Retiring Ruth St. Denis

In a black and white archival photo, a white woman throws her arms out, a long skirt falling from her fingertips. Her head is covered and she wears a cropped shirt. She wears heavy jewelry. Rebecca has edited the photo so that St. Denis stands atop the Statue of Liberty’s plinth. Over the top of the composite reads “Retiring Ruth St. Denis” in bold, italic, white letters against a red background.

Silence rings in my ears, unembodied Zoom voices abruptly stilled. I just left a webinar, “Asian-American Solidarities in a “Post-” Pandemic World” and am pondering the panelists’ critique of the use of “post-.” They and I agree its use, in relation to the pandemic and systemic racism, misrepresent the true scale of recognition and reparations needed to respect the lives lost and pain endured over the last nineteen months and over 200 years of state-sponsored violence. In response, the panel set about imagining alternatives. They asked, “Beyond statements and hashtags, how do we actively and creatively practice solidarity–through our activism, our art, redirecting material resources, and the narratives we shape?”

I think about this question and “post-” in reference to an upcoming dance performance series in New York City. “Denishawn,” a revival of works by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn will run September 30 — October 3, 2021. It is towards this presentation and the systemic injustices it represents, I redirect my attention and hope to help reshape the narrative for Asian-American solidarities.

Ruth St. Denis is lauded as one of the “mothers” of contemporary dance in this land we currently call the United States. She and Ted Shawn founded Jacob’s Pillow in 1931, a dance center, school, and performance space still operating on the traditional lands of the Agawam, Nipmuc, Pocumtuc, and the Mohican. Jacob’s Pillow and “Denishawn” credit St. Denis’s initial inspiration to a cigarette poster advertising “Egyptian Deities.” She went on to develop a “new kind of dance-theater which might tell the entire story of a civilization through movement.” She has since been put on a pedestal by Eurocentric dance history. But what these histories conveniently skip is that she stole Asian narratives from our bodies, bastardized culturally specific dances, and contributed to the development of anti-Asian sentiment on this stolen land.

St. Denis’s work is orientalism–a stereotypical and racist representation of Asian cultures that is referential to colonial perspectives. It is painful to bear witness to her work without an acknowledgment of these facts. And in the context of rising Anti-Asian hate crimes, it is excruciating. Racism towards Asians in this country is not new, nor has it dissipated. Laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (repealed in 1943) and Trump’s 2017–2020 Executive Order and Proclamations known collectively as the “Muslim Ban” (revoked in 2020) demonized and prohibited the movement of Asian bodies. Meanwhile, white women like St. Denis were admired by predominantly white audiences for their appropriative performances of people who were not allowed. Hopefully, you can understand why a revival in 2021 gives me pause. Even if “Denishawn” is performed by a diverse and Asian-inclusive cast, without the recognition towards current events or transparency around its restaging methodology, the presentation strips our agency, devalues, and damages the Asian and Asian-American experience.

St. Denis and her peers still benefit from their actions without repercussions. Her pupil, Martha Graham, admits as such in her 1973 notebooks, “I steal from the best, wherever it happens to me. I am a thief and I glory in it.” A few days ago, Dance Magazine published, “What Dancers Can Learn From La Meri’s Focus on the Global Spectrum of Dance.” La Meri was a contemporary of St. Denis’s and Jacob’s Pillow teacher. In the article, the author suggests that following La Meri’s culturally appropriative “techniques” could help sustain a dance career. While the author acknowledges the hierarchy that values Eurocentric dance, she misses the mark by applauding La Meri’s work and suggesting that our field can engage in a “radical restructuring without a bias.” Eliminating bias or aspiring to a “post-racial” (or “post-pandemic”) dance field, erases the historic, nuanced, and diverse contributions of the global majority to the creation of the current dance field. This perspective is concerning not just regarding St. Denis, but also in respect to the Black and Indigenous dance artists and culture bearers whose stolen bodies and labor ground the foundation of what is described as “American” modern and contemporary dance.

Ruth St. Denis and her peers’ wrongdoings are not new information. Those staging revivals must be aware of this when engaging the work. Many artists and scholars before me have reflected on the impact of orientalism and the erasure of Asian bodies as a destructive force to racial equity and justice. I encourage you to engage further with their work which is more realized and detailed than these excerpts.

“… it seems that St. Denis as a choreographer and Graham as a dancer felt no need to accurately and respectfully represent Asian dance…” — Peggy Choy, University of Wisconsin-Madison Panel, “Asian/Asian-American Perspectives on Modern Dance” (1995)

“St. Denis…exemplified the assimilation of Indian dance on her body, devoid of the Indian dancer herself.” — Priya Srinivasan,“ The Nautch women dancers of the 1880s: Corporeality, US Orientalism, and anti-Asian immigrant laws” (2009)

“Take the cases of Ruth St. Denis, Maud Allan, and the popularity of Oriental dance at the beginning of the twentieth century; white women could inhabit various “Oriental” dance forms without acknowledgment or historical reminders of the actual Asian bodies that informed their works… In other words, Orientalism disappears Asian-American bodies from the present by associating them within an imagined past that is both temporal and spatial.” — Yutian Wong, Choreographing Asian America (2010)

“The history of experiencing life as a member of a minority group in America will shape audience response to artistic presentation today, and creators cannot afford to be ignorant of these dynamics.” — Phil Chan, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact (2020)

In the face of this, how can the dance field “actively and creatively practice solidarity?” We are not “post-racial” and so we must reckon with Ruth St. Denis and the direction of resources around her work. My perspective is similar to Chan’s. Start by naming St. Denis’s and her peers’ work as orientalist and imperialist performance. Publicly name the whiteness that is behind the work, past, present, and future. Do your research and compensate those who educate you. Identify, understand, and respond to your internalized biases. Be transparent about the process of staging a revival. This brief list of action items is not enough to attend to years of damage embedded into the dance field. There is no “post-racial.” There is no “post-pandemic.” There is no “post-St. Denis.” The impact is ongoing so the work must be ongoing.

In light of this call to action, I ask you to ask yourself, is this revival necessary to further understand the value of the work? Can we retire Ruth St. Denis with the necessary acknowledgment that she and her peers’ work contributed to the development of anti-Asian sentiment in this country? In moving towards retirement, perhaps we can redirect our field’s resources towards the joy and celebration of Asian and Asian-American choreographers, past, present, and future, who have been and are creating equally brilliant, impactful work. Not sure where to start? I would be more than happy to curate a performance series… with fair compensation.

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