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Mapping the Lesser-Known Territories of American Modern Dance

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The creation of American modern dance, in the first half of the 20th century, was akin to the development of jazz or the Broadway musical, all potent new forms of expression for a country on the rise. Its history has often been framed as a simple genealogy of mavericks and rebels — almost all white — big personalities who commanded a lot of attention: Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn begat Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey who begat Paul Taylor, Merce Cunningham and José Limón. “Border Crossings: Exile and American Modern Dance 1900-1955,” an exhibition at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through March 16, tells quite a different story.

It begins with Matachines, a dance-drama that has been performed by both Pueblo Indian and Hispanic people in the American Southwest for hundreds of years. The next section is about jazz modernism: how Black artists developed new aesthetic possibilities for dance at the start of the 20th century.

“We wanted to see what happens if you start somewhere else,” the art historian E. Bruce Robertson said in a joint interview with his co-curator, the dance scholar Ninotchka Bennahum.

“We’re not saying that Martha Graham and Ruth St. Denis aren’t important,” said Linda Murray, the curator of the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division. “But if you move those people out of the center, what are the other voices that move in?”

There are many candidates. “Border Crossings” highlights dozens of dance artists through photographs, costumes and other artifacts, along with more than nine hours of film footage. Mexico assumes new importance, as do Asian immigrants. Dancers respond to two world wars, the rise of fascism, persistent racism and the inequities of capitalism.

In its study of the effects of exile, the show looks not only at migrations between countries, caused by war and political turmoil, but also at migrations internal to the United States, caused by racism. The show’s definition of modern dance stretches enough to include a section on Black dancers in classical ballet, and the final galleries zero in on influential Black dance artists of the 20th century, like Katherine Dunham and Janet Collins. The exhibition finds room as well for contemporary artists of color to weigh in on the meanings of crossing borders, literal and metaphorical.

This all adds up to a show that Robertson admits is overstuffed. But, he said, it is “a template for something much larger, a map of the territory.” He and Bennahum emphasized how much they had to leave out and how much they could not find because of what Bennahum called “archival silencing,” the unequal representation of artists of color in the historical record.

In recent years, many scholars have been working to correct that imbalance. This exhibition surveys that work, which is rarely collected in such wide-ranging form. Students of dance history might encounter some figures for the first time, but also see artists together — in the same photograph — that older categorical thinking might have kept separate: like the Indian dancer Uday Shankar and the flamenco star Vicente Escudero looking chic while shaking hands in 1930s Paris. Both dancers were modernists; both influenced American dance.

For the exhibition’s lead image, the curators chose Dunham. Trained in anthropology at the University of Chicago, Dunham drew on her fieldwork in the Caribbean and the American South to develop an Africanist technique, a popular company and an influential school.

In the photo, she leaps outdoors in Italy. “That image displaces all those images of Isadora Duncan frolicking in the ocean,” Robertson said, calling Dunham’s the show’s “pivot point.”

“We were so blown away by the sense of freedom in the image,” Bennahum added. “But we don’t even know who the photographer was. There’s so much about these figures that is unknown.”

“It’s about putting dance at the center of the study of modernism,” Robertson said. “The basic point the show makes it that trauma defines modernism, and trauma is embodied and expressed through the body. That is why we feel that dance is probably the art form that most fully expresses the traumas of the 20th century.”

“It’s a dancer’s show,” Bennahum said. “In a sense, any of the figures we included can stand in for the rest, not because they all had the same experience of exile, but because every one of them really defined dance modernism in their own unique way.”

In that spirit, here are three images to stand for the many.

Born in Japan in 1897, in the 16th generation of a samurai family, Yeichi Nimura moved to the United States in 1920. After studying at Denishawn, the school established by Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis in Los Angeles, he toured his own work, often based in Japanese traditions, and established an important studio in Carnegie Hall. John Martin, in The New York Times, credited Nimura with “the ability to command attention every moment.” Along with Michio Ito, a Japanese-born dancer who found success in New York and Los Angeles, Nimura is among the Asian artists sometimes left out of histories of modern dance. The internment or deportation of some artists of Japanese descent during the Second World War is another thread of the exhibition.

In this photo, he is rehearsing for the Long Island Pageant in 1930. “Doing his Japanese sword dance over a Model T Ford — that says everything about the collision of tradition and modernity,” Robertson said.

Born in Philadelphia in 1935, Delores Browne studied ballet at the Judimar School, led by the pioneering Black dance educator Marion Cujyet. In 1953, Browne was accepted into the School of American Ballet, but she was not invited to join its affiliated company, New York City Ballet. Instead, she joined Ballet Americana, later called the New York Negro Ballet, touring Britain. When that company’s backer died, forcing it to fold, she could not find work; almost no one was hiring Black ballerinas. She still took classes with top white ballet dancers, and when one of them asked her, “Who are you with now?” the question led her to quit dancing.

One of her Judimar colleagues, John Jones, coaxed her back a few years later for some independent recitals, and she began working with Black modern dance choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Talley Beatty and Geoffrey Holder. She became a respected teacher, especially at the Ailey school. But she never had the career as a ballerina that her talent and skill would seem to have promised. (She died on Oct. 2.)

This publicity photo from the 1950s captures Browne’s grace and lightness. “It’s one thing to say ‘a thousand soldiers died on that hill,’ but it’s another thing to look at this photo and see how this particular career was cut short,” Bennahum said.

When Edna Guy, born in New Jersey in 1907, was 15, she saw a performance by Ruth St. Denis and discovered what she wanted to do. St. Denis, a white woman also from New Jersey, made art by imagining herself into cultures other than her own: Egyptian, Indian. Guy wrote St. Denis a fan note and many letters. In one, she said: “I shall be the first colored girl to make the world see that a little Negro girl, an American, can do beautiful and creative dances.” St. Denis allowed Guy to train at the Denishawn school but not to dance with the company, hiring her instead as a seamstress and personal assistant.

In the early 1930s, Guy connected with the short-lived Black choreographer Hemsley Winfield, who created the New Negro Art Theater Dance Group in 1931, one of the first Black concert dance companies. Guy performed as a guest with that troupe and on her own, doing both Orientalist pieces in the St. Denis manner and African inspired work. In 1937, she helped organize “A Negro Dance Evening” at the 92nd Street Y, which included the New York debut of Katherine Dunham.

This image, by the Japanese American photographer Soichi Sunami, captures Guy in costume for “A Figure From Angkor Wat,” one of St. Denis’s fantasies of Cambodian dance. Guy performed this during a pathbreaking recital she directed with Winfield in 1931. The exhibition’s wall text describes Guy’s performance in it as “double role playing: first as a white modern dancer, and then as a Cambodian priestess.”

“It speaks to the complexity of artists of color moving into white spaces of appropriation,” Bennahum said. “It’s a way to take back their power, commenting on the space through their body.”

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