PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

The Life and Work of La Meri

Episode Summary

The legacy of ethnic dancer, choreographer, teacher, and scholar La Meri is explored in her own words, and in a contribution from Pillow founder Ted Shawn. She tells of her beginnings and her lifelong commitment to studying and teaching dances of other cultures, with commentary by Scholar-in-Residence Nancy Wozny.

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 I’m delighted to introduce Nancy Wozny, one of our Scholars-in-Residence, who will be your host for this examination of La Meri, one of the first Americans to champion dances from all over the world. She studied, performed, and taught what she learned to generations of dancers.

[Music by Ellis Rovin (2020) floats in under the speaking]

Nancy Wozny: In this episode we discover Russell Meriwether Hughes, Queen of the Spanish Shawl, or you may know her from her most famous pseudonym, La Meri. 

She was born in 1899 in Louisville, Kentucky. She moved to San Antonio when she was a young girl, and would consider herself a Texan throughout her life, even though she spent much of it traveling the world.  She studied and collected dances along the way, and in the process became the first American to bring dances from India, Spain, Japan, Burma, Latin America, The Philippines, Hawaii and many other places, to the United States.

She returned to San Antonio for the last four years of her life and it was during this time that middle Eastern dancer and visual artist Pat Taylor and photojournalist Jim Murray interviewed her for a documentary in 1987. Murray passed away shortly after conducting the interview, and the film was never made. Lucky for us, Jacob’s Pillow has that very video interview in its archives, where we hear La Meri speaking freely about her long and remarkable career. 

Let’s start with her unusual stage name. Here she tells us how her name changed from Russell Meriwether Hughes to La Meri.

La Meri: Well, I’m named, my given name is Russell Meriwether Hughes, Jr. I was named after my father. Which delighted me, always has. It’s given me some trouble and when I went to New York, first, I thought to myself, well, I can’t very well be Russell Hughes and try to get a job in the chorus. So I decided to call myself Meri Hughes—just the Meri, in front of the Meriwether. So I was called Meri Hughes and then I went to Mexico City, God bless the place, on an engagement, a small engagement and they, they call me La Meri down there. Which as you probably know, being a San Antonian, that they give that to artists—the ‘la’ is put on the front if they consider you somewhat unique. I don’t know in what way I was unique—I don’t ask, but in any case, they called me La Meri andI was so flattered that I kept it as a stage name.

[Music note: piano music begins, Cachucha]

Nancy Wozny: Although La Meri first trained in ballet, she found her stride early in her dancing life, which was bringing dances from around the world to heraudiences. It was in Miss Molly’s Ballet class where she took her first international step. She insisted that Miss Molly teach her a Spanish Dance, which would become one of her specialties. Molly Moore, a Cecchetti teacher by training, taught her a cachucha, and she was hooked. It would be Spanish dances that propelled her into a globe-trotting solo career. Her book, Spanish Dancing, is still considered a definitive text on the subject. 

[Music stops]

As an upper middle class child, La Meri had her hand in everything—dance, music, poetry, horseback riding—and she was determined to get on stage while she was less concerned with just how that happened. 

A turning point in her performance career occurred when she traveled to New York City with her mother, and met the dashing impresario Guido Carreras, the man who would become her manager and eventually her husband and then her ex-husband. She relays her rather hilarious launch into showbiz in this clip.

La Meri: I was auditioning for anybody and everybody that would look at me—every agent on Broadway. And finally, I auditioned for one guy who said well I don’t know anything about Spanish dancing, so if you’ll wait for just one minute, my office is just across the street. There’s a man over there, who is Spanish, who knows Spanish dancing, and he will maybe come over and look at you, if he’s there. So, I waited a while and he came over, the gentleman, Mr. Carreras, with gray hair and a monocle and spats and a derby hat and I never saw anything like that! But very good looking, and he asked me to, you know, show him what I could do. So, I sang a little song and played a little tune on the fiddle and went into my dance. And, uh, he apparently got interested. So, the other agent went away. And then he had me try out for—he had a very fine violinist listen to me. And the violinist said, well if she had a very good violin, and a really good bow, because the one she’s playing with is dreadful, and studied about four to five hours a day for about eight years, I think she’d be very good. Well that’s all I needed to give up the violin forever, which I did immediately. So, then he had ne sing for a very amusing Hungarian gentleman. And I sang, of all things, I hate to think of it now, but it is funny, I sang the wedding song form Madame Butterfly—modest. And I finished it and he said, “Well, this is the most amazing thing I have ever heard. You sing with great finesse, with great feeling, and you haven’t got any voice at all!” So, [laughing] so I thought I would give up singing, immediately. Then he had me dance for a Spanish dancer, who, of course they are the most jealous people who ever lived, but it was alright, she said, “Well, of course she’s doing an Aragon Jota to an Avata music, but she has something.” So that little word, ‘something’ was what decided me, I better be a dancer because I didn’t seem to have anything else, anywhere else. So, I did. So, I settled into dancing and Mr. Carreras took hold of me. And I must say that I have him to thank for my subsequent career.”

