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Archive for the ‘dancers’ Category

Asheville, N.C.

Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center
56 Broadway

Fifteen miles east of Asheville was the location of Black Mountain College, an experimental school in existence from 1933 to 1956. According to gay historian Martin Duberman, who chronicled its history in his exhaustive group biography, Black Mountain College: An Exploration in Community, the college was “the forerunner and exemplar of much that is currently considered innovative in arts, education and life style.” At Black Mountain, there were no required courses, no exams, and no formal grades. Students were responsible for planning their own course of study, participating in classes that often had fewer than 10 students each.

Black Mountain was also the nurturing ground of numerous queer writers and artists, including Paul Goodman, Merce Cunningham, and John Cage. Other queer lecturers during its history included Thornton Wilder, Ted Shawn, and Robert Duncan. Artists Robert Rauschenberg was a student at Black Mountain. The college’s literary journal, Black Mountain Review, published the work of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among many others. Though gay men taught and studied there, however, homosexuality was not openly tolerated. When Paul Goodman, a lecturer in “psychotherapy (his own), literature, history, community planning and sex,” according to Duberman, applied for a full-time teaching position, the faculty voted against him, fearing that he would prove to be a sexual predator.

The original site of the school consisted of church buildings constructed by the Blue Ridge Assembly as a summer conference center for its members. For most of the year, the buildings were vacant, and Black Mountain founder John Andrew Rice saw it as the perfect location for his school. The main building, called Lee Hall (the photo below is of the porch), included both common rooms and individual living and study spaces for students.

The rental agreement with the church stipulated that the buildings and grounds had to be cleared of all college equipment and furniture by the beginning of the summer. Because of this, Lee Hall had a “Shaker plainness” to it, and many students had to construct their own desks and furniture. After a few years, the college purchased a more stable site at Lake Eden, a former summer resort with cottages and lodges on a human-made lake.

The college suffered chronic financial problems, and lack of students and money forced it to close in 1956. The property was sold off piece by piece, and part was leased as a boys’ summer camp. This museum and arts center in nearby Asheville documents the history and mission of the innovative school.

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Sunny Valley, Ore.

Rootworks
2000 King Mountain Trail

Southern Oregon has a rich history of lesbian and gay back-to-the-land projects. One lesbian separatist community, Rootworks, was established in the 1970s by Ruth and Jean Mountaingrove, when both women were in their 50s. “The philosophy was that we would live without men, separate from the patriarchal world,” Ruth told me in the late ’90s. “That is still pretty much the idea.” (The photo above was taken by Ruth at the commune in the 1970s.)

At Rootworks, there were originally only two houses – the Moonhouse and the Kitchen cabin. In the years that followed the founding, Ruth and Jean added the Sunhouse, a barn (called “Natalie Barney”), and the All Purpose crafts cabin. In the barn is a study and a feminist library. From 1974 to 1984, Ruth and Jean also published the magazine WomanSpirit from an office in the barn, and The Blatant Image, a feminist magazine about photography, was published there from 1981 to 1983; back issues of both are stored in the barn.

Ruth has credited WomanSpirit with bringing a lot of women to the southern Oregon region, by encouraging their creativity and spirituality. Though the magazine folded, Jean said, “the main elements of WomanSpirit are still being lived in the community – feminism, spirituality, all forms of creativity, sisterhood, nature, art, music, dance, literature, healing and personal development.”

Gardens that are nestled around some of the Rootworks buildings are filled with vegetables, beans, and berries. Solar energy provides heat and hot water and also powers the community’s lights. Ruth noted that it’s “not easy in the winter, and that’s when women usually leave.”

In 2008, Linda Long, Manuscripts Librarian for the Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Oregon in Eugene, told Lambda Book Report:

Rootworks is a historical site that is a perfect exemplar of the feminist-lesbian dream. From the 1970s to today, the women’s back-to-the-land community in Oregon was, and is, a dynamic expression of the separatist dream. As part of that dream, women experimented with new ways to live and work together – and with all sorts of activities and rituals, from house-building projects and collective gardening to the sacred circle. Many of the women were aspiring artists of one kind or another – writers, painters, photographers—and they hoped to be able to combine life on the land with their creative work. All of this lesbian/feminist life and work is represented in Rootworks…The permanence of Rootworks and its status as a women-owned land trust in perpetuity makes it a perfect example of a historic site. I think a living museum would be an effective and dynamic way to preserve the lesbian land dream and the history of the lesbian community in Southern Oregon.”

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Lee, Mass.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Ted Shawn Theater
Route 20 (about eight miles east of Lee)

In 1915, modern dance pioneers Ted Shawn and Ruth St. Denis founded the Denishawn School of Dancing and the Denishawn Dance Company in Los Angeles, whose most illustrious student was Martha Graham. In her autobiography, Graham wrote that Shawn was prone to auditioning men for Denishawn by requiring that they send nude photos of themselves. Shawn and St. Denis (who was 14 years older than Shawn) were legally husband and wife for 50 years, though each enjoyed outside affairs. In 1927, they unfortunately fell in love with the same man, Fred Beckman, whom they made their “personal representative.” Having the same taste in men caused an irreparable split in their marriage, and four years later, they began living separately and closed Denishawn.

Shawn (1891-1972) bought a colonial-era farm at this location in the Berkshires after his marriage collapsed. He called the site Jacob’s Pillow after a big, sloping rock near the main house. In 1933, he founded an all-male troupe called the “Men Dancers,” designed to showcase men’s contributions to the field of modern dance. Shawn and his young male dancers lived on the property in a rustic setting without heat or running water. (Shawn had a private shower and toilet, but the other dancers used an outhouse papered with covers from the New Yorker.) At lunch time, Shawn would read aloud to the dancers, who were all nude, on the terrace from books on art, physics, and history.

The Men Dancers gave their first performance at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 1933. It was held in the barn/studio and attended by 50 people who paid 75 cents each. After that, the company held dance performances yearly, though they were then called “teas” and not a festival. Shawn’s company lasted until 1940, when he disbanded it and gave each member either a cash settlement or a parcel of land at Jacob’s Pillow. The rest of the land he sold the following year to a group who founded the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, which continues today as one of the world’s pre-eminent performance festivals. In 1942, the festival converted the old barn into the Ted Shawn Theater, which retains the rustic charm of the early days of Shawn’s endeavor while being the first theater designed specifically for dance.

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