Walking Distance Dance Festival, Season Preview #1: Lionel Popkin’s “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” | By Marie Tollon

Questions regarding longevity and legacy are critical to all art forms, but especially to dance because of its ephemeral nature and vital relationship to the present. The recent closing of Trey McIntyre Project by its founder and Artistic Director has fueled discussions not only about the legitimacy of an artist’s decision to discontinue a thriving organization, but also about the viability of the traditional model of the dance company, which is significantly challenged by the economic environment. At the other end of the spectrum, choreographer Paul Taylor announced earlier this month the creation of the Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance, a center dedicated to the preservation of modern dance works.

Lionel Popkin and performers  in "Ruth Doesn't Live Here Anymore" Photo By Steve Gunther

Lionel Popkin and performers
in “Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
Photo By Steve Gunther

It is in this context that Lionel Popkin’s exploration of choreographer Ruth St Denis’ legacy becomes particularly relevant. For Popkin, investigating the work of Ruth St Denis (1879-1968) is a bit like rummaging through the attic of an old relative, prying open wooden chests and letting the wardrobes spill across the floor. In the musty smells, faded colors, and worn fabrics, stories are held. Revisiting these historical relics can shed new light onto one’s lineage and identity. In Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, colorful articles of clothes mushroom across the stage, creating soft mountains of various shapes in the performative landscape. Half enfant terrible, half anthropologist, Popkin goes through the mess like a rebellious child who doesn’t take things for granted but instead chooses to explore, question and formulate his own answers.

Popkin questions the sourcing, representation and transmission of Ruth St Denis’ work, which is deeply steeped in Eastern cultures’ exoticism and spirituality. Of both Indian and Jewish descent, he noticed that recurrent Indian imagery populated his work: as a performer wears an elephant costume, Popkin invokes the Indian deity Ganesh in There is An Elephant in this dance; during And Then We Eat, Popkin cooks a curry on stage. Questioning the accurateness of the South Asian representations that his dances convey, the choreographer chose to look at St Denis’ work to investigate both his cultural and artistic legacy, and ask: “Was her Orientalism an act of cultural appropriation or a legitimate examination of the sources of dance?”

Lionel Popkin in  "Ruth Doesn't Live Here Anymore" Photo by Brian Mengini

Lionel Popkin in
“Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
Photo by Brian Mengini

Popkin thoroughly dove into St Denis’ archives in Los Angeles, home of the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts. Founded by St Denis with dancer Ted Shawn in 1915, the school trained modern dance pioneers such as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman. In St Denis’ archives, Popkin found journals filled with references to the costumes as the starting places for her dances. He used them as a point of entry in his piece.

The remains of the past found in a remote attic, or through boxes left behind, can conjure new importance in the narrative of a family. In Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, we see how the performers choose to inhabit each piece of clothing as well as the stage, instilling both with their presence and questions. After all, Popkin says: “It is about us in the here in now. Hence, Ruth used to live here, but not anymore.”

“Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” will be showcased at the Walking Distance Dance Festival on Friday, May 30, 7:30pm, at the ODC Campus.

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