Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, “Kinetic Molpai”, 1935, Jacob’s Pillow, Music Added to Video in 1985 by Jess Meeker and John Sauer
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, in October of 1891, Ted Shawn was one of the first notable male pioneers of American modern dance. While attending the University of Denver, he contracted diphtheria at the age of nineteen, causing him temporary paralysis form the waist down. During his physical therapy in 1910, Shawn was introduced to the art of dance by Hazel Wallack, a former dancer with the Metropolitan Opera. He relocated to Los Angeles two years later, joining an exhibition ballroom dance troupe with dancer and choreographer Norma Gould as his partner.
Ted Shawn moved to New York City in 1914 where he met Ruth St. Denis, a teacher and modern dance pioneer. They married in August of 1914, with St. Denis becoming a dance partner and a creative outlet for Shawn. Both artists, believing in dance as an art form integral to everyday life, combined their artistic vision and business knowledge to open the first Denishawn School in Los Angeles in 1915. Renowned for its influence on ballet and experimental dance, this school became the first dance academy in the United States to produce a professional dance company.
Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Davis established an eclectic mix of dance techniques including a freeing of movement in the upper body and experimental ballet, often done without shoes. With the additions of North African, Spanish, and Amerindian influences to St. Denis’ eastern style, they broke with the established European tradition. Their choreography ushered in a new era of modern dance, drawing from these indigenous, ancient, and international dance traditions.
In the early 1930s, due to marital problems and finances, Ted Shawn left to form an all-male dance company consisting of athletes he taught at Springfield College in Massachusetts. His mission was to fight for the acceptance of the American male dancer and to present a male perspective on the dance art form. On July 14, 1933, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers had their premier performance at Shawn’s farm in Lee, Massachusetts. This event, known as Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, would transform into the now existing dance school, retreat, and theater at the former farm.
Shawn produced many innovative and controversial choreographies with His Men Dancers, which included performances entitled “Ponca Indian Dance”, “Maori War Haka”, “Hopi Indian Eagle Dance” and “Kinetic Molpai”. Through these creative dance performances, Shawn showcased masculine and athletic movement which gained in popularity. The company toured more than 750 cities in the United States and Canada, and achieved international success in Havana, Cuba, and London. Their final show was a homecoming performance at Jacob’s Pillow on August 31, 1940, ending a seven year tour.
During the years of the company,, Ted Shawn’s comradeship and interactions with the men in his troupe evolved into a love relationship with Barton Mumaw, one of the leading stars of the company, which lasted from 1931 to 1948. Shawn would later form a partnership with John Christian, the stage manager of the company, with whom he stayed from 1949 until his own death in January of 1972. Ted Shawn’s final appearance on stage was at the Ted Shawn Theater of Jacob’s Pillow in “Siddhas of the Upper Air”, where he reunited with Ruth St. Denis for their fiftieth anniversary.
Ted Shawn was a Heritage Award recipient of the National Dance Association in 1965 and was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Hall of Fame, located in Saratoga Springs, in 1987. His works, including his nine published books providing a foundation for modern dance, are now in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and in the archives of Jacob’s Pillow.
Many thanks to the Jacob’s Pillow site: https://danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org