Celebrating Historic Milestones While Critically Understanding the Past

Performance paraphernalia are important cultural objects that help us preserve and study our theatrical histories, allowing contemporary artists to understand their relationship to artistic ancestors. Stage costumes give us access to artists and their artistry, but also to a period’s cultural sensibilities around design, fashion, race, gender, sex, and identity politics. It is through contact with these objects that I’ve learned to better appreciate my own identity as an Asian American theatremaker.

With that in mind, I wrestle with how to best examine, honor, and fairly criticize the artistic merits of some of the great white nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists without also acknowledging some of their questionable work and their lasting impact on representation and power in the performing arts. When do shows like The King and I, Madama Butterfly, and La Bayadère pass the point of cultural appreciation into cultural appropriation and racist tropes?

Kevin Murphy, as the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA)’s Eugénie Prendergast senior curator of American Art, isn’t scared to face these complicated issues. He recently collaborated with Caroline Hamilton, a UK-based dance costume historian and 2018 Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival archives and engagement fellow. They created a 2018 exhibition entitled Dance We Must: Treasures from Jacob’s Pillow, 1906–1940 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, an unprecedented showing of over three hundred and fifty materials, including thirty costumes, two hundred photographs, original costume trunks, and artwork from and of modern dance pioneers Ruth St. Denis and festival founder Ted Shawn.

Located at Williams College, the highly publicized exhibition traced the dance pioneer couple’s international travels with their Denishawn Dancers as well as the domestic work of Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. However, some of the materials, particularly the costumes, were examples of cultural appropriation and white cultural imperialism of its time. The costumes were not simply worn, but were essential in helping create movement, stories, and representations of ideas and peoples that still populate many artistic spheres.

a woman looks at two paintings

Ted Shawn in Feather of the Dawn and Ruth St. Denis in Kuan Yin. Photo by Gaven Trinidad. 

In the exhibition, Murphy and Hamilton contextualized St. Denis and Shawn’s complicity in racism and colonialism in the earlier half of the twentieth century, when their cultural appropriation was not challenged but was considered politically radical and innovative by certain mainstream white American and European critics and audiences. Simultaneously, the curators open space to celebrate and acknowledge the importance of their work and how their legacies continue to build venues for all artists to be heard on the mainstages of dance.

The dance pioneers’ achievements include having defined dance styles that were distinctively American, foregoing European traditions by dancing “in bare feet, often flexed…in parallel instead of turned out, and making full-body contact with the floor”; practices that are still recognizable today in many contemporary dance traditions globally. The duo more importantly supported global artistic collaborations, which allowed international artists, including artists of color, to come to the country throughout the twentieth century.

As a theatre and dance dramaturg, I noted how Murphy and Hamilton struggled to simultaneously celebrate and criticize our humanly flawed artistic ancestors. The exhibition didn’t always find the right balance but showed promise of how we can potentially better confront our shared problematic theatrical histories and help us better imagine how to create open discourse around representation despite its messiness and complexity.

Rediscovering Historical Objects

The Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is the longest-running international dance festival in the United States. An incubator of new work by diverse communities of American and international artists, “the Pillow,” as it is lovingly referred to, houses extensive archives of dance paraphernalia from the entirety of its history. The festival has become home to diverse artists from around the world throughout its nearly eighty-seven seasons; it became a National Historic Landmark in 2003 and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

In summer 2017, Hamilton started interning in the festival’s archives department. As a professional costume and dance historian and mounter, she was intrigued by the costume collection—thirty-six trunks full. “The trunks revealed an incredible time capsule full of costumes, headdresses, shoes, props, and accessories [of St. Denis and Shawn],” she shared. Hamilton and Murphy began using photographs of dances and other ephemera to help identify full costumes and start building an exhibition around them, for both Denishawn Dancers and Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. Hamilton catalogued nearly two thousand five hundred found items into the archives.

Stage costumes give us access to artists and their artistry, but also to a period’s cultural sensibilities around design, fashion, race, gender, sex, and identity politics.

Negotiation of Narrative

St. Denis and Shawn’s arguably most important contribution to American dance was the creation of their Denishawn School, the first of its kind in the country to train and produce a professional modern dance company. Some of the original costume pieces from Denishawn were prominently exhibited, such as the costumes for Kuan Yin (1919) and Feather of the Dawn (1923). These costumes played a role in helping the dance pioneers establish dance as an important and respected artform in the United States by white Euro-American critics and audiences. In Kuan Yin, St. Denis attempted to explore themes of Eastern religion and a spiritual dance experience. As such, she costumed herself mostly in jewelry that she believed captured an essence of the East Asian Bodhisattva of Compassion. In the latter piece, St. Dennis and Shawn created a work around Native American cultures when the United States government was actively erasing Indigenous communities.

As explained in the exhibition’s press release: “St. Denis and Shawn’s appropriation of non-Western and Indigenous forms of movement was a search for more authentic modes of self-expression than many in their predominantly white and upper-class circles believed existed in the industrialized West.” Within the contexts of when they were first choreographed and presented, these two dances were culturally subversive for a white American audience. However, neither dancer attempted to replicate movements specific to the cultures they were borrowing from, nor imagine their implication in a larger systemic oppressive power.

