Saturday, April 12, 2014

Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn in Utah!

While browsing through the Utah Digital Newspapers website (mostly public-domain material, woo!), I was surprised to learn that Uday Shankar, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn all performed multiple times in Utah, my current U.S. state of residence, between 1911 and 1962!

That Uday Shankar performed here was most surprising of all. In all my past reading and research about Uday Shankar, I had never read a reference to him or his company performing anywhere in the Intermountain West region of the United States. Very little details about Shankar's touring schedules are available, and for a long time I assumed his company only performed in big cities like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles because those were the only ones briefly mentioned.

General details of Uday Shankar's tours are outlined in the writings of Mohan Khokar and Ruth Abrahams. Nearly all of the performances in the U.S. by Shankar's company were sponsored by the renowned impresario Sol Hurok who first saw the group perform in Paris. Uday Shankar's first company (comprised of family, friends, and Simkie) first toured the U.S. in 1932-33 and 1933-34. Uday Shankar's second company (with new choreography and dancer additions Zohra Segal and Madhavan) performed in the U.S. in 1936-37 and 1937-38. After a return to India, the opening and closing of the Almora Center, and the release of the film Kalpana with little commercial success, Shankar and his third company (entirely revised with dancer addition Amala Shankar) returned to the U.S. in 1949 for a 10 week tour and again in 1951-52. The company's last performances in the United States took place in 1968.

Ruth Abrahams' dissertation on Uday Shankar is the only source I've found that gives specific details about Shankar's tours. A 1933 touring schedule on page 147 reveals that beyond the expected big cities, the tour included stops in places like Cleveland, Ohio; Madison, Wisconsin; Springfield, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; Waco, Texas; Tuscon, Arizona; and cities along the coastal pacific northwest and California. Abrahams notes, "The magnitude of the tour effort is remarkable to consider when one reflects on the circumstances of the times, the lack of convenient transportation, and the sheer bulk of personnel and baggage. Amenities, both professional and personal, were schizophrenic in effect—sometimes luxurious, but more often minimal, and the company was hard put upon to locate decent, affordable restaurants and housing. Usually, they just ate and slept on trains between concert dates." I wonder if the company encountered difficulties in their Deep South performance in Birmingham. When Indrani Rehman and her troupe performed in Louisiana almost three decades later in 1961, the troupe was refused admission to two restaurants due to racial segregation [14].

Source: Utah Daily Chronicle [12]
It wasn't until I took a stroll through the Utah Digital Newspapers website that I discovered Uday Shankar and his company performed in Utah at least three times in the 1950s and 60s. The company performed first in 1952 at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City and then in 1962 gave two performances—one at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City and another at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah. The picture on the right is from an article announcing the Kingsbury Hall performance, and I don't believe I have seen it anywhere else! A 1962 tour is not explicitly mentioned in Abrahams' or Khokar's descriptions (Khokar just says Hurok sponsored Shankar's tours several times from 1949-1968), so this discovery adds to the knowledge base about Shankar's touring schedules.

For a visit to Utah, the performances in Salt Lake City are expected. The greater Salt Lake City area has always been one of the few large metropolitan areas in the Intermountain West and was once known as the "crossroads of the west." But a performance in the small college town Cedar City 250 miles away in southern Utah is hard to fathom! Below are a few photographs I found of the Cedar City performance at the digital archives of the College of Southern Utah (now Southern Utah University), but no details are listed other than the ID of the "Shankar Ballet." I don't recognize any of the dancers, and I haven't the slightest idea who the guests are. Anyone recognize them?



Right: Indian guests with College of Southern Utah President Braithwaite

Shankar's performances in Utah were well received. Keeping in line with the orientalism of the time period, a Salt Lake Telegram article reported, "Mr. Shankar brings a complete repertoire of exotic dances from his native India. Through his art, American audiences will have an opportunity to become acquainted with a dance technique unknown in the western world, the Mudras. The Mudras, an incredibly graceful, intricate and expressive system of sign language, are capable of relating the most complex legends of Hindu gods and heroes with all their overtones of mysticism and sensuality. [4]"

A review by Tom Mathews described the performance in more earnest, appreciative terms."Those bold enough to attend were rewarded richly for their temerity. For those who were frightened by the words "Hindu Ballet," I give my sympathy. They made the most serious mistake of the season in their show-going judgment. Without knowing the least thing about such an admittedly esoteric subject as Hindu dancing, I sat in a goggle at the incredible grace and gentleness of maestro Shankar. He didn't move; he flowed....Shankar's wife, Amala...never stopping, always melting, she dipped and swooped like a leaf falling in still air..." [13]. And let's not forget that Uday Shankar was a very handsome man who was referred to in an advertisement as "ardently admired by repressed women throughout the world," or, in the frank words of Mohan Khokar, as one who "turned American women on, and they said so uninhibitedly."

Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Utah

So guess who else performed many times in Utah? Early modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn! This is not as surprising as Uday Shankar given that St. Denis and Shawn were Americans who toured extensively all over the country, and Salt Lake City had some nice theaters at that time. Researching their travel schedules is refreshingly easy thanks to a 1962 publication by Christena Schlundt that documents their performances. However, the Utah Digital Newspapers website fills in some details not available from Schlundt's book including a couple missing performances.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, 1911
Ruth St. Denis visited Utah at least seven times. Her first was in 1911 as a solo artist performing "Egyptian" and "Hindu" numbers accompanied by Professor Inayat Khan and his Indian musicians under the direction of Walter Meyrowitz. Her return visits with Ted Shawn over the following decade were all performances at vaudeville circuit theaters in Utah. In 1916, the Denishawn company performed at the Orpheum theater in Salt Lake City, and Ruth also gave an illustrated talk to a dramatic arts class at the University of Utah under the invitation of Professor Maud May Babcock. The Denishawn company then performed at the Pantages theater in Salt Lake City in 1918, 1919, and 1920. The company predated Udah Shankar in adding performances in smaller Utah towns to the list, in this case at the Orpheum theater in Ogden in 1919 and the Lyric Theatre in Logan in 1920. After Ruth announced her retirement from vaudeville, the Denishawn dancers returned in 1926 for an elaborate concert performance at the Salt Lake Theater with "exotic" costumes purchased "in the Orient". That appears to have been their last performance in Utah. Ruth did return in 1939 to Salt Lake City where in addition to being hosted by local society ladies she also "addressed a meeting of the New Frontier club on 'The Ministry of Beauty'" and was described as "a staunch believer in the moral rearmament movement and is at present director of all arts for the Oxford movement in this country" [15,16].

A review of one of the 1926 performances had a harsher orientalist tone than the Uday Shankar reviews above which were written a generation later: "The Orient, with all its savage, grotesque abandonment, was vividly presented in a series of dances by the Denishawn artist Monday evening." Most amusing of all was the description of Ted Shawn's "superb rendition of The Cosmic Dance of Siva[5]. I can think of a host of adjectives other than "superb" to describe that one, though commenting on the Denishawn dance style and their being products of the time period is beyond the scope of this post.

Source: Goodwin's Weekly, 1911
Writing about Ruth's dance style, a 1913 article in the Ogden Standard [5] reported, "...she can dance with her toes, her feet, her fingers, her body and then she can dance without dancing at all. She calls that last kind of dancing the soul dance. She learned it in India and is now showing Americans how to dance while sitting on the floor. 'When I sit motionless, as the Hindu idol Vishu [sic], I am dancing' she asserts. 'The impression is mental. I send out what might be called vibrations which are felt by the audience'..." The articles goes on to assert, "Dancing is classed by Ruth St. Dennis as the Cinderella of the arts. While the more favored sisters were being patted on the head and led on to greater perfection, dancing has been shoved out in the back shed and made to look shabby...Miss St. Denis is another fairy godmother rescuing the art of dancing from the house of neglect." Sound familiar, my fellow students of Indian dance history?



Dance in Utah

Both of the above discoveries are reflective of the history and popularity of dance in Utah. Utah's capital Salt Lake City was founded by members of the Mormon (Latter Day Saint) religion who migrated from the northeast/midwest to escape religious persecution, and dance and theater have always had an elevated status in Mormon culture and Utah history from the beginning. As modern dance evolved in the twentieth century, Utah followed suit. Early on, dancers inspired by Ruth St. Denis and/or trained at Denishawn taught and performed the style at local social clubs and schools [9,10]. One article explained, "The idea in teaching these dances to the girls of the school is to make it possible for them to interpret the school of the oriental world and to understand the ideals of those people and not for the purposes of reproducing the steps of the dances...the Yogi or religious dances of the Mohammadans, in which the eternal quest for knowledge of the divine spirit is the interpretation to be made by the dancer..." [17]. As modern dance continued to evolve, influential individuals like Maude May Babcock and Aline Coleman Smith were part of what became the University of Utah and Brigham Young University (BYU) dance departments. Speaking of BYU and in light of the recent performance there by Nrityagram, I was surprised that I found no evidence of Shankar or Denishawn performing at BYU or in Provo/Utah County.

