Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Spring Book Corner - Selection #3

Spring Book Corner

Selection #3
Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances
by Paul A. Scolieri
published by Oxford University Press

Historical dance accounts and biographies always leave me with a question - how would this journey (whether of a person or an entity) be different in the present day? Would the famed Judson collective have been possible with 2020’s financial realities? What if Balanchine had arrived in the States in this century rather than in the last?

I definitely had this same feeling as I read Paul A. Scolieri’s magnificent new book, Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances, published by Oxford University Press. Impeccably researched, incredibly detailed and super approachable, Scolieri’s addition to the existing scholarship on Ted Shawn (1891-1972) is real and thorough. It attempts (and succeeds) to fully share the dance icon’s personal and professional story, one that Scolieri notes had long been purposely self-edited. He explains during the introduction, “…what made it difficult for Shawn to tell his story was that he was homosexual…he remained closeted in most of his autobiographical narratives…” (p. 2). When referencing One Thousand and One Night Stands, Shawn’s 1960 autobiography, Scolieri adds the following, “He [Shawn] felt that the book was compromised by his inability, or at least unwillingness, to be completely truthful about his homosexuality.” (p. 11) And so, with Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances Scolieri aims to recount Shawn’s life and work without that editing. And it surely had me wondering, how would the Father of American Dance’s story been different if it had unfolded in the current social/cultural/artistic climate?

Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances’ first chapter chronicles a myriad of topics from Shawn’s early family life, sadly marked by the tragic deaths of his mother and older brother, to his theological undergraduate studies as well as his initial forays into theatrical performance, choreography and dance on film. Then Scolieri moves onto Shawn’s artistic partnership with and unconventional marriage to Ruth St. Denis, which underscores the middle section of the book. Different aspects of the complex, oft storied, history unfold on every page - their prolific choreographic canon, the creation of the Denishawn School and brand, abundant performances, tours both near and far and critical responses to their work. Christian Science factors significantly in these middle chapters, as does Shawn’s pursuit of available academic and scientific research on sexuality. And as the reader approaches the last third of the book, the dissolution of Denishawn becomes part of the narrative, as well as the transformation of a Massachusetts farm into the iconic Jacob’s Pillow and the creation of a new company, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.

Factual details aside, what captivates most about Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances is the layered, textured conversation that weaves throughout, one of masculinity, sexuality, struggle, financial uncertainty, artistic creation and legacy. And full disclosure, it is a rather lengthy conversation. At 443 pages (plus notes and index), Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances is not a short book, and though there are sub-sections within each, its chapters are long too. But it’s very readable. Just be prepared for a slightly longer voyage.

No comments: