Culture Clash

Photo by Steve Gunther
Photo by Steve Gunther

By Steve Sucato

Was modern-dance pioneer Ruth St. Denis a racist?

St. Denis (1880–1968) introduced Eastern culture into Western dance. For her famous “Oriental” dances of the early 1900s, she donned makeup to change the color of her skin a la Al Jolson, and costumed herself based on museum photographs.

Photo by Steve Gunther
Photo by Steve Gunther

In his latest dance work, Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Santa Monica-based dancer/choreographer Lionel Popkin uses St. Denis’ career to explore the appropriation and misappropriation of other cultures into Western dance and how we perceive the confluence of those cultures on stage.

“I became interested in what the markers are that let us know what we are seeing is a cultural exchange,” says Popkin, who is of South Asian descent. “Is it the costumes, the music or something else?”

The hour-long multimedia trio set to an original score for accordion and violin by Pittsburgh native Guy Klucevsek (played live) neither celebrates nor bashes St. Denis, says Popkin. The former Trisha Brown Dance Company dancer references his cultural heritage in his nationally and internationally seen works. He sees St. Denis’ approach to Asian cultures in her works as being a product of her times. While not a fan of her approach, he is respectful of St. Denis’ extraordinary career.

Photo by Steve Gunther
Photo by Steve Gunther

Lionel Popkin: Ruth Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, 8 p.m. Fri., March 15, and 8 p.m. Sat., March 16. Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $15-35. 412-363-3000 or www.kelly-strayhorn.org

This article first appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper on March 13, 2013. Copyright Steve Sucato