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Modern Dance

If the Ballets Russes revitalized ballet as an artistic form early in the twentieth century, another important development in dance at the turn of the twentieth century was the emergence of "modern dance." Among the most influential pioneers of modern dance--a loose term basically meaning non-balletic artistic dance--were three American women, Ruth St. Denis, Isadora Duncan, and Martha Graham, as well as a German woman, Mary Wigman.

It was in the field of modern dance, pioneered by sexually uninhibited straight or bisexual women, who--like St. Denis, Duncan, and Graham--loved gay men, that gay creativity found its most accepting space. The fact that modern dance, unlike some other theatrical dance forms, was not "big business" allowed it to disregard many of the discriminatory practices of stage and screen, where "morals" clauses often caused performers, including dancers, to remain deeply closeted.

St. Denis, Shawn, and Mumaw

Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), who had worked as an actress and dancer in commercial theater, experienced a revelation in 1904 when she saw an exotic poster advertising Egyptian cigarettes. The art nouveau poster combined the erotic and the exotic (features also exploited by the Ballets Russes), and St. Denis seized on these to create a vibrant stage persona and repertoire for herself and the immensely popular touring company she formed.

In 1914, St. Denis married a twenty-two-year-old gay man, the ambitious and sexually charismatic Ted Shawn (1891-1972), who became her dance partner. Shawn appeared at any opportunity in the scantiest of costumes. In 1915, they founded the Denishawn Dance School in Los Angeles, which became a significant artistic center from which many creative dancers emerged, most notably Martha Graham.

Burton Mumaw (b. 1912), a student of Shawn's, first danced with the Denishawn company in 1931. Mumaw and Shawn soon became lovers and life companions. Shawn separated from St. Denis in 1933 and formed his Company of Male Dancers. Mumaw and Shawn were the leading soloists of the new company.

The repertoire allowed for maximum display of flesh, as, for example, with Native American warrior dances, and the company sometimes performed in the nude. Shawn claimed that his intention was to re-establish in the minds of Americans the right of men to dance. It is hard to imagine that the audience did not see the Company of Male Dancers as a gay group. It was disbanded with the coming of World War II.

After the war, at his farm near Lee, Massachusetts, Shawn established the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival. It became a dance center of international renown.

Isadora Duncan

Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) studied ballet as a child in San Francisco, and it was in rebellion against its strictures that she discovered her own form of moving to music, which she vaguely described as the expression of an inner urge or impulse. Her inspiration was the art of ancient Greece, which she claimed was antithetical to the decadence of the ballet.

Hence, she danced in loose "Greek" gowns, without a corset and without a body stocking, making her bouncing breasts a conspicuous feature of her performance. She also danced in bare feet, which caused great scandal at the time.

Duncan achieved tremendous success in Europe, but received a frigid reception in the United States, not least because of her scandalous private life and leftist political beliefs. Not only did she bear children out of wedlock, but she was known for sexual affairs with both men and women.

She also avidly endorsed the Soviet Union and communism, and late in her life she married the young Russian gay poet, Sergei Esenin. Her death in a freak automobile accident--she was strangled when her long scarf became entangled in the spokes of a wheel--ended what had become in many ways a tragic life, especially after the loss of her children in a drowning accident.

Martha Graham

Martha Graham (1894-1991) may be described as the Shakespeare of dance. Like her predecessors, she found a way for herself to dance theatrically, but she went beyond them to create a new art form, a movement language with its own unique grammar and vocabulary, a language as formal and sophisticated as that of the classic ballet. Moreover, she created in that language choreographies that are now a major contribution to the world's cultural dance heritage.

Graham's technique is now integral to all theatrical dance and is also employed in contemporary ballet choreography. A student and member of the Denishawn company, Graham made her debut as a choreographer in 1926. She performed as a soloist and developed a company of women who were fiercely devoted to her.

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