Arts / Liz dances through Ruth St Denis’ life


Liz in her costume for ‘Cobras’ speaking at the NFSA. Photo by Samara Purnell.

CANBERRA dance artist Liz Lea and Kuwaiti director Talal Al-Muhanna have made a documentary film called “On the Trail of Ruth St Denis”, which follows the steps of the American interpretive dancer, Ruth St Denis, her husband Ted Shawn and her Denishawn dancers as they made their way through India on tour in 1926.

It’s been a labour of love for choreographer and “CityNews” 2017 Artist of the Year, Lea, who presented her film at the National Film and Sound Archive, in conversation with dance historian and critic Michelle Potter.

Lea, who has trained extensively in Indian dance, told the audience that her love of classical Indian dance began when she was living in Malawi as a 12-year-old. There she was exposed to several different styles of Indian dance. She became interested in the influence of historical events on Indian dance, particularly the Partition of India to form Pakistan and the effect of Islam on dance styles, attitudes and costuming.

Lea was fascinated with what St Denis did and what she went on to create in her career. That and her admiration of intrepid dancers such as Anna Pavlova and St Denis as they traipsed around these exotic foreign lands on tour, inspired her film.

St Denis was inspired to investigate Asian dance after seeing the image of an Egyptian goddess on a poster advertising cigarettes. Six months later she was on tour in India.

Lea explained that today, much of what St Denis performed might look like mockery of a cultural style of dance, that had no official means of being taught to outsiders early in the 20th century. Reinterpreting the earthy roughness with which St Denis danced was approached with sensitivity by Lea so as not to appear kitsch.

The audience was regaled with entertaining stories of film crews in India that didn’t want to get up before 10am, despite Lea’s attempts to impart the drama and emotional significance of recreating a moment between St Denis and Shawn at sunrise in front of the Taj Mahal. And of the painstaking and difficult research involved in making “On the Trail of Ruth St Denis”, including hand-winding old film at the New York Library, to be seen only once, before being returned to the vault and finding that a couple of years later when she returned, there was no trace of the film at all.

“On the Trail of Ruth St Denis” begins with Lea in Cove Park, Scotland on residency, ensconced in books and notes before green serenity gives way to the dust and heat, crowds and cows of India, hearing about how St Denis’ mum was intense and harsh – perhaps the first of what is now called a “Dance mum”.

The documentary covers a lot from both Lea’s background and St Denis’, such as snippets of other works by Lea and her professional start as a showgirl in Japan.

Lea travels around India tracing St Denis’ steps as best she can, and seeking to visit hotels where St Denis stayed and the places she performed and visited including Kanpur, Kolkata and Mumbai. One small theatre where she had performed turns out to be a cinema and the hotel, rooms with questionable bedding.

The light, framing and direction of the film are beautiful to watch, the editing of dance sequences are lovely. Whilst amusing, the script and narrative jump around.

Entertaining as always Lea relates her stories and answers in depth, with flair and drama.

Observing respect for her subject, Lea sought permission to recreate some of St Denis’ works and tell her story. She imbues her dancing with reverence and spirituality and performed a short dance in costume, of “Cobras”.

The archival value and educational scope of Lea’s work will no doubt be appreciated by wider audiences along the way.




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