PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

Ted Shawn, Jacob's Pillow Founder, In His Own Words

Episode Summary

Modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn tells the story of founding Jacob's Pillow in his own words, along with a fascinating first-hand account of the dance traditions he encountered in the Far East in the 1920s. Ruth St. Denis also makes a memorable cameo appearance in this episode curated by Director of Preservation Norton Owen.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I’m Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it’s my great honor to host this episode featuring a number of rarely heard interviews with Pillow founder Ted Shawn. He died three years before my first visit to the Pillow, so it’s been thrilling to get better acquainted through the recordings that I have chosen for this podcast.

[Music note: music bubbles in, composed by Ellis Rovin, 2019]

Even though Ted Shawn died decades ago in 1972, his interests and influence live on vividly at Jacob’s Pillow, the Festival he founded in 1933. In some ways, the place has changed a great deal since his death, but in the most fundamental sense it has remained remarkably true to its roots. And yet, Shawn’s own voice is virtually unknown to most Pillow-goers today, so I have selected excerpts from various interviews to offer some idea of what he sounded like and how he expressed himself in words. To insert a little plug here, I might also add that the full films from which these excerpts were drawn are available to the public in the Pillow Archives.

[music fades out]

This first tidbit is from an interview conducted at Jacob’s Pillow in 1969 when Shawn was 77 – recorded for a two-hour Pillow documentary that was broadcast on National Educational Television, the forerunner to today’s PBS. With only a few brief interjections from the pioneering television producer Jac Venza, who conducted this interview, here’s Ted Shawn telling the story of how he first came to the Pillow in 1930, started a company known as Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, and founded the Festival.

TED SHAWN: I had friends who had a summer home down near Winsted, Connecticut, and we used to visit them whenever I could, a weekend every summer. I loved it so and so they knew of this place, actually at that time it belonged to Arthur E. Morgan who was the president of Antioch College - and the son of the family graduated from Antioch. Dr. Morgan had given him a description of how to find the place, he drew a map with a little Kodak picture. And so we started out one day – and when I found it I thought, oh, this is mine. I’ve just got to have it. 

JAC VENZA: Was the idea to have a theater? 

TED SHAWN: No [emphatically], an actual retreat! I wanted to get away from all of the heavy schedule of Denishawn and New York and that whole life, you know. And come out here alone with a pianist-composer and create in protective solitude. Now look at it. 

JAC VENZA: But what do we see when we see those pictures of the people building? Did you actually build the place? 

TED SHAWN: Well the old house - the old farmhouse, built around 1792, of course I had a professional carpenter put it in shape. And he remodeled this barn into a studio. But from then on, the men dancers built their own cabins. We built this outdoor platform. I, myself, did a lot of the cement on this place and all of these dry stone walls are all things that I did with my own hands. We cut our own firewood because we had only fireplaces and the kitchen cookstove. And for plumbing we had that one pump and on a sunny day, you’d get lathered and throw buckets of water over each other – you could hear the screams down in Lee, Massachusetts. Of course sooner or later, you build the mouse trap and it was F. Cowles Strickland who, the founder / director of the Berkshire Playhouse and a close friend of mind, and he’d come over and watch while I was rehearsing, training, choreographing - and he’d ask questions and I’d answer as best as I could in words, and then I’d ask the boys, “well show him what I’m talking about.” 

And he said, “you know, Shawn, I think this is fascinating. I think the public should get in on this because there is no such thing as a dance appreciation course. There’s music and art and so on but how can the public find out about dance? How is a dancer trained? How does choreography come into being? All of this sort of thing.”  

So, he really talked me into it. And we started these lecture demonstrations – matinees. Just sunlight, you know, no theatrical, no makeup, no costume. Made it sort of social, served tea and sandwiches and then I would talk for about twenty minutes. Call the boys in and we’d demonstrate technically and then end up with four or five complete dances, based on the subject of the afternoon. Because we’d have the ‘Origins of Dance in Magic and in Religion,’ ‘Dances of War and Hunting’ and ‘Relation of Dance to Drama’, ‘Relation of Dance to Music’, ‘Relation of Dance to Religion’ – and so on, you see. And we started out with forty-five people. Fifty-seven people the next week, seventy-five the next, ninety-six, a hundred and twenty-five – couldn’t even get them in by the end of the summer. 

So then we went out on our first tour. A hundred and eleven cities. Came back and the boys built on an addition to this end of the studio and then put in a balcony at that end. And knocked out a wall – made an alcove for the grand piano to get it out of the sight lines. And then we had to double into two performances a week. And this went on for the seven years. It’s of course – it’s July 1933 that this thing began and we toured for seven years and we gave the performances here for seven years in the summers and then of course World War II came along and I knew that was the end. And so I announced the seventh tour would be the last. 

