A Taste of Ted

Ten years of research on modern-dance pioneers Ruth Saint Denis and Ted Shawn’s oeuvre preceded the showing of A Taste of Ted at Korzo Den Haag. Choreographers Maud Pizon and Jérôme Brabant dove into the archives to literally bring some of the pair’s dances back to life in a piece that combines physical reenactment with postcolonial discourse. Seen on 8 February during the Holland Dance Festival, on what was the French duo’s first visit to The Netherlands.

Many critical questions can be asked about St. Denis and Shawn’s legacy. Active during the first decades of the 20th century in the USA, they became famous mostly thanks to their self-proclaimed ‘exotic’ dances, inspired by aesthetics from distant, often colonized parts of the world. Seen through today’s lens, the accusation of cultural appropriation lies within reach. But would that be a fair statement when placed in context? Recorded as a conversation, Pizon and Brabant’s voices accompany their bodies on stage, addressing these questions beyond the good/evil binary. Openly throwing their own perspectives, doubts and positionalities into the mix, the tape informs and broadens the scope of our own gaze upon them without ever falling into moralizing statements. 

For example: at one point Maud precisely responds to Jérôme’s description of the dances being ‘exotic’. No matter what St. Denis and Shawn thought, she suggests, ‘there was nothing exotic about them!’ And indeed, the music to an alleged Indian dance is fully counted in twos and the kimonos they wear for a Chinese-inspired dance are blatantly Japanese. As for the movement, far from attempting at imitating the dances of other cultures, Denishawn’s research focused broadly on delsartism – François Delsarte’s 19th century attempt at reconnecting body, mind and spirit for the Cartesian West through the detailed study of human gesture. The then thought of ‘oriental’ influences served merely as an excuse, Brabant’s voice proposes further on, to explore a form of sensuality in movement which would have not been acceptable otherwise at that time. 

Brightly accompanied live by pianist Aurélien Richard, Pizon and Brabant reenact dances they physically retrieved from archives in New York – recording them in their bodies from fragile 16mm films which have yet to see the online light. But, far from presenting themselves as professors, the empty stage – a rack of clothes on either side and the big piano at the back as sole décor; and their costumes – mere hints at the lush and gem-covered originals – add to the schematic lightness of their proposal. 

This conscious attempt at bringing forth a sense of curiosity rather than an in-depth result of historical research makes it a low key, accessible and pedagogical performance. But, on the other hand, it also renders it rather superficial. There is more to being a bodily archive than reproducing a given choreography learned from film. In terms of movement expression, the performance felt rather flat – leaving us to wonder if that is all there was to Delsarte, or if they just failed in their attempt at bringing back this dimension of Denishawn’s work. 

As for the title: even if A Taste of Ted it has a nice ring to it, it’s surprisingly patriarchal for a performance so keen on bringing old feats to the present. Maybe ‘A Reminiscence of Ruth’ sounded too serious, but it still is a pity the makers missed the chance to include a feminist perspective. Anyway, as they demonstrate with regards to Denishawn’s oeuvre, there is more to this taste of Ted than meets the eye – or what’s in the name. 

Info company l’Octogonale

Program Holland Dance Festival

photo: Raphaël Morillon