Raised in a Bohemian environment, Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968) studied ballroom and skirt dancing in Somerville, New Jersey, and first performed professionally as a variety act in 1894 at Worth’s Family Theatre and Museum in New York.
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By 1906 with Radha, St. Denis had developed the essence of her distinctive dance style, combining spiral form with equal parts voluptuousness, mysticism, and erotica. Radha was her first piece of solo work. This work was inspired by St. Denis’ recent studying in the Orient.
Radha was based on a story from hindu mythology about the elder, Krishna, who was in love with his mortal wife. Because the work was from having studied the orient, audiences felt that the piece appealed more to the contemporary approach. St. Denis said that she felt the spiritual elements in nature from a young age. In her autobiography, Denis wrote: “When as a child running over the fields of our farm I felt the joy of life pulsing through me, when I felt the warm earth under my feet and the great golden sun bathing my body, then I knew life as a magical reality”.
Denis later started a dance company, Denishawn, along with her husband Ted Shawn, which produced the next generation of modern dancers like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman.
St. Denis performed on more than a dozen Pillow seasons between 1940 and 1964 (including a 1949 performance of Liebestraum), and her portrait still hangs beside the proscenium in the Ted Shawn Theatre. Her works are occasionally revived at the Pillow, including memorable performances by Cynthia Gregory and Carmen de Lavallade.