[music floats in, Rovin, 2020]

Nancy Wozny: It was during those first tours organized by Carreras to Mexico and Latin America where La Meri began her lifelong practice of learning from local practitioners. As time when on, she became quite adept at quickly locating who could teach her a dance before she moved on to the next town. Here, we get a feeling of her practice and the sometimes haphazard way she collected dances as she toured.

La Meri: I was studying dancing all the way around the world. As I went around the world, I studied in every city with the best teachers that I could get. I don’t always say that I could get the best. Because in places like Java and Japan, if you’re not going to be there for three years, they won’t take you at all in these state schools. But they’re very nice and very kind they’ll find somebody who will, let’s say, bootleg the classes to you. And you can study with the finest teachers but not officially. That’s fair enough. I’ll buy that. They have no reason to teach this stuff to a hop-skip-and-jump American who’s not going to be there two to three years. Two or three years, that’s not a beginning to try to learn some of those dances. But, we did alright.

Nancy Wozny: La Meri’s whirlwind career not only took her around the globe, but often intersected with some of the dance icons of the 20th century, including Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. She also crossed paths with Anna Pavlova, who included Spanish Dances in her touring repertoire. La Meri describes a delightful encounter with the great ballerina.

La Meri: And at a dinner, they gave a dinner in honor of the two of us, and I sat across the table form her, not a very wide table, and was absolutely stricken dumb. You know I couldn’t say a sensible word. But she was a marvelous lady. She sat there, you know the first thing she said to me was, “I understand that you do ethnic dancing.” And I said, “Yes, more or less,” you know, in a little squeaky voice. And she said, “Well I wanted to ask you how you liked my Mexican presentation. I’m very anxious to get a good, solid opinion on that.’ 

Well, at that point in my career, you know I’m just getting started, to have Anna Pavlova ask me what I think about her ballet, was a little bit hard to answer at that point. But she was an exceptionally fine lady, very, very modest, very gentle and very sweet.

[Soft music wafts in, Rovin, 2020]

Nancy Wozny: La Meri and Ruth St. Denis had a surprising friendship in that their approach to East Indian dance was quite different. They met at one of La Meri’s lectures after which St. Denis insisted they open a school together in New York City, and that they did in 1940.

The School of Natya proved a short but meaningful project. St. Denis liked to point out, “La Meri does all the work and I do all the talking.” The endeavor did not last, but their unlikely friendship did.  

The two most definitely shared a passion for dances of other lands. At first glance, it seems obvious that La Meri was the more studious of the two in that she had a rigorous approach to learning East Indian Dance, having studied extensively with Uday Shankar.

St. Denis employed a more atmospheric quality. La Meri brought her most generous thinking to describing what St. Denis was up to in her dances that evoked the essence of Indian spiritualism. She addresses her contribution here.

La Meri: She did a great deal in India itself. They were beginning to feel that Indian dance was kind of…meh. You know, the people who were big people in India. And Miss Ruth herself did her version of Indian dance in India, I think, which was nothing to do with Indian Dance; it was just Miss Ruth’s poetic conception. Which was emotionally so close to it, you wouldn’t believe it. Because she went another way. You see, I went via technical because I’m a practical, modern woman. Miss Ruth did it through religion. She studied everything with eastern religion until it was coming out her ears. And then she danced the way she felt that should look. And she did it and she convinced everybody, including the Indians. Even in India, she was, she was very much responsible—whatever they tell you today—Miss Ruth is very much responsible for Indian Dancing getting out of the temples and on to the stage.

Nancy Wozny: St. Denis also turned out to be her initial ticket into the Jacob’s Pillow family, when Pillow founder Ted Shawn invited the Natya Dancers in 1940. Shawn had originally asked the great Spanish dancer Argentinita to teach, but she suggested that La Meri teach in her place, and thus began a very long teaching and performing career at the Pillow, which lasted from 1940 to 1972. Here she describes the sense of community that Shawn fostered.

