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The Amazing Ted Shawn

Author: drednm from United States
22 March 2007

An important archival dance documentary that reunites the original "men dancers" at Jacob's Pillow in western Massachusetts. This DVD was released 20 years after the original film was made in 1982 for a 50th anniversary. The old films of Ted Shawn, Barton Mumaw and the other dancers are extremely interesting because dance, and especially modern dance have changed so much over the decades.

Ted Shawn started dancing professionally in 1914, entertaining along the station stops of the Santa Fe Railroad. His path eventually crossed that of dance goddess Ruth St. Denis. They married in 1915 and established the Desnishawn School, the most influential dance school in America in the 20th century. As a touring dance company, Denishawn crisscrossed the country endlessly from the mid-teens to the early 1930s. Shawn and St. Denis established modern dance in America as a viable art form and something quite apart from ballet. Their students included Martha Graham, Mumaw, Doris Humphrey, Jack Cole, Louise Brooks, etc.

With the onset of the Great Depression the Denishawn touring entourage broke up as it was far too elaborate and expensive to continue. Shawn and St. Denis separated and Shawn then established a dance company on a farm in Massachusetts. He set out to prove that "men could dance." His small group of men, see in this film, toured from the early 30s until the outbreak of WW II. Shawn created strong, gymnastic, emotional pieces for himself and his dancers. Shawn wanted to proves that men in dance could be more than props for major women stars. Shawn proved that dances that were based on men's movements and men's bodies could still be aesthetically pleasing, exciting, and vigorous.

The 1933 silent footage of Ted Shawn and company in "Dome," which has been set to music by Bach, is quite extraordinary. Shawn, at age 42 or so, and his men dancers create a mesmerizing effect as they dance this long piece in seemingly unstoppable motion. The emphasis was on basic movements and emotion and not on traditional dance technique. The dancers are not polished but they are amazing in this wonderful and important piece of choreography by Shawn.

There are a few other archival pieces of dances, recreations, and a touching episode where Mumaw is re-creating his 1930s dance, "Fetish," for a young dancer.

Ted Shawn was a hugely important figure in American dance. His collaborations with Ruth St. Denis were important events for more than 20s years. The Denishawn dance movement created modern dance as we know it now. Shawn and his men dancers proved once and for all that dancing can be a vigorous and manly vocation. Shawn, who died in 1972, dedicated his life to dance. Jacob's Pillow continues as Shawn's most lasting legacy to the dance world, and its importance as a dance school and summer festival is now unrivaled.

Besides being a dancer and choreographer, Ted Shawn amazingly also served as an actor in silent films, stage manager, business manager, set designer, costume designer, teacher, prolific author, lecturer, and as a cultural anthropologist in touring the world to document exotic native dances (many of which he and St. Denis re-created during the Denishawn years).

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