Barton Mumaw; Prolific Modern Dancer


Barton Mumaw, a leading modern dancer in the 1930s and, after World War II, an independent choreographer, a dancer in Broadway musicals and a tireless advocate for dance, died Monday in Clearwater, Fla. He was 88.

Mumaw was born in Hazleton, Pa., and was raised in Eustis, Fla., where he began his dance training. After seeing a touring performance by Denishawn--a pioneering company led by modern dance icons Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn--he left Florida to study with Shawn, making his debut in "Job, a Masque for Dancing" at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York in 1931.

Also serving as Shawn's chauffeur and dresser, Mumaw remained an ensemble dancer through the last days of Denishawn. From 1933 to 1940 he was a leading soloist and teacher in Shawn's next company, Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, a company intended to erase the assumption that male dancers were effeminate.

"When we'd go to the West, there'd be threats before the performance, people saying they were going to break it up or throw things," Mumaw told the Washington Post in 1993. "Then when the curtain went up on these six or eight very athletic-looking, well-muscled men glaring at each other, it kind of took the wind out of their sails."

Shawn made his company headquarters at a farm in Beckett, Mass., that soon became the famed Jacob's Pillow Dance Center, where Mumaw would return regularly to teach and perform throughout his life.

Mumaw also choreographed solos for himself at this time, some of them incorporated into Shawn's works. But the company disbanded at the start of World War II. During the war, Mumaw performed for troops and taught physical education as an Air Force entertainment specialist stationed in England.

On his return to the United States, he resumed his association with Shawn, presented a number of solo programs and worked extensively in musicals in New York and on tour, including "Annie Get Your Gun," "Out of This World," "The Golden Apple" and "My Fair Lady." Mumaw also choreographed an off-Broadway production of "Dark of the Moon" in 1958.

In 1972, the year Shawn died, Mumaw moved to St. Petersburg, Fla., and the following year he reconstructed Shawn's "Kinetic Molpai" for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Among his later projects he worked with Jacob's Pillow researchers to add music to early silent films of Shawn choreographies.

He gave his last performance in 1981 at the 50th anniversary of Jacob's Pillow, now the oldest dance festival in the U.S. And he will always be identified with the Pillow, if only because the weather vane on top of the Ted Shawn Theatre is a cast-iron silhouette of him dancing.

In 1986, he and former Denishawn dancer Jane Sherman published "Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob's Pillow and Beyond" (recently reissued in paperback), which detailed not only his career but also his long, turbulent affair with Shawn--a relationship they had concealed because of homophobia and the virile image promoted by Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers.

"Dance is a visual and physical message of the soul of man," he told the St. Petersburg Times in 1988. To move with awareness, he said, is to be close to God. To move well, "is a constant state of prayer."

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