All-Man Performance

YOUR average American male is comically gun-shy of the arts. He blames it on his pioneering origins; but pioneers are not timorous. Neither are ten men who have driven across the Great American Desert for the past three years. Their frontiering is the rediscovery of the dance as an art-form for the athletic male. Of course that is what it originally was and normally is. Oldest of the arts, in ages more robust than our own it was the function of men, and of men only, to celebrate in the dance every momentous experience from war to harvest. An age when the ballroom dance is a languid walkaround which can be performed by elderly invalids with heart disease naturally forgets that the dance is universal language and the most masculine of the arts.

When Dr. Archibald Davison proved with the Harvard Glee Club that college men can sing good music and that people will pay good money to hear them, he created a situation in which other colleges could no longer let their boys go on singing about a girl, a guitar, and a sofa cushion. They had to come to the classics or lose face. Likewise, the late Professor George Pierce Baker, finding drama on the academic dissecting table, resuscitated its study into a living art. What that cost him may be guessed from an incident which he once told me. With his professorship of public speaking, which he did not like, and his drama courses, which he did like, he found himself overworked and said so to President Eliot. ‘Well,’ said Mr. Eliot, ‘why not drop your drama courses?’

One evening at Symphony Hall, while listening to a concert of the Harvard Glee Club, it struck me that although Dr. Davison had found a way to release the æsthetic imaginations of young men into an art-form, still the job was only half done. What was wanted was another art-form to unite the athlete with the artist, the doer with the thinker; for we Northern peoples tend to be men of action first and become men of thought only in our later blooming.

In March 1933, at a theatre directly across the street from Symphony Hall, the thing happened. That other half of Davison’s idea leaped into life. There, for the first time in any contemporary chronicle, was performed an entire evening’s programme for men dancers — by Mr. Ted Shawn and his company, then numbering eight young athletes, already artists of the dance, and dance of a style that could be as austerely classic as the music of Brahms to which some of it went.

This venture was not hasty. The idea had been jotted in Mr. Shawn’s notebook as early as 1911, about the year when the Harvard Glee Club began to turn intellectually respectable. Its originator had experimented with it in 1916 at the Greek Theatre of the University of California in a Pyrrhic dance for men, and repeatedly at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York City. Although these men performed by themselves only once in mixed programmes for women and men, invariably it was the men’s dancing which most warmed the blood of audiences.

One who saw the electrical performance of those years men, in March 1933, knew that the lightning had struck close by, but could not quite be sure what it had hit. It had hit the other half of Davison’s idea — perhaps the more potent half. Here was a bridge across that chasm between athletics and the academic curriculum: strenuous exercise plus æsthetic imagination. Skeptics from football field and gymnasium, these boys had come out from their first ‘dancing lessons’ dripping with sweat, their muscles trembling from unaccustomed coördinations, to testify, ‘ I ’ll say it’s a man’s job!’ and later to testify that, unlike many sports, it puts more into them than it takes out: ‘No matter how fagged from travel we are when we begin a programme, we always end it feeling refreshed — as if our bodies had been massaged and our minds rinsed.’

Now the American boy who will drudge joyfully at palette or fiddle bow is a white blackbird to be pecked at by his mates. But give your average boy an art-form which is also an athletic sport strenuous enough to disabuse him of his contempt for the artist; then watch him, through having learned how hard it is to master one art, learn to mind his manners with all the arts and to treat them as his friends if not his betters. One of the young college men in Shawn’s company has proved this whole process in his own person: ‘I liked athletics and music, but “a boy does n’t play the piano.” Next I tried the violin. That went better, but not well enough to make a violinist of me. Then I had become football captain and wrestler — when Shawn made me an athlete to music.’

In that spring of 1933 it was resolved to adventure a season’s tour of these men dancers. Shawn’s friends secretly hoped the railroad ties would spare his sole leather till he could trudge home. Economic depression was wallowing in the trough of its wave. No regular manager would touch the hazard of such a tour. Its financing would have to be as slender as the proverbial shoestring. The nine young men who spent that summer with Shawn rehearsing their winter’s programme had to scrimp even on groceries and cigarettes.

But how shall male dancers erase the stigma against males’ dancing? By dancing like men and not like women. Then how does a man dance? Their programmes are built from those rhythms of bodily movement which are recognizably peculiar to the male: hunting, war, ritual magic (tribal); planting, harvest, threshing floor, wine press (labor); play, sport, ceremonial (folk); and based on these, — as sonata and symphony, ‘pure music,’ derive in part from folk dance and folk song, — the dance as pure art-form. Such dancing is, of course, as different from women’s as the Iliad is from an ode of Sappho. But the tussle would be to get people to find this out by coming to see it.

