Thorough, sensitive look at St. Denis, modern dance pioneer Divine Dancer, by Suzanne Shelton. Garden city, New York: Doubleday & Co. Inc.

Ruth St. Denis was mostly a forgotten figure when she made her farewell tour in 1964. By then four decades had passed since she had been the centrifugal force in Denishawn, the first American dance company, established after her marriage to Ted Shawn in 1914; it was more than half a century since she had choreographed her first barefoot solos.

While in Boston on that final tour, she lectured at several schools and performed her "Blue Madonna of St. Mark's," surrounded on stage by a generation of great-grandchildren in dance from the Radcliffe Modern Dance Club. I remember her sitting in one of the dark wooden pews of the church as she watched the electrician focus lights for the evening program. "More pink," she called out, a professional intent on finding her best light, even at 85 years of age. After the performance she greeted guests, both those who remembered her past glories, and the students who came to pay tribute to her role in helping found modern dance in America.

Since Miss Ruth's passing in 1968 and the dance boom of the '70s, a number of books chronicling her work have been published, culminating in this well-researched biography. Drawing on myriad sources, but relying chiefly on Miss Ruth's unpublished journals (at the Special Collections of the Research Library at the University of California) dating from 1900 through 1968, Suzanne Shelton has woven a fascinating story.

It begins with a young farm girl from New Jersey who parlayed true grit, a supple body, and incredible intelligence into one of the most important American theatrical careers of the 20th century. Shelton's disclaimer that this is not a history of early modern dance in America is not quite true, since by portraying the life of St. Denis she inevitably gives insight into the milieu that nourished other figures, such as Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller.

Coming from poor families and having no formal training, these women became serious artists in charge of their own destinies in a profession where women were customarily managed and manipulated by men. Moreover, their innovative performances in Europe helped bring about some of the pace-setting changes in theater and the arts.

Shelton's emphasis on the various spiritual interests of St. Denis (and her mother), and the author's careful piecing together of little- known facts, help to illuminate the impressive contributions by St. Denis to the beginning years of modern dance.

Like Duncan and Fuller, St. Denis life offstage was less than successful. The marriage to Shawn came unglued in 1931; it was followed by difficult years in the half-life of an artist passed over. Poverty prevented her from finishing all the projects she had in mind.

Shelton handles the later period with sensitivity, although perhaps with less detail than Miss Ruth deserved. Even at age 85, St. Denis had two striking attributes: her amazing creative energy, and a full complement of plans for the future.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.