Denishawn House

 
 
        There is something in us all that strives for a house, a home.  This is especially true of dancers, for instance.  They are often gypsy like, performing hither and yon, rehearsing and taking classes in various and far flung venues.  Recently we have seen some major New York dance artists finding their home, their house.  Mark Morris has moved into a building renovated for his company near BAM in Brooklyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov has purchased a building of his own in Manhattan and the Alvin Ailey company commissioned and built their home on the Upper West Side.  This impulse to build also came to the fore more than 75 years ago.

I have lately been channeling, I mean, doing research on an American modern dance company.  A company that undertook numerous cross country tours lasting as long as a year and repeatedly sold out a 10,000 seat New York City amphitheater, where they performed with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.

A company that embarked on an East and South Asian tour with four programs of dances, that lasted fifteen months.  Coming from another lengthy tour with the impresario Flo Ziegfeld, and feeling a little bit flush, they decided to build their dream house, the first building in America to be designed specifically for dance!

The company I am talking about is, of course, Denishawn.  For Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn the year 1927 could be described as their peak. Partners since 1915, they maintained their renowned Denishawn School of Dancing and its Related Arts at Steinway Hall and Carnegie Hall studios on 57th street in Manhattan, a summer program in Westport, Connecticut and that same year experienced a triumphant Carnegie Hall season, a four night sold out smash, unprecedented for a non music attraction. There were Denishawn schools in many major and minor cities across the country.

          The house they built at 67 Stevenson place in the Van Cortland Village section of the Bronx and called Denishawn House, was designed for their enterprise, the dance.  It consisted of a white moorish revival building surrounded by a low wall enclosing a terrace yard.  Facing south was a spacious dance studio featuring a  Babylonian facade, with a high ceiling, an open space floor and long windows. 

       
A second wing contained living quarters for the directors Ruth St Denis and Ted Shawn, and a library in the tower.  On street level the building featured wide gates for the truck with the scenery to drive right into the costume and properties shop.  A second building was a gabled dormitory for up to sixteen female students and a housemother.  The property had been purchased by Ruth St. Denis’ brother “Buzz” Dennis some years before.



         My spouse and I, accompanied by a native Bronx guide, undertook an expedition to the Bronx to find Denishawn House.  Success!  Denishawn House still stands; diminished by the loss of the dance studio, and a little unkempt, it still evokes the art nouveau, moderne style of

the artists that commissioned it.



        With moorish scalloped doorways, and a cubist, mediterranean arrangement, the building still enchants. Ruth St. Denis spoke of each brick in the house being equivalent to a one night stand performance, one of many thousands. They opened Denishawn House informally with a dinner and a party on December 23rd 1927.



         Here they hoped to establish something that was entirely unique in America, a university of dance.  Situated on the edge of the large Jerome reservoir and very close to Van Cortland Park, Denishawn House gave dancers and students a home in a bucolic setting, complete with afternoon tea on the terrace with Miss Ruth and Papa Shawn.

         Here is also where Ruth St Denis drew around her a salon, with lectures and readings, on spiritual subjects such as Ouspensky and Yoga, exotica at that time.  She founded  the “Society of Spiritual Arts”  and gave performances of her religious dances. 






The school offered classes to a varied public ranging from

Denishawn kindergarten to classes for young matrons.





The certification course for Denishawn teachers was for 30 weeks and the tuition including room and board and extras like chaperone service for young ladies, cost $1600, a good sum at that time. This optimistic time brought sold out performances at Lewisohn stadium, which would be like selling out Madison Square Garden today, an impossible dream for any contemporary dance company. Bills had to be paid, and they embarked on another almost year long tour.

         While St. Denis dreamed of building a temple of Spiritualism, presumably in the neighborhood, this showy success covered signs of the rupture of the whole enterprise. Their longtime teachers and star performers, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman, were leaving to strike out on their own, an act which Shawn considered a treacherous stab in the back. The Denishawn marriage was becoming strained, while they strenuously gave the appearance of a loving couple.  The atmosphere at Denishawn House was described as tense.

     

    

Denishawn owned that building only until 1934, a mere seven years, when the bank repossessed. By this time both the marriage and the partnership of Denishawn had dissolved and the Depression put an end to the touring company and the school.  Despite this, Ruth St. Denis continued to appear and perform.  Ted Shawn, going his own way, founded his men’s company and bought a farm in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, which he named Jacob’s Pillow after a giant boulder on the property. That is where the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival was later founded and continues to this day. 

        Denishawn House remains a testament to what was and what might have been. May the present builders and dancers fulfill the dream that was Denishawn.

 

A School for Dance in the Bronx