The boys all entered into the armed forces, and I had the problem – I was heavily in debt – I carried this whole thing – the company was with me fifty-two weeks of the year and were supported – paid fifty-two weeks of the year. And they became like an orchestra. I could pick up my baton and conduct. They moved like one instrument. And even John Martin said, “the best trained unit of dancers in the world today, bar none.” But I had this problem of what to do – and I sort of put the Pillow up for sale. And then the local Berkshire residents got together and said well, we’ll incorporate, build you a proper theater and we started this thing called the University of the Dance because to my mind, Jacob’s Pillow is primarily an education institution and the theater is part of the laboratory equipment of the University of the Dance. And I’ve always felt this way that – that I am basically an educator and interested in that. And my approach to dance here is the same as it was in 1915 when I wrote the statement: 

“Dance is too big to be encompassed by any one style or type or school of dance; on the contrary, dance includes any way that any man of any race or any nationality, of any period of the world’s history, has ever moved rhythmically to express himself.” And you see, my aim in dance education is the total dancer. Not a ballet dancer, or a modern dancer or a Spanish dancer. But a dancer, like a person who has a true education – a cultured person – speaks French, German, Russian, fluently, so it is the total dancer today, speaks many languages; can move from on to the other with equal fluency.”

[Music note: music accompanies text, composed by Ellis Rovin, 2019]

NORTON OWEN: Of course, when Shawn mentions “today’s dancer,” it’s important to remember that he was speaking more than a half-century ago – though the versatility that he champions is even more on display in the current era. Another thing that has remained relatively unchanged is the singular focus of Jacob’s Pillow.

TED SHAWN: This is one place where everybody, eats, sleeps, breathes,talks dance – twenty-four hours of the day. There is nothing here but dance. We all love dance. We all serve dance and here of all places, you talk about, you know, United Nations - beyond race and creed and color – here we are dancers and we all love dance and we love each other. And so, I think everybody loves to come here because it is – it’s, well – [laughing] as Time Magazine said, it’s the mecca – this is the mecca for dance. 

NORTON OWEN: It’s easy to notice and appreciate Shawn’s promotional skills, a talent that he honed over many years of touring and self-producing. And it’s also quite wonderful to recognize that the special fondness that many dancers today have for Jacob’s Pillow actually has very deep roots. Here Shawn does a wonderful job of summarizing what makes the Pillow a particularly welcoming environment for its performing artists. 

TED SHAWN: Well, I think, of course, to begin with, there are two aspects. One is the physical – you do want a stage that is sympathetic – a good floor – a feeling of your relationship to your auditorium that they’re not distant and alien, but in your arms. And the other thing is, I think, is the atmosphere. I can remember Ruth saying once that she could tell from the behavior of the stage doorman what the management was like. And you see here I think the reason dancers love to come is everybody on the place has nothing in mind but to help them do the finest work they’ve ever done in their lives. And everybody would go to any length – stay up all night – iron clothes in the morning – anything. The whole thing is we love dance, we love dancers and we want each dancer to do the very best that’s in them. And everybody here will knock themselves out to make that possible, and they feel that. 

NORTON OWEN: In a different part of the interview, Shawn narrates some film clips that document an earlier chapter in his career, when he co-directed America’s first modern dance company, Denishawn, with his wife and partner, Ruth St. Denis. Though you clearly can’t see the film, you’ll hear the sound of an old-timey film projector in this excerpt. This is a particularly fascinating passage where Shawn describes the groundbreaking tour in 1925 and ’26 when Denishawn traveled to the Far East.

Even in this short interview, it’s clear that Shawn had the highest regard for the dances and dancers that he encountered on this tour, fostering a spirit of exchange that would have lasting ramifications. In talking about this tour, he addresses many of the points that come up in today’s conversations about cultural appropriation (even though that concept was unknown in the 1920s) – approaching other dance forms as a student, crediting his teachers, and making the distinction that he was not attempting to copy other dance forms. It’s almost as if he’s anticipating some of the issues that would be raised nearly a century after this landmark tour.

TED SHAWN: The first country we visited, when we went to Asia for eighteen months, was Japan and there we danced for an entire month at the Imperial Theater in Tokyo. And wherever we went, beside performing every night, daytimes, we were studying with the leading dancers, the leading teachers. And here we have on the roof of the Imperial Theater, Koshiro Matsumoto who was the greatest actor-dancer of his day and his wife, Madame Fujima, was the head of one of the great dancing schools. So, daytimes, we would go up on the roof and the entire Denishawn company would study Japanese dance under one of the great teachers of the day and under the inspiration of one of the greatest actor-dancers of all time. 

And, while I was there, I saw Koshiro, in a dance drama called Momiji-Gari which is still in the Kabuki repertory, and so I made my own adaption of it with his approval, and here I am being fitted to the wig of the demon in Momiji-Gari, and you know I appeared in Hair in 1924, and a little bit too much hair, as it looks. 