I was quite fascinated to learn that Ruth Emma Hull, the mother of Ruth St. Denis, was raised in the "burned-over district" area of western New York which was nicknamed as such due to the intense, uniquely-American Christian religious revivals and new religions (including the Mormons) that swept over the area like a forest fire. Hull became a Methodist and she and her husband moved to New Jersey where daughter Ruth Dennis (stage name Ruth St. Denis) was later born, but Hull could have easily become a Mormon and moved to Utah! Imagine how differently dance history might have turned out...

What makes this post so exciting is that it leads to the identification of more places that a dance performance of Uday Shankar or Ruth St. Denis might have been recorded or photographed and preserved in an archive that has gone or is going digital. What treasures out there might await!

But the most exciting part of all was learning of the performance at the University of Utah which is a hallowed place for me as it has served as a source/conduit for much of my blog research! Having just last weekend attended an event at a performance hall right next to Kingsbury Hall, it is so exciting to think that the spaces I walked on may have once been the same spots Uday Shankar once stepped. If only Shankar's company would have performed here when Simkie was a member of the troupe. Now that would be truly inspiring!

Sources

Books:

Abrahams, Ruth. The Life and Art of Uday Shankar. PhD Dissertation.
Khokar, Mohan. His Dance, His Life: A Portrait of Uday Shankar.
Schlundt, Christena. The Professional Appearances of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn: A Chronology and an Index of Dances 1906-1932.

Articles at Utah Digital Newspapers:

  1. "Address is Given by Ruth St. Denis: Famous Orpheum Dancer Speaks to Class in Dramatic Art at University of Utah." Salt Lake Tribune. September 23, 1916.
  2. "Attractions of the Week in Theaters of Salt Lake." Salt Lake Tribune. March 26, 1911.
  3. "Attractions of the Week in Theaters of Salt Lake." Salt Lake Tribune. March 19, 1911.
  4. "Box-Office Ticket Sale Near for Shankar Hindu Ballet." Salt Lake Telegram. January 25, 1952.
  5. "Dances Without Wiggling Her Feet." Ogden Standard. December 27, 1913.
  6. "Denishawn Dancers Feature Bizarre Oriental Numbers." Salt Lake Telegram. December 28, 1926.
  7. "Denishawns Coming to the Lyric Theatre." Logan Republican. March 2, 1920.
  8. "Graceful Dancers at Pantages This Week." Salt Lake Herald. April 17, 1918. 
  9. "Granite High Pupils to Do Denis Dances." Salt Lake Tribune. March 22, 1918.
  10. "Happenings in Society." Salt Lake Tribune. May 18, 1919.
  11. "Hindu Artists Will Display Dancing Talent." Iron City Record. September 29, 1962. 
  12. "Hindu Dance Troupe Slated for Kingsbury Performance." Utah Daily Chronicle. October 22, 1962. 
  13. "Incredible Grace of Hindu Dancers Exciting Experience for Audience." Salt Lake Telegram. January 31, 1952.
  14. "Indian Dancer Hits Race Curb in South." New York Times. November 21, 1961. [accessed via ProQuest Historical Newspapers]
  15. "Noted Dancer with Her Hostesses." Salt Lake Telegram. August 29, 1939.
  16. "Ruth St. Denis Dashes from Party to Party During Brief Visit Here." Salt Lake Telegram. August 29, 1939.
  17. "Salt Lake Girls Will Interpret Dances of Orient: 25 Taught to Express Emotions by Rhythm." Salt Lake Herald. March 17, 1918.
  18. "The Denishawn Dancers to Appear in Salt Lake." Salt Lake Telegram. December 12, 1926.

3 comments:

  1. Every piece / article you write are awesome and more in detail. Thanks for such effort and Brilliance in doing this.

    What should i say than this?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very nice. I just googled 'Uday Shankar in Utah' and in the images, there are some newspaper clippings like this http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/10587618/
    You might have already seen this. It gives a description of couple of themes in 1952 dances.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rajesh - I appreciate your comment!
    gaddeswarup - Thank you as always for your helpful detective work.
    Realized today I had not responded to your comments--apologies!

    ReplyDelete

Feel free to email me kasuvandi *a t* gmail *d o t* com!