Ted Shawn, originally Edwin Myers Shawn, was one of the first notable male pioneers of American modern dance. Along with creating Denishawn with former wife Ruth St Denis he was also responsible for the creation of the all-male company Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. With his innovative ideas of masculine movement he was one of the most influential choreographers and dancers of his day. He was also the founder and creator of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts.
Ted Shawn was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Originally intending to become a minister of religion, he attended the University of Denver. There he caught diphtheria, which led him to take up dance in 1910 to regain his muscle strength. Shawn's dancing was discouraged by the University, which still had a Methodist affiliation, and was the reason for his expulsion the following year.
Shawn did not realise his true potential as an artist until marrying Ruth St Denis in 1914. St Denis served not only as partner but an extremely valuable creative outlet to Shawn. Soon after their marriage the couple opened the first Denishawn School in Los Angeles, California, where they were able to choreograph and stage many of their famous vaudeville pieces. The following year Shawn launched a cross-country tour with his dance partner, Norma Gould, and their Interpretive Dancers. The school and company went on to produce such influential dancers as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
Together, Shawn and Ruth St Denis established the principle of Music Visualisation in modern dance — a concept that called for movement equivalents to the timbres, dynamics, and structural shapes of music in addition to its rhythmic base. In 1916 and 1917 Shawn choreographed the first of these, Inventions and Fugues to Bach, as classroom exercises. Soon after, St Denis presented works using music visualisation techniques to the public.
Although Denishawn came to an end in 1929 due to hard times both in Shawn’s and St Denis’ marriage as well as the economy, Shawn’s second dance group Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers (1929-1940) were soon to follow in his dancing career. The new all-male company was based out of Massachusetts near his then home of Lee. In creating this company Shawn was hoping to make America become more aware, and accept the importance and dedication of the male dancer. It was with this new company that Shawn produced some of his most controversial and highly skilled choreography to date. With works such as Ponca Indian Dance, Sinhalse Devil Dance, Maori War Haka, Hopi Indian Eagle Dance, and Dyak Spear Dances he was able to showcase performances that all stressed male body movement. His love for the relationships created by the men in his dances soon translated into love between him and one of his company members Barton Mumaw which lasted from 1931-1948. He had another partner following Mumaw, John Christian with whom he spent his life from 1949 until his death in 1972.
|Shawn and his Men Dancers|
Shawn became a major impresario, bringing dance to mainstream America through the theatre and school at Jacob's Pillow. To promote his principle of the importance and universality of dance, Shawn introduced countless foreign companies to American audiences, provided opportunities for promising young artists and trained countless students in a full range of dance styles. Shawn orchestrated premieres by both the established and emerging talents of his day including Agnes de Mille, Anton Dolin, Pearl Lang, Merce Cunningham, Anna Sokolow, Alvin Ailey, and Robert Joffrey.
Shawn made his last appearance on stage in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow in his performance of Siddhas of the Upper Air where he reunited with St Denis. Shawn and St Denis danced on their 50th anniversary at the Casino in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Saratoga Springs is now the home of the National Museum of Dance, the world's only museum dedicated to professional dance. Shawn was inducted into the museum's C V Whitney Hall of Fame in 1987. Shawn was still teaching classes at Jacob’s Pillow just months before his death at the age of 80.
In 1965 Shawn was a Heritage Award recipient of the National Dance Association.