Consider the Relevance

Consider the relevance and impact of the socio-political contexts on the work of two choreographers with whom you are familiar - Consider the Relevance introduction. This essay will aim to discuss the relevance today of the socio-political context of the work of Ted Shawn and Anna Halprin and the impact at the time on western society. The sources I will call upon to support my argument are the published work of acclaimed dance practitioners such as, Martha Graham and Joyce Morgenroth, as well as published interviews, journals and papers of Shawn and Halprin.

I hope to demonstrate the legacy of Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers, the very ideals upon why Shawn founded the all male dance company, as a way of changing the general perspective of 1930’s society, at this time dance was not seen as a credible profession for a man. I hope to demonstrate that the work he created and the issues he dealt with are still relevant in society today.

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The impact of Shawn’s principles are still visible as current choreographers; the BalletBoyz, have based their ethos on the same principles as Shawn did over sixty years previously, promoting the power of the male body and justifying dance as a respectable art form for a man to be involved in. A choreographer in contrast to Shawn is Anna Halprin, Halprin is renowned for her involvement across the spectrum of the arts, particularly art, theatre and dance, I, however, will aim to discuss the impact Halprins principles of the ‘healing power of dance. I will demonstrate how Halprins work has impacted and challenged society by bringing new concepts of the word dance. Her work has caused concern for many as she claims to heal the terminally ill with dance. ‘Her Jewish background made her aware of her ‘difference’ and a concomitant need to prove herself in the mainstream American culture which was her social milieu. ’ Worth and Poyner (2004 pp. ) Halprins healing work stems from her development of ‘The Mountain Dance’ a dance she created to help her local community, regain the Mount Tampla which had it’s footpath’s closed as a series of unsolved murders had taken place there, in an effort to regain the mountain into the community Halprin set about performing a series of dance rituals along with the local community using the mountain as the stage. The Mountain dance’ was extremely successful with not only bringing the community together, but also bringing the mountain back into the community as shortly after the cleansing ritual had taken place the murderer had been caught, Halprin using this as hope then developed the mountain dance further, so it was able to be danced by anyone, anywhere, and so eventually created ‘Circle the earth’ a series of scores which can be transferred and adapted to be used by any community, anywhere in the world.

In 1929 America was in the immediate grip of ‘The Great Depression’ the economy had completely fallen flat, it was a time when society was wholly patriarchal with the ‘norm’ being the men went to work and the women stayed at home. America at this time relied on primary industries such as, logging, gold mining, and farming. These were male dominated sectors where physical brawn and masculine power were prevalent. These physical industries were what were considered acceptable, for a man to work in. America’s 1930’s society was prejudice regarding the role of the sexes.

It was not considered masculine, nor worthy for a man to dance. With the disbandment of Denishawn in 1929 Shawn set up his company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers the following year. Shawn’s goals aimed to show America otherwise, along with his Men Dancers Shawn took steps to break the prejudice against the male dancers and show America how important the male dancer is, this was done by using movement which stressed and highlighted the male body to the extreme, portraying stamina, strength and flexibility.

Shawn’s choreographed works were often received with controversy such as, poncho Indian Ted Shawn suggested ‘American’s extreme self-consciousness and their fear of being different contributed to the toning down of dances like the tango. ’ (Shawn 1936. Pp. 47) As well as re creating indigenous dances for the American audience Shawn also created some more deliberately comical work, as well as often seen as straddling the line of slap-stick and contemporary dance performance.

The only of Shawn’s Men Dancers to have any prior training in dance was Barton Mumaw, Shawn used Mumaw’s trained body to choreograph solo’s which would show off the extreme’s in flexibility, durability and shear stamina to shock and awe as well as educate the audience. Shawn would choreograph movement that was so advanced that it has been suggested that even he himself couldn’t perform but that Mumaw could. (The Men Who Danced, 2007) Mumaw was the principle soloist, Shawn’s jewel in the crown.

Shawn’s work with his Men Dancers impacted 1930’s American society on a number of different levels. On the one hand Shawn’s decision to create the first all male dance troupe clearly ruffled feathers amongst the ‘prudish’ who failed to acknowledge the legitimacy of men dancing together with no agenda, they were not promoting homosexuality although at the time Shawn was known to be in a relationship with one of his dancers, Mumaw. In fact Shawn decided to reject the notion of effeminacy related to Ballet and instead he chose to portray an image of hyper masculinity.

Some may bring into question Shawn’s personal reason’s for forming the Men Dancers, was it only to promote dance as a legitimate pursuit for men or were there deeper issues of sexuality simmering beneath the macho facade? Another reason as to why the all male troupe unsettled some was Shawn’s continuation of presenting indigenous dance. This was something that began when Shaun was married to Ruth St. Denis a leading dance practitioner who travelled the world intent on learning various native dances and imitated them with a much more toned down element so as to be approachable by the American audience.

Shawn and Denis created the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts, founded in 1915 by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn in Los Angeles, California. The Denishawn School was the first of its kind and offered an array of classes including, ethnic and folk dance, ballet, free-flowing exercises for the arms and torso, Dalcroze eurhythmics and Delsarte exercises. Added to this were dance history and philosophy. ‘Denishawn was clearly more than a dance academy intent on transmitting technique: it was a kind of utopia devoted to cultivating harmony between the body, mind and spirit. Stated by Au (2006 pp. 94) The Denishawn school produced some of the most prominent figures of contemporary dance, students included, Martha Graham, Charles Weidman, and Doris Humphrey all of which eventually rebelled against the school leaving to form their separate ventures. In the 1930’s America had yet to experience the civil rights movement which didn’t begin until the late 1960’s, open racism, segregation and discrimination were all highly prevalent factors of society.

