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.

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