As an artist of color, it was impossible for me to separate the duo’s artistic creations from the continued marginalization of certain communities and cultures. Looking particularly at the costumes and artifacts from the so-called “Oriental ballets,” I had a difficult time not seeing how these practices of “cultures as costumes” were reminiscent of contemporary “accepted” racist practices in the performing arts. I also weighed St. Denis and Shawn’s intentions within the context of their time. It is evident that, during their travels, they studied with the masters of different dances throughout the world, collaborated with them, learned from them, and shared with them their own dance techniques. However, I wasn’t sure what to make of my feelings, because I wasn’t sure for whom the exhibition was made.

Man looks at framed photos

Rare photos and the original touring trunks in which the costumes were housed were available for viewing. Photo by Gaven Trinidad.

“I had the most issues with the representation of Indigenous peoples who had suffered greatly at the hands of a hegemonic culture or colonial power,” Murphy said of creating the exhibition. “We had trouble even internally deciding on how to address the materials, which shows the difficulty of the topics we were dealing with—intellectually, historiographically, and emotionally.” Wanting to create an exhibition for a wide audience, Murphy worked on the language presented around the costumes and other artifacts in the exhibit. “I produced the thematic panels, which attempted to be analytical and contextual. I tried not to take a position one way or another, as much as that is possible from my super normative subject position.”

Hamilton was in charge of selecting, preparing, and mounting all costume items—taking a different approach to creating narrative to the costumes and other costume pieces. “Dance costumes are unique working objects that are often the only tangible evidence to survive from a performance. They can provide an incredible amount of information,” said Hamilton, “I tried to let the pieces speak for themselves, highlighting craftsmanship, inspiration, repairs and wear.” Kuan Yin spoke to me about family tradition as well as Western imperialism. I do not know if the costumes spoke the same way to a non-Asian visitor.

Hamilton made sure that, when a costume was inspired by traditional dress, it was referenced and the traditional names for the items were included. “These are theatrical costumes designed for a specific purpose and we can’t lose sight of that,” she said.

As an artist of color, it was impossible for me to separate the duo’s artistic creations from the continued marginalization of certain communities and cultures.

Discussions on the Exhibition and Further Conversations

The exhibition was built in a very short six months and opened in July 2018, receiving generally favorable reactions. At the beginning of the school year, William College students of color, international students, and allies voiced their concerns of the exhibition. International student Wilson Lam wrote an article entitled “‘Dance We Must’ Struggles to Reconcile Art with Appropriation” in the college’s newspaper The Williams Record.

“The costumes turned out to be created and worn by all-white American dancers performing mostly for American audiences with little to no intention of acknowledging the achievements and complexities of the cultures they attempted to represent,” Lam writes. In reference to St. Denis’ Kuan Yin, he adds: “Whatever St. Denis was trying to embody… was nothing like the dignified bodhisattva I had so often seen.” Like many in the performing arts, Lam acknowledges the white gaze that has often shaped Western culture’s imperialism of other cultures, religions, and rituals.

Murphy recognizes the criticism and explains that his original hope for the exhibition was to have visitors of all backgrounds think critically about Denishawn and the Men Dancers, rather than simply celebrate them. “Their borrowing from other cultures’ labor without credit, or misconstruing cultural and ritual practice, wasn’t simply ‘okay’ because it happened in the past,” he said.

He wanted students and visitors to understand the context for St. Denis and Shawn, and to be able to look past the cultural appropriation as an evil in itself. “It was exactly that appropriation that propelled modern dance forward in the United States and internationally,” he said. “Their contributions to dance were in large part due to their looking to other cultures than their own.” In response to this statement, I ask: How then do we apply what we learn about cultural appropriation of the past to our current practices and discourse around representation in contemporary performing arts?

a costume in an exhibition

Some of the costumes from the exhibition. A reconstruction of the Kuan Yin costume stands at the front left of the photo. Photo by Gaven Trinidad. 

Discussions around controversial aspects of the exhibit were had with students, community members, and both Williams College and Jacobs Pillow’s staff. “I also like to think that the exhibition is another small part of the movement to decolonize dance more generally,” shared Murphy. In retrospect, the curators have acknowledged what could have been done to better address certain aspects of the exhibition, particularly for audiences whose cultures St. Denis and Shawn took inspiration from.

“I would have included students in discussions about the exhibition while we were working on it rather than after it was up,” reflected Murphy, before adding: “I wanted to put St. Denis and Shawn into their social, political, and historical contexts, but it ended up not being clear to everyone. I think we might have emphasized a point Caroline [Hamilton] made really well about the costumes—that these objects show the marks of time.”

Hamilton hopes the exhibition and its possible iterations become great resources for artists and scholars. “They are amazing pieces of dance and design history,” she reflected, “I hope they foster productive conversations on the presentation of items that in today’s standards are viewed as examples of cultural appropriation.”

I agree with Hamilton that that these pieces of dance and design history can be tools to foster productive conversations, and I desire to see how Murphy will reshape and involve more contemporary voices into the exhibition if it tours.

Jacob’s Pillow is an artistic home of mine, and, having also interned in its archives, I hope that we continue to learn how to critically analyze and confront the artistic creations of the past, think of our present, and take the steps to create inclusive worlds on and off stage going forward. Since the times of the Denishawn Dancers, both dance and our politics have evolved, and it is essential that we wrestle with our past to create a radically inclusive future for diverse artistic pioneers to perform their truths.

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