On the eve of their tour, what little booking they did have blew up. A student from Columbia University, who had joined the company to dance, volunteered to go on the road as booking agent. In place of experience he had enthusiasm. He managed to keep about one month ahead of them with engagements.

That winter’s Odyssey on tires was 23,000 miles and 111 performances. Local managers met them with lamentations: the public was indifferent to men’s dancing, or frankly hostile. Yet those who did come wore converted: ‘ Everywhere the enthusiasm of audiences warms our hearts. Even where they are a pitifully small group, they are of rare quality, and we give to the handful an extra quality in our dancing. . . . The boys are magnificent; my greatest corroboration is the spirit with which they carry on. October 24 to November 27 continuous blizzard — we seemed to follow some plan of the weather man always to be at the storm centre. Money was dangerously scant a couple of times (and will be again), but, through it all, they ate fifteen-cent lunches when necessary, changed tires when blowouts occurred in lonely places in the midst of snowstorms, unpacked the show, hung the scenery and lights, and gave a fine performance, then packed it up again — with never a complaint. With such soldiers how can I help but win ? ’

Their amateur booking agent got them into weird spots: where the piano fell to pieces, or the stage curtain tumbled down, or stage hands were drunk, or a fuse blew out and the house went black, or heat was off and the theatre so frigid that make-up cream froze solid in its jars — and they dancing in nothing but cinctures! At Austin, ‘an organization of fifty wild Texas boys had announced that they were going to break up the show, objecting “on principle” to men dancers. But the kick-off of the Polonaise [to MacDowell’s music] so paralyzed them that no one heard a peep out of them the whole evening. I was told about this only afterwards.’ Complications with a trade-union in South Carolina once nearly wrecked the tour. On a midnight in the mountains of West Virginia the costume truck was shot at: ‘Has a neat bullet hole in its back door. Mac was driving. Says he did n’t wait to find out whether it was moonshiners, striking miners, or just a social gesture.’

Halfway through this tour the tide turned. Teachers’ conventions experienced conversion, athletic coaches surrendered hands down and asked for instructors, college presidents volunteered endorsements, sports-page writers waxed lyric, and even dance critics began to relent. Men who came to scoff remained to pray in amusing rubrics: ‘My wife dragged me here, but it has been an event of my life. Boy! If I were twenty years old you could n’t keep me out of this company.’

But tribulations kept on: ‘I have just heard that we cannot take the costume truck into Canada. So tonight we drive to Ogdensburg, — the only place the river is open, — and to-morrow figure out how we can unload and ship the baggage by train to Toronto, and get it through the customs. I am doing some of the best quailing right now that I have ever done in my life — at this prospect. It is snowing large furry flakes. After the show we pack up and drive. This may be the last word you ever hear from me — unless St. Bernard dogs come along with the well-known flasks.’ Yet reach Toronto they did, on tires over roads of eleven-inch refrigerator ice, and played to a packed house which vociferated for repeats until it had to be asked to stop. After a winter of this, ‘ a professor of philosophy in an Ohio college asked me if my dancing was an “escape”!’

Summers, hardly slackening pace, they spend in their centenarian farm homestead up a lonely mountain road in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, studio an ex-barn with hardwood floor and one end walled with mirrors. Here it is rise at six, into studio at eight, drill till noon, then tray luncheons on the sun-bath platform with reading aloud (authors range from Plato to Havelock Ellis) till two; afternoons, farm labor, study, or individual choreography in the studio till dinner at seven. The machine age goes up that mountain road only in the automobile engine. Not even an electric wire. Their light is kerosene; their fuel wood axe-hewn by themselves; their plumbing an icy pool in the mountain brook where they bathe from May to October. This new pioneering girds its loins with the regimen of our old pioneering. What helped meet their grocery bills that first summer were weekly dance recitals in the barn studio. Beginning with forty guests, the attendance multiplied to two hundred, and the recitals became a laboratory to test new programmes.

Their second tour was even more rampageous. Two more men had been trained in the company. Eager for the fray, they came with their parents’ blessings — none of your kissing a sad farewell to children bent on the stage and their own perdition. Programmes now stiffened — into a Labor Symphony in four movements (field, forest, sea, machinery); Molpai, studied from the ancient Greek after Gilbert Murray’s The Classical Tradition in Poetry; and music visualizations (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), with a sprinkling of bravura pieces in costume for surefire hits. That second tour traversed 25,000 miles and 115 performances in North America, and wound up in London with eleven special performances during the King’s Jubilee in June 1935. From weird dust storms in Nebraska they would next be ‘going through a mountain pass 9000 feet up, behind a snow plough, then down canyon roads that wind like mad, covered with ice, no fence guards, drops of hundreds of feet to the ravines below. . . . And speaking of altitude, the performances have been frightfully difficult. Our hearts seemed as if they would burst out of our bodies, and breath is hard to get. Last night at Denver we had a huge audience and a great reception, but it was a physical ordeal for us.’ In London their welcome was from both extremes of society: fêted at West End cocktail parties whence they were among the few who emerged sober, and cheered by galleries of folk who had camped on folding stools in the ticket queue outside of His Majesty’s Theatre for cheap seats.