La Meri: Oh,Jacob’s Pillow was a whole history in itself and should be covered as such, although there’s nobody now who can tell you about it. Because the people who ran Jacob’s Pillow, the person who ran Jacob’s Pillow in its heyday is now gone to his father’s. Oh, Ted Shawn. But I went up there before the theater was built. I was going up to teach, and for about seventeen years, I went every summer to the Pillow. And it was a marvelous place. They taught—there was ballet, they taught ballet, modern and ethnic, some form of ethnic, because Denishawn had always depended an awful lot on ethnic dance too for inspiration, sometimes techniques, and so Shawn wanted—the people who came there to study—he wanted them to have this breadth of vision about what dance could be. And so, he had the three main types taught. And you know, sometimes I’d teach Spanish, sometimes I’d teach East Indian, sometimes I’d teach Javanese, or Siamese or something else. But generally, just ethnic, I was the ethnic department, so to speak. And then of course, after the theater was built, then there were performances of very fine artists up there. It was a marvelous place. Because many of these artists would come up and they would teach for a week and perform and then they’d go away. So, you’d get to study in a class with people who you’d never be able to see anywhere else, you know. And waiting for dinner, you could sit and chat with, I don’t know, Edward Villella and Maria Tallchief, Maria Alba, they were floating around the campus. You could just—they were just like ordinary people, which of course they areordinary people, but for the student, it was a marvelous experience, just marvelous—couldn’t have been finer. 

Nancy Wozny: Shawn ended up playing a major role in La Meri’s later teaching and performing years, which lasted until she was in her 60s. We can get a glimpse of how entrenched La Meri was in Pillow culture as Shawn leads us through the campus in this 1963 telecast produced by Ted Kavanau for WBZ-TV, Boston.

Ted Shawn: During the last three weeks of the summer, Madame La Meri teaches a course, using ethnic dance source materials, as a stimulus toward contemporary creative dance. The more advanced students who, having gone through their courses with Carola Goya and Matteo, are now working under Madame La Meri, who is the acknowledged world authority on ethnic dance. She has many published books to her credit and in New York at the great Ethnologic Institute, from which Matteo was graduated after a four-year course. She is now teaching a course that has to be done with advanced students because she depends on their knowing the basic forms. And the course is called “The Use of Ethnic Source Dance Material for the Enrichment of Creative Contemporary Dance.” And that is exactly the approach, using these techniques, not always in completely ethnic traditional style but, enriching the vocabulary of what is called modern dance by the knowledge of the dances of Spain, of Java, of Siam, and from all over the world.

Nancy Wozny: Although La Meri considered herself to be a versatile dancer, she found world dance forms considerably more suited to the human body. Here, she explains her thinking.

La Meri: Yes,the thing about ethnic dance is, it doesn’t demand any excessive physical strain. Anybody, even at forty, you can pick up, I mean, if you’re talented at all and have a sense of rhythm, but you can do ethnic dancing, you could start then and end up a very good ethnic dancer, except that your future is a little limited. But there is nothing—it demands nothing of the body that the average person can’t give it.

Nancy Wozny: La Meri was active decades before today’s cultural discussion of appreciation vs. appropriation. And it’s true, as a privileged white woman she did not consider permission in acquiring her dances, yet she also had a deep respect for these forms and the cultures they came from. She recognized a profound humanitarian reason for learning international dances. I will give La Meri the opportunity to have the last word in this final clip. Listen to how she addresses the value of dance as a form of communication, learning and exchange.

[music bubbles in, Rovin, 2020]

La Meri: Ethnic dance has always been more important than me, if you know what I mean by that. I think, if the world knew something about ethnic dancing, I don’t mean everyone needs to be a dancer—that would be boring for them and everybody else. But if they knew more about it, I think they would have so much more understanding of other peoples and other races and other problems, in which we find ourselves. I’m not going into politics because I know nothing about it. But maybe we wouldn’t be sitting in the sad position we are sitting in. Maybe, if there is a little bit more understanding of how they think, in the near and middle east, which we don’t know at all, and you get mixed up in the dancing and you find out—you can even get a book and you’ll find out, if you read the book with a little bit of depth, a little bit of vision. I’ve been convinced that it was the easiest way in the world to make people like each other—is just to have them get together and dance together. 

[Rovin music trails off]

[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—either online or onsite.