaps, in open antithesis with the tradition of classical ballet, which instead gave more prominence to the legs and feet.
But the interest in non-European cultures is not limited to the study of the tradition of Indian dance (mudras – the dance of the hands; mukhja, the dance of the face, neck and head) extends to Japan, with the dance studio of the samurai saber and the ancient dramaturgical art of No.
The free, open style that characterizes her work is also the result of the encounter with Isadora Duncan, who sees dancing for the first time in London and Paris in 1900.