BECKET, Mass. — Ted Shawn was one of the biggest names in American dance history. He became a younger member of this country’s founding generation of modern dance, doing much to establish it as a formal academic discipline before he died in 1972. He worked to put male dancers in the limelight (“Ted Shawn and His Male Dancers” toured America), and he made Jacob’s Pillow, based here, the eclectic dance haven that it remains.
How good was his choreography, though? This has been a matter for debate since at least the 1930s. The few Shawn revivals I saw in the 1980s looked thin and tedious. Since then, however, a number of people have reappraised and rediscovered him. By 1984, the choreographer Mark Morris was citing Shawn as an influence, and scholars this century have found new insights into his work. Most remarkable of all have been the efforts of the choreographer-researcher Adam Weinert, who — notably in “Monument,” a program I reviewed at the Pillow in 2016 — has resurrected dances by Shawn and some of the modern-dance generations that followed in his wake.
Offstage, Shawn’s male dancers were believed to pursue same-*** relations; and the homophobia of the mid-20th century was very probably a factor in any dismissal of their work. Today, however, Shawn’s work is prime terrain for queer theory — as well as for greater open-mindedness.
The program Mr. Weinert presented at the Pillow on Friday through Sunday began with a perfect example: “The ***** of Adonis” (also known as “Adagio Pathétique”), a 1924 solo for a near-naked man whose face and body are covered in chalk-white makeup. The dancer here, J. M. Tate, wears only a dance-belt beneath the makeup; his powerful musculature is one ideal of male beauty. This “Adonis” solo, performed on a plinth, proves to be very Wildean: a Hellenist-aestheticist celebration of the male form. Its sustained adagio takes Mr. Tate through a long series of varied statuesque shapes. I’d never imagined Shawn as Wildean before; this was a revelation.
In Shawn tradition, this was performed on Saturday in the open air in the center’s tea garden. Later performances were accompanied by a lecture by Sydney Skybetter, while “His Male Dancers,” as the program listed them, served sandwiches to the seated audience. Shawn and other pioneers of modern dance were given to addressing their audiences intelligently; Mr. Skybetter’s lecture, though entirely in the intellectual parlance of today, was in that tradition, linking Shawn to Mr. Weinert.
Years ago, many of us would have snickered at such a lecture, with those male dancers (in white dressing gowns) politely serving sandwiches while a near-naked man dances; I’m glad this no longer seems laughable. When Mr. Tate descended from his plinth, he slowly washed his body clean of the white makeup in full view of the audience behind Mr. Skybetter: a marvelous way of connecting Shawn to, and distancing him from, today.
The audience then entered the studio hall for the main event, Shawn’s “Dance of the Ages” (1938) as reconstructed by Mr. Weinert from extensive film and other documentation. This is a four-part construction: Each of its elements (fire, water, earth, air), is, in turn, connected with four views of different stages of human society, with an imaginative idea of different political sociologies.
Mr. Weinert — who’s one of the dancers — has achieved a remarkable feat in resurrecting a piece of this length: 90 minutes with intermission. Shawn forged a different style for each section, with specific geometries, dynamics and structures. He also anticipated the modern dance of today in the generous way he announced in the 1938 program that this work’s solos were choreographed by their own original executants.
Saturday’s audience gave an immediate standing ovation to “Dance of the Ages”; I wish I could have shared their admiration. Most of the music, by Shawn’s main accompanist of the 1930s, Jess Meeker, is tepidly formulaic sub-Romanticism: The series of prettily descending triplets in the Water and Air sections feel endless, while other sections seem close to operetta kitsch.
Some passages are admirably bracing: Shawn’s own solo (as the Ward Heeler, a potent but insidious figure) in the Earth/Democracy part, vividly performed here by Brett Perry, suddenly brings everything into sharp dramatic focus. Too often, however, Shawn overuses several formulas: The amount of group running with each dancer presenting the crook of one elbow like the prow of a ship beggars belief. Shawn here and elsewhere seems to have been copying the Ballets Russes: this kind of exotic masculinity goes back to the ballets of Michel Fokine.
From this and “Monument,” Shawn seems to have been a surprisingly diverse stylist. Only intermittently, however, does he seem an importantly original one.