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Back Talk 

Published July 12, 2000 at 6:37 p.m.


Like every good dancer, Sharry Underwood was in the right place at the right time. Almost 60 years ago, the Burlington mover and shaker stumbled into a class with Ted Shawn — a former divinity student who believed in the spiritual side of movement. In retrospect, it was a historic moment — the “father of modern dance” imparting crucial kinetic knowledge on the mount that would become Jacob’s Pillow. And, unlike all the other dancing disciples gathered at his knee, Underwood took notes. Last year she reconstructed 27 of his works — plus his warm-up exercises — and arranged most of them into a performance that sold out at the Flynn. This week she and her company will return the “Lost Dances of Ted Shawn” to their rightful place in the Berkshires. At the invitation of the Pillow, arguably the most prestigious summer dance festival in the world, the six-member Vermont troupe will have an audience this week in Massachusetts that includes choreographic curators, professional archivists and former Shawn dancer Barton Murnaw. The performance repeats in Burlington on July 25 at City Hall Auditorium.

How does a dance come to be “lost” in the first place? Of all the art forms, movement is most evanescent. Unlike music, there is no real notation that describes all the possible movements, nor the style in which they are meant to be performed. Dancers learn their parts from the choreographer, through imitation. And before videotape, that physical memory was the only means of preserving the dance. Classical works like “Les Sylphides” still exist, because, quite simply, people remembered the steps accurately enough to pass them on to the next generation.

To his credit, Shawn made a serious documentary effort. “He would print out a mimeographed sheet of the dance steps,” Underwood recalls. “He wrote them out in English, but he also used his own terminology, like, he would say ‘pulse’ or ‘stroke’ and you’d have to know what that was.” Oddly, Shawn charged 25 cents a page for this archival material, and students, including Underwood, happily paid up.

The actual dances, Underwood says, are quite diverse, “and that’s going to surprise people,” she promises. In the annals of history, Shawn is credited for promoting the role of the man in modern dance, an interest which later turned into his own all-male company. He also cofounded the “Denishawn” technique and troupe with wife and partner Ruth St. Denis, who was obsessed with all things Asian. Alumna Martha Graham, who came up in the Denishawn company, later disavowed their choreographic vision as “weakling exoticism of a transplanted orientalism.” With ballet, flamenco, Native American and “minimal” dances on the program, this resurrected repertoire shows Shawn in a slightly different light.


Every book has its juicy bits, right? Not A Hell of a Place to Lose a Cow, Tim Brookes’ G-rated travelogue published this month by National Geographic. The Essex author, a proper Englishman, was “stunned” when parts of his road-trip reportage were rejected by his publisher because they were too raunchy for an “educational institution.” Brookes’ only other brush with censorship was on National Public Radio, when his Gulf War commentary on SCUD missiles got shot down by an editor. The higher-up explained, “This is no time for the expression of opinion.” Thankfully, North Country Public Radio doesn’t seem to have a problem with his commentary.

Snail mail or e-mail? The Flynn Theatre is giving its patrons a choice this year, thanks to a new digital communication system that also permits you to buy tickets online. Until now, the Flynn has used past purchasing behavior to determine what info to send out to whom. “We know who our dance audience is, who our jazz audience is, who our world-music audience is,” says Marketing Director Tom Ayres. “This adds another layer to how we communicate with those folks.” Right now the website address is, but soon will change to as the growing arts complex faces an impending name change. At least two things are business as usual, though: The season brochure is in the works and will be in homes by the end of the month; and you still have to get off your duff to come to the theater.

Lost Nation Theater faced a dilemma in staging Camping with Henry and Tom, a fast-paced comedy of fictionalized history that puts Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Warren Harding in the same weekend getaway car. The play opens with an accident — their rig strikes a deer — but “we realized we were never going to get a Model T up the steps of City Hall into our performance space,” says Robyn Osiecki. So the players shot the scene as a film, which will be projected “like an old-time movie” in the first few minutes of the show that opens Thursday in Montpelier, Osiecki says. “You’ll hear a big crash, and we have a full-sized tree that is going to fall from one side of the stage to the other.” Whatever it takes.

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Paula Routly

Paula Routly

Paula Routly came to Vermont to attend Middlebury College. After graduation, she stayed and worked as a dance critic, arts writer, news reporter and editor before she started Seven Days newspaper with Pamela Polston in 1995. Routly covered arts news, then food, and, starting in 2008, focused her editorial energies on building the news side of the operation, for which she is a regular weekly editor. She conceptualized and managed the “Give and Take” special report on Vermont’s nonprofit sector, the “Our Towns” special issue and the yearlong “Hooked” series exploring Vermont’s opioid crisis. When she’s not editing stories, Routly runs the business side of Seven Days — overseeing finances, management and product development. She spearheaded the creation of the newspaper’s numerous ancillary publications and events such as Restaurant Week and the Vermont Tech Jam. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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