Men Dancing, Past and Present, at the Pillow

July 17, 2012

In honor of its 80th anniversary, Jacob’s Pillow hosted a special all-male rendition of From the Horse’s Mouth, the concoction of dance and storytelling conceived and directed by Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll. In keeping with Horse’s Mouth tradition (the traveling event follows the same structure wherever it goes, even as the cast and content change), each of the 23 performers got 90 seconds at the mic to share a personal anecdote, while two or three others improvised in the background. Every so often, the space cleared for a diagonal procession of dancers doing their own snippets of choreography in costumes of their choosing (super-hero cape, jewel-encrusted tap shoes, classic T-shirt and tights, etc.). The wonderfully diverse lineup ranged from young stars like Trent Kowalik (of Billy Elliot fame) and tapper Cartier Williams to venerable luminaries like Lar Lubovitch, Robert Swinston, and Arthur Mitchell.



Robert Swinston (with Germaul Barnes in background)

Photo by Taylor Crichton, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow


So why no ladies onstage? The show paid tribute to the Pillow’s founder, Ted Shawn, who established the festival in 1932—on the wild acreage of a run-down farm in Western Massachusetts—partly as a home-base for his company, the Men Dancers. Shawn spent much of his lifetime crusading on behalf men in dance, during a time when, at least in the United States, dancing professionally was widely considered an effeminate pursuit—and a low-class one. (He is also known for establishing Denishawn, the pioneering school where Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey got their start, with his wife and fellow modern dance visionary, Ruth St. Denis.) Setting out to prove that dance could be a “manly art,” Shawn enlisted a handful of athletic guys from his course at Springfield College, where he taught dance in the physical education department, to form his troupe. His repertory was rife with typically “masculine” themes—like war, sports, and manual labor—often portrayed through mime-like movement.

As Pillow lore has it, the Men Dancers performed rugged tasks in their daily lives, too, building studios and cabins from the ground up, taming the unkempt land with bare hands and frontiersman-like grit. Throughout the 1930s, at the Pillow and out on the road, they rallied an enthusiastic following, triumphantly convincing audiences that “real men” could, should, and did dance.



The Men Dancers in Shawn’s
Kinetic Molpai, 1930s. Photo courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.


While Shawn undoubtedly plowed through barriers for male dancers, throwing open doors for generations to come (like those on display in Horse’s Mouth), and while I have great respect for that, I remain torn about the politics that got him there. In college, I wrote my senior thesis on Shawn, looking at how his ideas about dance and the body intersected with broader notions of race and gender in America at that time, particularly the rampant xenophobia of the 1920s. In the process of my research, I was continuously shocked by the misogynist, racist, and classist rhetoric that ran through his writings. In his 1926 treatise The American Ballet, for instance, Shawn denigrated women (who greatly outnumbered men in the field), African Americans (he saw popular dances rooted in African American traditions, like the Charleston, as a threat to dance as an art-with-a-capital-A), and any immigrant without claim to an “Anglo-Saxon” heritage (he was interested in creating a purely “American” art form), in the service of his own mission. As much as I adore Jacob’s Pillow—and as invaluable as it is to the dance world—I sometimes feel that its founder is celebrated too readily, without examination or even basic recognition of the dubious social and cultural biases underpinning his defense of the male dancer.

So it was with some skepticism—but also some effort to put aside my academic scrutiny of the situation and just enjoy the show—that I experienced The Men Dancers: From the Horse’s Mouth. In my less critical moments, I thought about how pleased Shawn would have been with the talent on the Doris Duke Theater stage, if a little taken aback by some of the more gender-bending moments: the audacious Arthur Aviles twirling around in a bright red thong or, later, a calf-length crushed velvet dress; the Pillow’s own petite archivist, Norton Owen, crawling out from beneath the colorful skirts of towering Germaul Barnes; Emanuel Abruzzo, of the cross-dressing Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, strutting and preening on pointe, or being partnered tenderly by another man. (Shawn’s robust, clenched-fisted men would never have shown such affection.)



Pascal Rekoert. Photo by Taylor Crichton, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.


In the most absorbing monologues, dance history and Pillow history and personal histories crackled with the kind of immediacy that no book or film or photograph can convey, only stories from the people who lived them. Robert Swinston, former director of choreography for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, recalled the MCDC’s final performance during Merce’s life, which took place at the Ted Shawn Theater. Just moments before the show and hours before he died peacefully in his New York apartment, Merce had told the company, via Skype, “Remember why you dance.”

Goofier recollections came from the witty John Heginbotham, who recounted the Bacchanalian “Hurri-Culinary Olympics” that he staged with fellow members of the Mark Morris Dance Group, when Hurricane Irene rained out their final Pillow performance last summer. One thing led to another in “the contest for the perfect meatball,” which ended with stark-naked dancing in the Berkshire streets.


The legendary Arthur Mitchell, who closed the show on a rousing and poignant note, had me thinking as much about big issues—like breaking racial barriers in dance, which he famously did when he became New York City Ballet’s first black dancer in 1955—as the minutia of putting on a show. In 1969, on opening night of his new company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Mitchell ran frantically to George Balanchine, who happened to be backstage, convinced that his costume didn’t fit right. Mr. B swiftly remedied that crisis: As it turns out, even real men put their tights on backwards sometimes. —Siobhan Burke ([email protected])



 Arthur Mitchell (seated), with Chad Michael Hall and Arthur Aviles.

Photo by Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob’s Pillow.