Jacob’s Pillow Exhibits Never-Before-Seen Dance Costumes

Ruth St. Denis as Kuan Yin by Nickolas Muray. Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow archives

Jacob's Pillow, in collaboration with the Williams College Museum of Art, presents "Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob's Pillow," June 29–November 11. The exhibit explores the legacy of Jacob's Pillow founder Ted Shawn and his wife and partner, the iconic American modern dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis, through artifacts shown for the first time since they appeared onstage between 1906 and 1940. St. Denis and Shawn spearheaded a style of movement that connected the physical and the spiritual, often inspired by indigenous and international sources—reflected by the vibrant objects in this exhibition.

Ted Shawn with Ruth St. Denis, 1916. Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow archives

Co-curators Caroline Hamilton (costume and dance historian at Jacob's Pillow) and Kevin Murphy (curator of American Art at WCMA) have gathered more than 350 materials, including 30 costumes, 200 photographs, 5 original antique costume trunks and a dozen original pieces of artwork.

Surrounded by mannequins, costumes and artwork in a basement at Jacob's Pillow, Hamilton and Murphy gave DT the inside scoop.

Dance Teacher: Tell us about the history of these costumes.

Caroline Hamilton: The main collection of costumes are what Ted Shawn and his dancers first came to the Pillow with, and they've been here in their original touring trunks ever since. The earliest costume is from 1906, and the latest are from the 1940s and 1950s. Some of these were worn and worn and worn. Once Ruth St. Denis found one she liked, she wanted to just keep it. There are costumes with layers of sequins, repairs and patches that she kept wearing for 30 years.

Headdress worn by Ruth St. Denis. Photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Archive

DT: What are your favorite artifacts in this exhibit?

Kevin Murphy: We've been able to conserve two portraits by Albert Herder [American painter illustrator and muralist] that have been perpetually hanging above the main stage at the Ted Shawn Theatre. They are monumental portraits of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, done by an artist who was on the edge of realism and modernism in 1925. Shawn had hung them himself in the theater. After his death, the estate took them to sell, and at the last minute Jacob's Pillow bought them back and hung them on Shawn's original nails. They haven't come down since. They are the last thing you see as the lights go down in the theater, but people have never been able to get up close to them. This is a great opportunity for people to see them and their colors that were richer than any of us had imagined.

CH: There is a headdress that Ruth St. Denis wears in the portrait of her depicted as Kuan Yin [the Chinese Goddess of mercy]. It's one of my favorite things I've found here. In all of her portraits she looks almost ethereal and goddess-like. But when you see the headdress up close, it looks like your grandmother's button box. It's such a crazy array of beads, buttons and feathers. They would just find things and make costumes out of them.

Ruth St. Denis as Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy. Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima, courtesy of Jacob's Pillow Archives

DT: There are images and costumes worn by St. Denis and Shawn that may be considered offensive in modern times. Will a consideration and critique of these be incorporated into the exhibition?

KM: This exhibition will allow us to have conversations with students and faculty about racism and cultural appropriation. I'm interested in hearing from our students to see the responses they might have. It gives us a ton to talk about.

Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.

"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.