Radha St. Denis

Ruth St. Denis in first costume for Radha.

Dance is spiritual expression —but not all dancers explore the spiritual in quite the way modernist pioneer Ruth St. Denis did. This we discovered when searching with the keyword “yoga” at the New York Public Library’s picture archive (Check it). When Radha appeared, our curiosity was piqued. We did a bit more research into how St. Denis ended up performing such an unlikely piece and, as some of the pictures show, looking quite the part in her rather sexy costumes (this was, after all, respectable society in the early 1900s).

Ruth St. Denis with native Hindus in Radha.

While St. Denis (1878–1968) was a lifelong Christian Scientist, she also studied Vedanta with Swami Paramananda, one of Vivekananda’s disciples. She developed a fascination with India through one with Egypt, or, more specifically, through darshan of the goddess Isis on a poster for Egyptian Deities cigarettes, which led her to the philosophies and myths of Eastern cultures. Among her early compositions were The Incense, which included her performing a puja, and The Yogi, “a pantomimic study of an Indian ascetic,” which included yoga exercises and drew on text from the Bhagavad Gita, including these lines referring to the yogi: “Pointing the mind toward one aim / Ruling the motions of thoughts and sense / Seated there, he should practice discipline / For the purifying of the self.”*

St. Denis first found fame for her mystical style and mythical subjects with Radha, originally intended as a vaudeville performance. For this work she researched India, coming upon an essay on Brahmanism by A. C. Lyall that included the idea that one “must free his soul, the divine particle, from the bondage of the senses.” But she also gleaned inspiration from watching an East Indian sideshow at Coney Island, where she later recruited Indian immigrants to perform in her dances and tour with her, an arrangement that surely brought her much attention at the time. St. Denis was particularly drawn to tragedy and drama, so where the myth of Radha—the beautiful maiden absorbed in her love for Krishna, who is often depicted with a flute, calling Gopis, or cow-herding maidens, to join him in dance, an ecstatic state through which one can achieve union with the divine—fell short, the dancer made revisions, like portraying Radha more as a goddess searching for samadhi than a maiden tending her cows. Set to selections from Leéo Delibes’s Lakmé (listen), the dance underwent elaborate incarnations involving a Jain temple and a free-standing shrine that enclosed the meditating Radha, but also included simpler symbols and props like a rope of marigolds, used in the piece’s “The Dance of Smell.” The performance was a hit on the American stage and abroad, partly because of St. Denis’s novel style and subject, as well as the public’s growing interest in orientalism and “exotica.” Nonetheless, St. Denis believed in the divine ecstasy of dance, even if her audience saw something quite different. Describing her performance White Jade, in which she played Kuan Yin, the Chinese goddess of mercy, she wrote, “I move to the rhythm of the Drums of Heaven . . . My body is the living temple of all Gods.”

Ruth St. Denis in Radha, transitional costume.

YouTube also has a five-part minidocumentary on St. Denis. Here’s a link to part one:

Ruth St. Denis documentary on YouTube.

Link.

*All quoted material from biographer Suzanne Shelton’s book Divine Dancer.

Image Source: Ruth St. Denis performing as Radha, from the New York Public Library’s picture archive.

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Foremost credit goes to my wife Erin for her tireless patience + support of this endeavor. Thanks to Barry Silver for the artwork in the above banner and for his friendship, to Robert Beer for the illustrations. Thanks to Eddie Stern for his ongoing support and for providing inspiration. Thanks to my fellow farmers at One Digital Farm for help growing this.

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