People were at the worst prejudice and at the least ignorant to other cultures, native American ritual dances, and the cultural/ spiritual, colourful dances of the east, were brought to the theatres of America, dances such as, ‘Radha’ (1906) and ‘Dance of Rebirth’ (1916) of which Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn duplicated in a bid to broaden the minds of, and educate their fellow Americans. The work of Shawn is relevant today as it has greatly influenced current choreographers; The BalletBoyz who have adopted the principles of Shawn as their own.

Michael Nunn identifies on camera during the introduction of his choreographed work ‘The Talent’ that it was a trip to Jacob’s Pillow a collection of rustic farm buildings created into state of the art dance centre in the Massachusetts rolling countryside, established by Ted Shawn and used as rehearsal and performance space for his Men Dancers in the 1930’s Jacob’s Pillow is still used today as the most famous dance festival in America. Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers were Nunn’s direct influence behind the formation of the New Balletboyz.

A group of young male dancers Nunn and Trevitt brought together to create the all male dance group The Balletboyz with the aim to eradicate pretensions and prejudice around dance. The extent of the impact of Shawn’s work on 1930’s America is dubious. As an advocate for dance as a pliable male vocation his works demonstrated a different angle to dance, it didn’t have to be graceful and elegant in order to portray emotion and vigour. This often left his audiences quite perplexed. It was only when Ted Shawn and his Men Dancers travelled to Britain did the stifling 1930’s society give way to their ideas.

In contrast to Ted Shawn, Anna Halprin a dancer who straddled the arts incorporating and manipulating them into her work. Halprin developed the idea of dance as a healing art. As cited by Halprin in Speaking of Dance (2004 pp. 36) ‘The purpose of a ritual was to take a situation and make it better, to bring about change. ’ Halprins philosophy was to use the ideas of primitive ritual dance, dance as a celebration, dance to heal, dance to worship etc. These past, primitive ideas which she felt were lost, were still much needed.

Halprins healing dances have been created so that they can be performed anywhere and by anyone, her dances consist of a series of scores. ‘The scores describe the process leading to the performance’ Worth and Poyner (2004 pp. 72) The use of scores will give a performance clarity, and pulse, it was important to Halprin that her healing dances were able to reach people in need of healing, people she couldn’t travel too and so the invention of creating the set scores and sending them around the world means the ritual network could expand deeper and further than she could ever go at rapid rate. In a process-orientated society they must all be visible continuously, in order to work so as to avoid secrecy and the manipulation of people. ’ Worth and Poyner (2004 pp. 73) Halprins scores included : run for 30 seconds from one wall to another, every four paces drop and roll on the ground etc. To enable the scores being followed through with the clarity intended Halprin created the RSVP cycle, an easy to follow system as stated by Lawrence Halprin in Worth and Poyner (2004 pp. 3) ‘While the appeal of the system lies in it’s clarity and communicability, the apparent simplicity of the structure conceals the deeply held political principles that underlie it. ’ Anna Halprin supports her husband point by stating ‘RSVP Cycles differ in that they systematize and make visible the whole creative process as it’s occurring Worth and Poyner (2004 pp. 73). It was Halprins own battle with cancer which pushed her to create the healing dances, diagnosed with colon cancer in 1972 before dance was seen as anything but entertainment, there wasn’t such a thing as ‘dance therapy’ as we know it to be today.

Upon her diagnosis Halprin underwent a series of ‘self cleansing’ using movement, meditation and the power of positive thinking, to ‘think’ away the cancer. She meditated on the images of being cancer free, how her body would move and feel. Once her cancer was in remission Halprin was convinced her ritual dances had worked, and set about bringing healing workshops with the terminally ill.

As cited by Halprin ‘the intention was to use dance and art and an environmental perspective to reflect back to the community its own central themes and issues. ’ Halprins healing dance performances were often confronted with slight controversy as critics found it almost impossible to give an unbiased account of the performance as they felt due to the nature of the work you immediately have a moral duty to feel certain emotions of pity, anguish, etc towards the participants.

Halprin was shunned by the Dance world as it was generally thought that what she was creating, researching, and developing was not ‘dance’, it was also thought that what she was doing was taking dance backwards, her ideas of working with dance as a healing, cleansing ritual was thought of as therapy rather than dance. Therefore, her work was sidelined, as it didn’t fit into what society classed as dance, there didn’t seem to be a home for her work. This lack of trust and understanding can be argued has slowed down the rogress of dance, if Halprins work and ideas had been supported earlier, more people would have had a broader understanding of what dance is, and what it can be. In conclusion the relevance of both choreographers is clear; Shawn’s work with the Men Dancers is still influencing and inspiring dancers today, not only on a personal level by motivating men to consider dance as a possible vocation, but also making stirrings within the dance world in the form of the Balletboyz and others who are setting out to create work such as, ‘The Talent’ (2010) using testosterone fuelled dynamic energy, male bravado, ego and the macho male image.

This is appealing to a new audience, young people who may have had preconceptions of dance only meaning ballet, seeing the work of the likes of the BalletBoyz and taking further interest in the spectrum of dance. On the other hand, Halprin whose development of healing dance has meant bringing ritual dance, the primitive dances of our ancestors back into the community and back into the everyday lives of people, which is making dance relevant to everyone, not just the select few who choose to participate in or appreciate it.

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