In 1915, pioneers of the modern dance movement, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in a Spanish mansion high above the hilltops of Los Angeles. St. Denis and Shawn sought to liberate dance technique from the constraints of classical ballet and studied world dance, variations of traditional ballroom technique, and yoga to incorporate into their teachings. Ted Shawn was the first choreographer to introduce carefully researched interpretations of traditional American Indian dances.
A twelve week program for $500 at Denishawn included room and board, daily technique classes, arts and crafts, yoga, and guided reading courses. Students included Martha Graham and silent film star Louise Brooks. Isadora Duncan is also rumored to have studied here. Students would attend dance classes bare foot and in simple wool bathing suits.
The Denishawn dancers were the first company to present "serious Western dance" throughout the world and traveled China, Japan, India, Burma and the Philippines showcasing the "Denishawn Technique." The dancers used fluid movements, flowing costuming, and stressed the importance of gravity in their pieces (something very much downplayed in ballet) - which Martha Graham has credited as a central force in all modern dance. The importance of nature, cultural traditions, and architecture seem to be recurrent themes in Denishawn's works as well.
I had first heard of the Denishawn dancers while reading about the life of Louise Brooks. I was instantly intrigued by the lines of the dancers bodies and elegant simplicity of their costumes. Growing up a dancer and coming from a long lineage of ballerinas and modern dancers (and bakers), I had seen tons performances featuring Martha Graham, read all about Isadora Duncan, and credit Ken Russell's "The Boy Friend" (1971) as my all time favorite movie. In "The Boy Friend", a strange dreamy sequence with nymphs in flowing chiffon dancing with garlands and posing in elegant form is certainly a direct homage to Denishawn's choreography and aesthetic. The picture below is very reminiscent of the aforementioned clip.
I found this video of The Choeur Dance choreographed in 1926 by Ted Shawn and danced at a Denishawn retrospective in 1988. Although the ladies hairstyles subtly hint at the 80's, the dance is a beautiful glimpse into the Denishawn Technique. I hope you enjoy it.