Back on their Berkshire farm that summer, doing their own chores and rehearsing a new programme, the company incorporated. They bought fifty-five more acres and four buildings for their supplementary Summer School of the Dance, doubled the size of their studio, and multiplied their weekly recitals by two. Land, buildings, cars, costumes, and scenery are owned in common; living expenses, from clothes to dentistry, are assured for all before anyone draws a surplus, salaries are equitably graded, and decisions made by majority vote. It is communal living for the practice of an art.

Their third tour was crescendo: 38,500 miles, and 118 performances, to audiences that totaled 100,000 persons. At times the pace would be ‘ten cities, ten performances, in ten consecutive days, and 2000 miles in doing it.’ In a Texas sand storm the roof blew off one of the trucks and disappeared over the horizon. ‘There have been the usual cuts, split feet, and bruises — but a divine providence watches over us, when you think of the constant danger of our life.’

By this time critics in the large cities were reversing their verdicts handsomely and saluting the group as unique artists. Even in the Northwest, ‘when you think that this “he-man” cowboy and mining country is hardly a generation from frontier and Wild West, to come through here at all with a company of men “classic dancers” is an achievement. Yet audiences are enthusiastic, fees and bookings better, and we do not have some of the terrible places to play in that we had the first two seasons. I still have to listen to hard-luck stories of how difficult it is to get an audience to an all-man per-formance. This reversing of a national habit of thought is not done without travail of body and of spirit. Yet you remember that our Thanksgiving dinner in 1933 was coffee and sandwiches, and that we slept in tourist cabins on the roadside after playing to an audience that netted $22.00 — but we gave them a good show! Here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we are at an excellent hotel and have had our 1935 Thanksgiving dinner in a private dining room. . . . There is such a happy, genuine, unforced harmony in the company now, and we enjoy one another’s companionship and laugh and talk for hours.’

Before that tour ended, Divine Providence intervened for them twice. Two shocking accidents befell one and the same motor truck: once in Oregon, where it slid off an icy curve, dropped thirty-five feet, turned over three times, and lodged against big trees. Excepting a sprained ankle, neither of the two boys were hurt. But the second time they were struck by a speeding car in Chicago, their truck demolished, and both of them hurt painfully, one so badly that he played one-week stands in hospitals for a month before he could rejoin the company.

On that Thanksgiving Day in 1933, in a North Carolina city (the dressing rooms of the theatre were so filthy that the boys had made dressing space behind the moving-picture screen), Shawn was seated back stage on a costume trunk reading Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas. He and his men are themselves the adventure of an idea. ‘All-Man Performance,’ it is applauded from tank town to orchestra hall, earns its livelihood and increasingly comfortable profits, wins public and press from seaboard to seaboard, is eulogized by headmasters and college presidents, blessed by clergymen, apostrophized by poets, painted by artists, and even acclaimed by Rotary. It takes root in several colleges where men now study the dance and perform publicly; hundreds more have applied for training at the summer school in the Berkshires — which accommodates only two score. The most potent adherents are numerous authorities in the teaching of physical education who can institute dance training in primary schools before the boy is self-conscious and habituate him to it as a language to be spoken throughout life; for colleges could, as one already has done, send a dance club on tour like a glee club, or dance teams to compete and be adjudged winners, not by stop watch, but by artistry; and any adult male sound of wind and limb might enjoy this sport as much as tennis or golf.

The problem of teacher training is now the high hurdle. An art-form is not mastered in a summer. The man who is to teach dancing to men must be schooled as rigorously as any other artist or practitioner of a learned profession. Requests for members of the company as teachers are a recurring embarrassment, but are refused out of loyalty to the group. The suggestion is, naturally, that one of the educational foundations endow such teacher training, preferably in a college which already has a school of physical education.

Shawn did once apply to one of the endowed foundations for money to adventure his idea, but, being denied, went ahead and did it on his own. That same year the aforesaid foundation awarded a fat stipend to a Ph. D. which staked him to a summer in Norway investigating the sex life of the evening primrose.