On the Trail of Ruth St. Denis: India 1926
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Director's Statement by Talal Al-Muhanna

I became interested in developing a film about Ruth St. Denis after meeting the dancer and choreographer Liz Lea at an arts festival in Liverpool in 2008. As part of the festival, Ms. Lea was performing a dance solo influenced in style by classical Indian dance. After meeting Ms. Lea in person, I discovered that she was also a research specialist on the great American interpretive dancer Ruth St. Denis (1879 –1968) - an exponent of ‘Oriental’ dance in the early 1900’s. As part of her research
work, Ms. Lea had reconstructed a number of Ruth St. Denis’ “long lost” Oriental dances by studying old black & white films and photographs of Ruth St. Denis performing and also by receiving personal advice and coaching from one of St. Denis’ most famous protégés (Ms. Jane Sherman) who passed away in 2010 at just over 100 years of age. In many ways, I felt that Liz Lea and Ruth St. Denis had many things in common: outgoing
personalities, an interest in Indian dance and culture and similar trajectories in their dance careers.

When I learned that Ms. Lea was planning a special research trip to India to visit some of the places which St. Denis and another great 20th Century dancer (the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova) had been to in the 1920’s, it occurred tome that recreating the these journeys through India could make an interesting subject to explore on film: combining history, biography, dance, culture and Ms. Lea’s personal journey all into one story.

I found Ms. Lea’s enthusiasm for Ruth St. Denis particularly inspiring and after some initial discussions about how we might be able to support one another’s interests, we both decided that a filmed trip to India to follow in the footsteps of Ruth St. Denis would make a very special project indeed: On the one hand we could explore India and all its variety in the present day and, on the other hand, we could revisit and reflect upon aspects of its past – all as experienced by Ruth St. Denis during her travels to India in 1926 and linked via Ms. Lea’s own road trip through the land in 2008. Along the way we would set-up scenes in which Ms. Lea would perform some of the dances of Ruth St. Denis that she had already reconstructed. In short, as a dance documentary, it seemed to be a unique opportunity to bring together past and present through the work of two dance artists with very similar interests yet who had worked decades apart.

After twice delaying our trip to India to film, the eventual 5-week shoot in the autumn of 2008 finally took place. After much detailed planning, we managed to shoot in almost all the places in India we planned for while also discovering exotic locations that were totally unexpected and extraordinary for filming the dance scenes in.

We were a small but dedicated crew that managed to successfully cover the great distances between Delhi, Amritsar, Agra, Lucknow, Kanpur, Varanasi,
Kolkuta and Mumbai on a relatively low budget – capturing some very unique moments and beautiful dance sequences along the way. The shoot was
demanding because we often had to carry equipment ourselves and, added to this, we frequently found that we had to get into and out of locations quickly before large, curious crowds would appear and effectively sabotage the scenic views we were trying to capture!

 
 
Texts @ 2011 Talal Al-Muhanna & Liz Lea