And so we went on to China, to Singapore, up the Malay Peninsula, to Burma, five months in India, to Ceylon, to Java, to Indochina, and all over the world. I had already previously made a trip to North Africa and to Spain. And while I was in Spain I saw, in a very good period because that was 1923, the Flamenco dance in its native haunts, you know, the cafes and the caves, because it’s not theatrical dance, it’s a very informal dance, it’s something that the people do and the audience participates. Now, some people thought that I just copied things, but no, I studied the original, absorbed the original, and then I did a creative choreography, based upon this original material. True to it, but not in any way an imitation of it. And this is always what we did with the ethnic material. 

Now, of course besides these ethnic dances, the Denishawn company had an enormous range of repertory, all of the abstract music-dances that we see today in modern dance were in their seed form in Denishawn repertory. And all the roots of modern dance were there. The things that have happened since, are an organic growth. 

NORTON OWEN: In one last excerpt from this interview, with the projector still running in the background, I want to share this summary of modern dance’s family tree, as described by one of its founders in his own words, ending with a proud endorsement of one of his prize pupils, Martha Graham. 

TED SHAWN: Just as an oak tree grows out of the ground from an acorn, at the trunk there’s a big branch that goes to the right and a big branch to the left. So out of Denishawn we had the Humphrey-Weidman branch on one side and the Martha Graham branch on another side. And then you come (along) and out of those branches you get another generation – José Limón coming out of the Humphrey-Weidman branch and many of the pupils like May O’Donnell on down through Norman Walker into the present day. It is a royal family, and a geneology that you can trace back. Everyone in modern dance today goes back to those beginnings. Martha, of course, has made the greatest fame of any of our Denishawn pupils, and she deserves it as a stage personality of such dynamic power, as this age has never seen before. 

NORTON OWEN: A few years earlier in 1963, Shawn recorded another television interview for a different Pillow documentary that was also broadcast nationwide. In this portion of the conversation, Shawn was seated outdoors in front of the Pillow rock as he spoke of the bright future that he could foresee for dance as a cultural force in the years to come.

TED SHAWN: You know, here I am approaching 72, and I am more enthusiastic about dance. I think it’s the greatest art in the world and I think, why am I still so enthusiastic – it’s because dance itself merits that enthusiasm. Because this is unique among the arts. You see a painter can paint something and it goes on a wall. Or a sculptor can make something and it stays there. But this is the most ephemeral art. You see, you do it and it’s born and dies in the very second you’re doing it. There can be moving pictures of it or there can be a still photograph, there can be memories in people’s minds, but it isn’t the art itself. You see this is the only art form of which we ourselves are the stuff. And this today, still has the most powerful magic, and I really mean magic. From a stage a great artist can work upon an audience; produce an empathy where the audience comes in and shares an experience. There is no other art form that has the power that dance has, and I think always will have. And we are still not using it to its full powers. There is so much more - I can see dance coming that will be greater than symphony orchestras, greater than grand opera, greater than anything we’ve ever known. And this past fifty years has seen an approach towards that, beyond my wildest dreams.  

NORTON OWEN: The final interview that I want to share is a special favorite, as it also includes Ruth St. Denis and it captures some of the interpersonal dynamic between these two dance pioneers whose lives were entwined for decades. [music comes in, Ellis Rovin, 2019] At the time of this interview, recorded for NBC in 1955, Shawn was 63 and St. Denis was in her late 70s. They had been married for just over 40 years at this point (and formally separated for 25 of those years) – and yet, the chemistry between them is palpable and deeply moving as they recall their first meeting in 1914. This exchange also illustrates a well-practiced personal interplay where St. Denis frequently had the last word.

TED SHAWN: Do you remember the first day I met you I, through a mutual friend, I was invited to tea and I got there at four o’clock and left at midnight? 

RUTH ST. DENIS: [laughing] Yes, I do.

TED SHAWN: And we talked and talked and talked… 

RUTH ST. DENIS: talked and talked [talking simultaneously]

TED SHAWN: …and every time we get together, we’ve been talking ever since.

RUTH ST. DENIS: A lifetime of talking…

TED SHAWN: And to my great surprise, ten days after I met you, I suddenly found I was out on tour with you. Do you remember Paducah?

RUTH ST. DENIS: Paducah, Kentucky… that was the beginning of our great romance, darling, after all. 

TED SHAWN: I know and they talk about theRomeos and Julietsand the Pelléas andMélisandes – I think we have racked up a pretty good reputation as great lovers after all these years.

RUTH ST. DENIS: Well you know, seriously dear, I remind us a little bit of people on a ferry boat. They walk up and down the ferry boat but meantime the old boat is taking them wherever its destination is…


RUTH ST. DENIS: And so I think people, who really love each other underneath, but whose paths grow apart, I think when they come together they make a path of those meetings and certainly today, at the Pillow, has been a wonderful meeting.

[Rovin music fades out] 

[Closing music comes in, composed and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices.Thank you for joining us today. On behalf of Jacob’s Pillow, we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films, essays, and podcasts at danceinteractive.jacobspillow.org, and of course, through live experiences during our festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the National Endowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe to PillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon.